Functional medicine is not only the future of medicine, it’s is already become mainstream. Several non-western nations such as those in Asia rely heavily on alternative therapy for the treatment and cure of chronic and occasional illnesses, given it’s part of their culture. For these nations, western medicine and drug therapy is chosen only for extreme cases and if they can afford it. Let’s admit that being unwell in general sucks, especially when children are involved. I’ve been on mama groups on Facebook, WhatsApp and other ‘groups’ for kiddos for a while and have come to realize that the support moms have for one another is incredible, a virtual village of women (and men) sharing their parenting journey while finding support they need. One thing that struck consistently has been the daily advice request for natural remedies for anything and everything- colds, eczema, bowel movements, allergies and so on. Buckwheat honey for coughs, Colloidal Silver as an antibiotic, MTHFR gene test for digestive issues, or arnica for general pain. With that in mind, I have discovered that the popularity for functional medicine was on the rise. Several general practitioners are now becoming functional. I was curious and took a deep dive into the world of functional health care.
In my journey trying to find a family functional Dr. in Chicago, I had a hundred questions run through my head. I was introduced to Dr. Joel ‘Gator’ Warsh, a sought after Canadian Pediatrician who practices Integrative medicine out of his office (Integrative Pediatrics) in LA, CA. Dr. Warsh answered several questions I had about ‘gut’ issues, a highly trending topic in modern healthcare and how to improve overall health. I was immediately converted as soon as I saw visible results. I tried to introduce friends to the our healthcare choice for having a trusted family integrative Dr. consult in addition to our general practitioner, but many did not understand the difference. Dr. Warsh is happy to introduce Functional medicine to you in this feature with frequently asked questions.
You have a solid background in medicine as an MD, what made you chose the integrative path?
I grew up in Toronto, Canada and had a pretty normal life, like most Canadians, played a lot of hockey. I was on the road a lot and ate at fast food restaurants all the time without thinking much of it. As long as I can remember I had gut issues but just thought it was normal. During my medical training in Philadelphia, the stomach issues worsened when my stress increased and continued to get worse in my pediatric residency training in Los Angeles. Near the end of my first year, I met my now wife, who is very holistic minded and after starting to eat her healthier food, my gut issues significantly improved.
Further along my career, there was one case that really stuck with me. I was on rounds seeing a 10-year-old boy with juvenile arthritis. This particular child was coming in out of the hospital every few weeks for significant pain and swelling. While in the room, I noticed there was junk food everywhere. I made the comment that maybe the patient’s diet was contributing to his medical concerns. I got laughed at and we moved on. This patient was again admitted to the hospital a week later back onto my team. By then I went ahead and did some research on wheat and celiac disease and how their symptoms were very remarkably similar. I knew this patient did not have celiac disease but I thought maybe he has a similar reactive with a different food or perhaps the junk food could be contributing to his issues. Once again, I was brushed off and we moved on. However, by then his grand mother approached me by sharing how no one had ever thought of why he had repetitive symptoms and that the hospital only wanted to treat him with medications. They soon came to see me as a patient in my clinic and we immediately worked on his diet- adding more fruits and vegetables, removing all junk, preservatives and soda. We worked on increasing his exercise and improve his sleep. Not too long after, they noticed dramatic improvements whereby they never had to visit the hospital and I remained his pediatrician for 3 years.
This experience was one of the major catalysts that made me realize that there is more to health and wellness than what we were taught in medical school and there was so much more that I had to learn. Soon after, I dove deeper in studying supplementation, homeopathy, functional medicine and eastern medicine with the goals of blending the best of both eastern and western medicine for my patients.
A brief background about Functional Medicine for the traditional (western) medicine parent-what differentiates both?
Functional medicine is separate from traditional medicine. Functional medicine is a branch of medicine with its own specific training certification. A Western MD goes to Medical school and learns pharmaceutical medicine. Functional medicine focuses on the why and root cause of disease. It uses western medical philosophy and science, but shifts the focus to delve deeper into the root cause of illness rather than focusing on treating symptoms. For example, in the western model, a patient with a chronic rash might receive steroids to decrease the inflammation. A functional practitioner may spend more time thinking about why you have the rash and do allergy testing, stool testing, toxin testing etc. as warranted by the case.
Functional practitioners can be MD’s or any other number of practitioner types including nurses, chiropractors, etc.
What makes ‘functional’ functional?
Functional medicine focuses on root cause. It takes a deeper look into history and testing then most allopathic practitioners. You generally spend more time with the patient and work as a team to bring the body back into balance. Instead of just treating symptoms, the focus is on re-balancing the body.
And what is Integrative medicine?
Integrative Medicine has become the accepted academic term for holistic medicine. It combines the best of allopathic medicine as well as alternative therapies.
What is homeopathy and do you integrate this form of therapy in Functional medicine?
Homeopathy is different than functional medicine. Classic homeopathy is a system based on the belief that the body can cure itself. Those who practice homeopathy use very tiny amounts of natural substances such as plants or minerals. This is very common in Europe but not as common in the USA. Functional medicine doctors can also use homeopathy in their practice but the two are different. Most functional medicine practitioners use supplements as opposed to homeopathics.
Do you feel functional medicine supersedes other forms of therapy in pin pointing a diagnosis?
Every branch of medicine has it’s strengths and weaknesses. Modern medicine is far and above the best for emergency care and life saving treatments. We have amazing tools to aid in diagnosis of disease. Where modern medicine falls short at times is with chronic disease. Functional medicine often supersedes western medicine in that arena.
How is gut health related to general and overall health?
Gut health is one of the key foundations of our well-being. Food is literally our building blocks and our energy. The standard American diet (aptly nicknamed SAD) is full of chemicals, toxins, preservatives, dyes and causes inflammation in the gut. The gut lining is one cell layer thick and many of our digestive enzymes are located on that wall. The blood vessels are right below that layer. When we eat foods that cause inflammation, we create a situation where food particles are not digested as they are supposed to and get exposed to the bloodstream and the body’s immune system. This is called leaky gut and is extremely common. The body sees these food particles as foreign and attacks leading to multiple food sensitivities.
We live in a world full of increasing toxicity and it seems as though humans are less able to cope with environmental toxicity as they did in the past- any idea why?
We are surrounded by chemicals every day. They are in our food, makeup, EMF’s water, homes. Our body can handle a certain level of toxic load and inflammation. We are like a bucket with water pouring in and a hole at the bottom. As long as the water flows in at a steady pace, it can flow out the bottom. But add too much water, (inflammation/chemicals) too quickly and the bucket overflows. We are inundated and overburdened by chemicals and our bodies can no longer handle it.
We are like a bucket with water pouring in and a hole at the bottom. As long as the water flows in at a steady pace, it can flow out the bottom. But add too much water, (inflammation/chemicals) too quickly and the bucket overflows.
A little peek into the world of genetics and how it’s helping us personalize healthcare
Genetic testing is still in its infancy, but there are many tests that can provide a great value to patients and practitioners. This starts before birth with genetic screening of parents to be and is followed by the newborn genetic screen in the first day of life. A number of potentially life-threatening diseases can be picked up before symptoms begin and interventions can be taken to prevent issues such as in the case of PKU or sickle cell.
Additionally, there are a variety of tests available to patients including full genetic screens like 23andme. While we still have a long way to go with tests like these, they can pick up genetic markers that can help create an individualized plan and make us aware of the detoxification capabilities of patients. The way one person detoxes is not the same as the other, leaving you with so much information to work with. Also, there are now tests to see the likelihood of success with a number of psychological medications for those with mental health issues.
There seems to be an increasing interest in Functional medicine. Do you see this as a new form of awareness or is it just a trend? Also, how effective is functional therapy?
There is an increasing interest in functional medicine. The majority of quality functional practitioners who are well established have 6+ month wait times to see them! There are now several pediatric focused functional practitioners as well. I do not believe this is a trend. This isn’t even the future of medicine. It is the present. The old system of western medicine is crumbling under the weight of chronic disease and isn’t able to handle it. Functional medicine and a functional mindset is common sense and built for treating chronic disease. It is the present and the future because it addresses chronic disease and health in the way it was always meant to be done.
Functional medicine and a functional mindset is common sense and built for treating chronic disease. It is the present and the future because it addresses chronic disease and health in the way it was always meant to be done.
What’s your best advice for parents who want to explore or transition functional therapy for their children but not too sure yet? How do you find one that is suitable?
There are a number of ways to find an integrative or functional practitioner. Probably the easiest is just to do a google search of your local area! The Institute for functional medicine has a practitioner finder. We should be able to provide you with that finder tool on IntegrativePediatrics.com soon.
- First thing that a patient or their parent needs to do is to discuss with any functional practitioner is if they are comfortable working with children. Many functional practitioners mostly work with adults.
- Think about what kind of functional practitioner you want to work with. There are medical doctors, nurses, naturopaths, chiropractors, all with a variety of backgrounds and skill levels. There are functional doctors that specialize in pediatrics, adults, hormones, toxins, etc so picking the right practitioner for the issue at hand is important.
- It’s also important to note that with complicated chronic disease, it takes a lot of time to go through the history and create an appropriate plan for the patient. This is why many functional practitioners do not take insurance and have longer visits.
This isn’t even the future of medicine. It is the present.
How do you find success with your patients when it comes to treating their issues. Is it a trial and error approach or a wait and see approach?
The number one key to success is taking a thorough history, listening and caring. Medicine is about making educated decisions, not guessing. You use the history in combination with the best evidence available and clinical judgement to come up with a plan for you patient. You work together as a team to create a plan and check in at regular intervals to make changes as needed.
Medicine is about making educated decisions, not guessing.
Your thoughts about healthcare today?
There should not be the terms eastern medicine, western medicine, functional medicine, homeopathy, etc. It should all just be called MEDICINE and we should be doing what is best for the patient on that day without a need for labels.
A quote you live by?
The greatest medicine of all is teaching people how not to need it ~ Hippocrates