- I’m on a lot of nutrition and wellness email lists so over the last few years, I’ve been hearing more and more about functional medicine. Eventually I started following Dr. Mark Hyman, the best-selling author and creator of The Broken Brain series. Since then, I’ve been hooked on functional medicine and late last year, I decided to switch from a traditional general practitioner to a functional medicine doctor.
What is functional medicine? It’s a science-based, holistic, preventative, individualized medical system. It determines how and why illness occurs and restores health by addressing the root causes of disease for each individual. For example, if you were diagnosed with hypertension, functional medicine would look at your genetics, your family history of the disease, your diet, your lifestyle, your work and work/life balance, your important relationships, and so on. It doesn’t just look at the diagnosis. It searches for the root cause, taking a holistic view and seeks a cure there.
For me, the philosophy makes a lot of sense. There are seven billion people in the world. We don’t all work exactly the same way. And from all my yoga training, I completely align with the idea that everything is connected. To heal a condition, you need to look at the entire environment.
In late 2019, I made my first appointment with a Nikoleta Koini, a functional medicine doctor in Athens. I made the appointment having no health issues but thinking it would be a good idea to have a relationship with a doctor already in place in case something occurs. What I didn’t understand until after my first appointment was that because functional medicine is so focused on prevention, you don’t wait until you have a problem. You start looking for imbalances before problems occur.
The initial intake form was a long series of questions spanning a wide array of health, diet and lifestyle issues. And in my first appointment, Dr. Koini explained that despite the fact I felt fine, we would do a full blood and urine analysis.
I told her, “We can do all this, but I don’t think you’re going to find anything.”
She repeated my date of birth, looked back at me and said “I’m pretty sure we will…”
Three weeks later the results came back and yes, indeed, they found things. I won’t go through the whole list, but it turns out I was out of balance in a long list of vitamins, minerals and hormones. And even more surprisingly to me, they found toxins and traces of heavy metals in my body. They prescribed eight supplements including powders, capsules and creams to be taken on a very specific schedule during my day. As part of the program, they also had me meet with a molecular nutritionist who went over what I eat daily in depth. She gave me a list of new foods to consider, like goat’s milk yogurt and a few things to cut back on (she recommended fewer tomatoes).
I was actually quite skeptical at the beginning. I decided to give the supplements and nutritional advice three months to see if I noticed a difference, but since I went in feeling fine, I wasn’t convinced I needed any of this.
Three months later, my thinking has evolved. I feel great—almost freakishly great. I had a lot of energy before, but I have even more now. My sleep is extremely restful and restorative. My mood is usually good but now it feels smoother. And I generally feel like I have more vitality. So, in the end, functional medicine has won me over….
Should you try it? Everyone’s situation is different, but in general, I would say it is worth exploring. There are, however, a few caveats.
1) It isn’t cheap. You should call around since programs vary (if anyone in Athens is interested in my experience, message me directly). It’s a basically a big upfront investment to do a series of testing during the first 12 months. The testing includes:
A full blood and urine analysis after your first appointment and again six months later.
At months three and nine, you’ll have another series of blood tests. All this testing is designed to make sure your supplements are the right fit for your situation.
In addition to the quarterly testing, I was asked to check in with my functional medicine doctor each month (for me, I had the option of in person, via email or Skype). The idea here is to keep an open line of communication in case questions come up.
The supplements themselves are not cheap. For me, they run between 100-150 euros per month. The most expensive of them is my specially formulated vitamin powder that is meant to make sure I get enough of all essential vitamins and minerals. Could you supplement your vitamins and minerals through food? Probably (and I’m trying to move in that direction), but it takes a lot of diligence in eating to make sure you are getting all your vitamins and minerals daily. It’s easy to miss or fall short so the supplements coupled with a balanced diet seem like the right solution for me.
The theory with all this is the program gets less expensive over time as you move into “maintenance mode” but I’d encourage anyone who is thinking to pursue this to get a good sense of the cost before starting. My thinking is the investment is worth it if it means I avoid major issues in the future, but everyone’s priorities are different.
2) It is focused on prevention of disease and anti-aging which means it is generally more valuable the older you get. I had someone in her mid-20s get inspired by my experience and ask if she could start. My doctor indicated it would be more relevant for someone 35 or older unless there was a specific issue to address.
3) It’s a lifestyle change including factors in diet, exercise, stress levels, etc. It’s not just supplements, but one part of an overall self-care system.
For anyone with a specific issue, disease or condition, I would definitely encourage you to explore functional medicine as an option. I really appreciate the science-based approach and how all conditions are looked at holistically. For me, this feels like the perfect combination of eastern and western medicine.
I had always been curious when I saw those pictures of people like Ernestine Shepherd and others in their 70s and 80s who looked incredibly youthful and vibrant. I wondered what they were doing. It seemed like it must be more than just working out regularly and eating nutrient dense food. Now I wonder, “do they follow functional medicine?” I bet they do.