This approach to medical care looks at the whole body as a system.
Functional medicine is about finding and treating the root causes of disease, by considering the entire body and how its systems interact with each other.
It also looks at many things that influence health: diet, stress levels, genetics, hormones, exercise, sleep, hydration and more. Functional medicine takes non-medical factors into consideration, too, such as environmental toxins and the quality of our relationships with other people.
The idea is to not only get rid of illness and symptoms but also to help someone achieve the healthiest state.
Dr. Dawn B. Beaulieu is director of Vanderbilt Health’s Functional Medicine Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinic. Her practice and research focus on inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis). In 2019, she pioneered functional medicine as a service within that clinic.
“The nature of digestive issues works well as an entry point for the functional medicine approach,” said Beaulieu. “Even when patients’ colonoscopies showed that they were better on medications, many were reporting they still had diarrhea or abdominal pain, or that fatigue or joint pain were still affecting their quality of life. I needed to find a way to do more to help patients feel better.”
Today, functional medicine is available to Vanderbilt gastroenterology and nutrition patients, and Beaulieu hopes to offer it to other Vanderbilt specialties starting in 2024.
Health care providers trained in functional medicine study imbalances in connected systems – bodily functions – such as energy, immunity and repair. If these functions or systems don’t work together smoothly, they can create pathologies (sickness) in the body’s cells, even down to the level of individual molecules.
Functional medicine takes a holistic look at health, which helps personalize each patient’s treatment.
“Functional medicine providers spend time listening to you and gathering your medical history to create a personal timeline,” Beaulieu said. “We use this information to help identify the root cause(s) of the illness, including triggers and mediators such as poor nutrition, stress, toxins, allergens and genetics.”
Beaulieu is certified through the Institute of Functional Medicine. She created a program with strategies focusing on movement and exercise; stress and resilience; relationships and networks; sleep; and diet.
“Our goal is to help the patient create a plan to take control of their life,” she said.
Functional medicine: a ‘deep dive’ with patients
The Vanderbilt program is an example of how functional medicine works. More than 400 patients have gone through it since 2019. Vanderbilt’s functional medicine team is based in the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinic. In 2023 it included a dedicated physician assistant certified in functional medicine, two dietitians and two wellness coordinators. The coordinators are social workers who meet with patients one-on-one and also take part in group programs.
“It is during the one-on-one session where we can do a deep dive with each patient,” Beaulieu explained. Group sessions are offered several times a week by telehealth.
Patients in the functional medicine group check in twice a year or more. They report their sleep quality; fatigue levels; quality of life relating to their inflammatory bowel disease; and other medical symptoms.
Since the start of the program, “all the measures have moved in the right direction,” Beaulieu said. “Over the 10 to 12 weeks, symptoms intensity lessens, and sleep (problems) drop. If you look at fatigue and overall symptoms, these plunges are exciting.”
Stress and anxiety are a big part of chronic disease. Because of this, the coordinators are trained in Heart Math. Heart Math measures how much someone’s heart rate changes. This information helps patients bring their physical, mental and emotional systems into alignment.
More research may reveal more benefits
Vanderbilt’s functional medicine experts now work with patients who have gastroenterology (digestive system) problems. Beaulieu hopes to bring functional medicine to other medical specialties, too.
Data about functional medicine is still new. Beaulieu wants to do more research into how functional medicine may affect the body’s microbiome and inflammation at the cellular level.
“I believe if patients are willing to put in the work, our functional medicine program can work for anyone who isn’t feeling well,” she said.