Functional Medicine in Austin, Texas

Why a Functional Medicine Doctor?

When you begin working with a functional medicine doctor in Austin, you can expect to spend some time in the doctor’s office answering questions. The doctor will ask questions about your medical past and your family’s medical history, but also questions about your current lifestyle, your diet, your mood and thoughts, your work environment, and more. You’ll discuss the symptoms that brought you into the functional medicine doctor’s office. Then, after much discussion, you may get some homework. It could be to track your symptoms, alter your diet, or adjust your lifestyle. But these changes won’t be mandated. The functional medicine practitioner won’t mandate the way you live your life — rather, you and the practitioner are equal partners in your health care and recovery. Any changes made are decided by you. Your functional medicine practitioner is a guide and knowledgeable partner.

The key here is in two concepts: acute vs long-term care, and a systems approach to health care. Both of these describe the true difference between functional medicine and traditional western medicine.

Acute care is focused on alleviating immediate symptoms, while long-term care makes sure the symptoms never come back. Most doctors in traditional health care practice acute care. When you enter their office, there’s a brief intake of your medical history and you’re prescribed a pill (or similar intervention) that addresses the symptoms you’re feeling. If you’re in pain, take a painkiller. Long-term care recognizes that symptoms are only, well, symptoms. They’re not the real problem, and until that real problem is addressed, the symptoms will just come back (or manifest in other ways).

The systems approach to health care is how a functional medicine practitioner looks for those underlying problems. There are three systems affecting your life in both positive and negative ways — genetics, lifestyle, and environment. Genetics, your family history and predispositions you’ve inherited, determines how your body reacts to different situations and stimuli. The genetic influence on your health is complicated, but modern research is constantly adding to our understanding. Lifestyle includes everything from exercise habits to diet to stress management. This system affects the shape your body is in and how well it can function. Environments, including social interaction, work environment, and physical location (weather, pollutants, etc) will either support or hinder proper functioning and health. These three systems all have their own individual influence on a person’s health, but they also work together. Genetic predispositions may alter what diet or weather works for an individual. This concept is called biochemical diversity — though general principles apply to everyone, each individual has unique requirements for health.

A functional medicine practitioner sees these three systems as the roots of a tree. Symptoms and general health are the leaves. If the roots are getting good soil and rain, then the leaves will be good. The doctor’s job is to work with the client and make sure that the roots get what they need.

But what about the scientific evidence? Due to the complex nature of functional medicine, there are no traditional studies comparing a functional medicine practitioner to a traditional doctor. However, the individual processes involved in the systems model of health care are based on a solid foundation of evidence. No one can dispute the role that nutrition has in a person’s health. The same goes for exercise habits, stress management, genetic predispositions, and work-life balance. Each of these factors has individual scientific evidence; functional medicine is special because it considers them all.

That’s not the only way in which functional medicine stands on a solid base of evidence. Functional medicine is actually not the same as “alternative” or “holistic” medicine — rather, it’s a combination of traditional and alternative practices. While functional medicine practitioners do look at things holistically and consider multiple systems, they also use modern lab tests and other diagnostic techniques, and they prescribe drugs when appropriate. They don’t stop there, nor do they make that the only intervention in chronic illness, but prescriptions are not seen as inherently bad.

Functional medicine looks at the three systems — genetics, lifestyle, and environment — to identify the real underlying problem behind chronic diseases, including diabetes, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, cancer, mental illness, as well as less life-threatening (though still certainly disruptive) conditions.  Dr. Marlene Merritt and Dr. Will Mitchell have been doing, and lecturing about, functional medicine in Austin for over 10 years.