Functional Medicine

A tree with the root system exposed.

What is functional medicine? The concept of functional medicine may be easier to understand when compared to a tree. A tree has a trunk with branches and leaves above the ground. What can be seen helps a tree specialist determine if the tree is healthy. In the same way conventional medicine looks at the symptoms an individual may be experiencing in one of many body systems above the ground; circulation, skin, breathing, reproductive, urinary, endocrine, immune, digestive, bone and nervous systems to make a determination about the health of an individual. Conventional medicine asks “what” to arrive at a diagnosis isolating the dysfunctional system from the rest of the individual. This approach works well when someone is suffering from an acute problem, like an infection or trauma from an accident, but not so well in treating chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and arthritis.

There’s more to the tree than what can be seen. What’s going on down below the surface?

Back to our tree specialist. A tree specialist knows that the health of the tree is determined by more than what can be seen. The roots are embedded in living soil and deliver nutrients through the trunk to the rest of the tree above ground. Like conventional medicine, functional medicine asks the “what” questions for diagnosing and treating short term health problems, but for chronic conditions functional medicine practitioners also ask “why” and “when” uncovering hidden causes of dysfunction at the root level. Functional medicine practitioners understand that everyone’s soil is unique which creates different pathways to chronic illness. A one-size-fits all approach to treating symptoms of chronic illness above the ground doesn’t work to eliminate the root cause. Getting to the root cause of ill health is the specialty practice of functional medicine.

Here’s another tree image that can help you visualize how functional medicine practice differs from that of conventional medicine:

The Functional Medicine Tree

The functional medicine tree shows how lifestyle and the environment affect health at the root level. Lifestyle factors include: sleep & relaxation; exercise & movement; nutrition & hydration; stress & resilience; relationships & networks. Environmental factors include: physical & emotional trauma; microorganisms; and toxins. Lifestyle and environmental factors provide the growing conditions for a greater state of health or, conversely, a state of “dis-ease”. Practitioners trained in functional medicine acknowledge the power of lifestyle changes to treat the root cause of chronic illness. Sometimes medications are necessary to bring symptoms under control, but the goal of functional medicine is to use personalized care plans featuring lifestyle changes to reduce or eliminate the need for medications when treating chronic conditions whenever possible. Using a person-centered approach, they partner with clients to create the vibrant health they are seeking, from the roots up!

Finally, here’s a two minute video that illustrates how a functional medicine certified health coach can support clients of any medical practice. It’s directed toward licensed medical providers, but it also gives clients a good idea of the value of adding a coach to their health care team.


The information provided on Upstream Wellness Coaching is for educational and informational purposes only. The information provided on this site is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional advice or care. Please seek the advice of a qualified health care professional in the event something you have read here raises questions or concerns regarding your health.

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