What is a Functional Medicine Doctor and What Do They Do?

by | Jul 15, 2024 | Functional Medicine

Key Takeaways:

Functional medicine is a holistic approach that addresses root causes of diseases, viewing the body as interconnected. Practitioners create personalized plans using comprehensive evaluations and specialized testing.

This approach considers factors like family history, stress, environment, lifestyle, and diet. And, typically, involves lifestyle modifications such as personalized nutrition, exercise, stress management, and sleep optimization.

Here are the main points to remember:

  • Functional medicine practitioners address a wide range of conditions, from autoimmune diseases to hormonal imbalances.
  • The approach aims to reduce reliance on medications when possible, focusing on natural interventions.
  • Initial evaluations are typically in-depth and can last several hours.
  • This method may be particularly beneficial for patients with chronic health issues.
  • The goal is both to treat existing conditions and prevent future health problems.

While not suitable for every health condition, functional medicine offers a complementary approach to traditional healthcare that may lead to long-lasting health improvements for many patients.

In recent years, functional medicine has gained popularity as a complementary alternative approach to healthcare. This holistic method focuses on managing the healthcare of the whole person rather than just symptoms. At the forefront of this movement are functional medicine practitioners, healthcare professionals who take a unique approach to diagnosing and managing illnesses. But what exactly is a functional medicine doctor, and how do they differ from traditional physicians?

A functional medicine practitioner is a licensed healthcare professional who has education in school and post-graduation with natural therapies. These practitioners aim to identify and address the root causes of disease, viewing the body as an interconnected system rather than a collection of isolated organs and systems.

What Sets Functional Medicine Practitioners Apart

The key difference between functional medicine practitioners and conventional physicians lies in their approach. While traditional medicine often focuses on managing symptoms, functional medicine practitioners strive to uncover and manage the underlying causes of illness. This approach can lead to more effective, long-lasting solutions for patients.

Functional medicine practitioners create personalized management plans tailored to each patient’s unique needs. An extensive initial evaluation followed by proper testing is necessary for successful improvements. Considerations include family history, stress and environment, lifestyle, and diet when developing these plans. This individualized approach allows for a targeted and effective management plan. Functional medicine practitioners can help many health issues with modifications to diet, nutritional supplements, exercise, stress management, hormone balancing, detoxification and sleep habits.

When it comes to diet, functional medicine practitioners often recommend personalized nutrition plans. These may include eliminating inflammatory and immune reactive foods, incorporating healthy foods, and addressing specific nutritional deficiencies.

Exercise is another key component of the functional medicine approach. Doctors may prescribe specific types and amounts of physical activity based on a patient’s condition and goals. This could range from gentle yoga for stress reduction to high-intensity interval training.

Stress management is also addressed. High stress, especially over many years, can contribute to a wide range of health issues. Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mindfulness practices are often recommended.

Sleep is considered equally important in the functional medicine paradigm. Poor sleep can negatively impact almost every bodily system, from hormone regulation to immune function. Functional medicine practitioners often work with patients to optimize sleep by addressing the underlying causes.

By focusing on these fundamental aspects of health, functional medicine practitioners aim to create a foundation for long-term wellness. They believe that by optimizing these lifestyle factors, the body’s natural healing mechanisms can be activated, leading to improved health outcomes without relying solely on pharmaceutical interventions.

This holistic approach not only helps in treating existing conditions but also plays a crucial role in preventing future health issues. By empowering patients with the knowledge and tools to make healthier lifestyle choices, functional medicine practitioners aim to shift the focus from disease management to proactive health optimization.

How Functional Medicine Practitioners Work

Functional medicine practitioners begin with a comprehensive evaluation. These in-depth assessments often include detailed medical histories, lifestyle assessments, and discussions about environmental factors that may impact health. This thorough approach helps doctors gain a complete picture of a patient’s health status.

The initial evaluation with a functional medicine practitioner may take multiple hours to get to know your health history in detail. This includes evaluating stress, toxic exposure, exercise, sleep, medications, diet and nutritional supplements taken.

Emotional and mental health are not overlooked in these evaluations. Functional medicine practitioners recognize the strong connection between mental and physical health. Assessing the stress involved with work and family is important for better healthcare outcomes.

Specialized Testing Methods

To support their diagnoses, functional medicine practitioners often utilize specialized testing methods that go beyond standard lab testing. These may include advanced lab tests to assess nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, gut health and food reactions. By gathering this detailed information, practitioners can create more accurate and effective management plans.

Some of the specialized tests commonly used in functional medicine include:

  • Complete Metabolic Panel (blood glucose, cholesterol, kidney and liver markers, urinalysis, CBC, inflammatory markers and iron markers).
  • Leaky Gut testing, which commonly is a precursor to autoimmune conditions as well as many other associated health issues.
  • Comprehensive Stool Analysis to assess gut infections (bacterial, viral, yeast and parasites), gut immune cells, gut inflammation, proper food digestion and your microbiome.
  • Food sensitivity or allergy testing to identify potential immune triggers.
  • Hormone testing to evaluate thyroid, insulin, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisol (stress) levels.

Integrative Approach

Healthcare management in functional medicine typically involves an integrative approach. Combining medical care with natural holistic care is ideal for optimal health.

Medications can be invaluable for acute conditions, such as infections and very high blood pressure, and some chronic conditions. However, medications also have side effects. Making natural changes to your life can help symptoms in the short term, maintain your health and prevent future conditions.

Throughout the management process, functional medicine doctors maintain ongoing communication with their patients, often scheduling regular follow-up appointments to monitor progress and adjust the management plan as needed. This collaborative, personalized approach aims to empower patients to take an active role in their health and achieve long-term wellness.

Conditions Managed by Functional Medicine Practitioners

Functional medicine practitioners are equipped to manage a wide range of health issues, whether they are acute or chronic. These practitioners are often sought out by patients who have complex, long-standing health problems that haven’t been fully resolved through conventional medical approaches.

Autoimmune Diseases: Autoimmune diseases, where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, are a key area of focus for functional medicine. Conditions like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and many others often respond well to a functional medicine approach. By addressing underlying factors such as gut health, inflammation, proper diet, balancing stress and environmental toxins, functional medicine practitioners aim to balance the immune system and reduce symptoms.

Thyroid Disorders: Thyroid conditions, including Hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Graves’ disease, are some of the most common conditions managed in functional medicine practices. Expanded testing beyond TSH and T4 are needed to more completely assess someone with a thyroid condition. Evaluating for gut health, stress, sleep, exercise, nutritional deficiencies, dietary needs, toxins, and other hormone imbalances, is important for ideal improvement. These doctors often look beyond standard thyroid hormone tests, considering factors like nutrient deficiencies, gut health, and environmental toxins that can impact thyroid function. Thyroid hormone replacement may also be a necessary part of your management plan.

Digestive Disorders: Gastrointestinal issues are another common focus of functional medicine practitioners. Conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), chronic constipation or diarrhea and symptoms such as indigestion, bloating, heartburn, acid reflux can be managed from a holistic perspective. Functional medicine practitioners often use specialized testing to assess the gut microbiome, identify food sensitivities, and detect intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”). Management plans may include dietary modifications, nutritional supplements, probiotic therapy, and stress management techniques.

Metabolic Conditions: Metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and insulin resistance are frequently addressed in functional medicine. These practitioners often focus on dietary interventions, exercise programs, stress reduction and specific nutritional supplements to improve insulin sensitivity and control blood sugar.

Cardiovascular Health: Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death. In depth testing, beyond just cholesterol, will help to address the underlying issues with CVD. Family history is important as is poor diet, lack of exercise, toxins, recurrent infections, lack of necessary nutrients and abnormal inflammation all play important roles in CV health.

Adrenal Fatigue: High stress can cause a host of issues. High acute and chronic stress can cause poor digestion, high blood pressure, poor sleep, a weak immune system, cognitive issues and many others. fatigue or HPA axis dysfunction is often addressed in functional medicine. Management includes lifestyle modifications (proper sleep, diet and exercise), stress management techniques (breathing techniques, meditation…) and targeted nutritional support.

PMS: Cycling females frequently have many issues with their menses. This includes pain, cramps, headaches, bloating, low or heavy blood flow, depression, irritability, acne and hair loss. Many factors play a role in PMS. This includes stress, nutritional deficiencies, estrogen and progesterone imbalances and neurotransmitter imbalances (chemicals produced in the brain and the gut). Proper testing and lifestyle management all play an important role in managing PMS.

Menopause and Perimenopause: Symptoms associated with menopause and perimenopause, such as hot flashes, mood swings, low libido, and sleep disturbances, are often managed using a functional medicine approach. This may involve hormone balancing through diet, herbs, and sometimes bioidentical hormone therapy, along with addressing related issues like bone health and cardiovascular risk.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): PCOS, a common hormonal disorder in women, is another condition frequently managed by functional medicine practitioners. This includes testing and balancing estrogen, progesterone and testosterone imbalances, blood sugar issues, inflammation, and dietary improvements.

Testosterone Imbalances: Testosterone is important in both men and women. Low testosterone symptoms include low libido, ED, fatigue, depression, obesity and poor muscle mass and endurance. Proper testing is the first step in managing these imbalances. Management involves stress reduction, enhancing sleep, exercise, diet and nutritional supplements and possibly hormone replacement therapy.

The comprehensive approach of functional medicine, which considers the interconnections between different body systems, is particularly well-suited to addressing hormonal imbalances. By looking at factors like gut health, liver function, and stress levels – all of which can impact hormone balance – functional medicine doctors aim to restore hormonal harmony and improve overall health.

Benefits of Seeing a Functional Medicine Practitioner

Many patients who seek out functional medicine practitioners report significant improvements in their overall health and wellness. By addressing the root causes of illness and focusing on prevention, functional medicine practitioners can help patients achieve better long-term health outcomes.

Another significant benefit is the potential reduction in reliance on medications. While medications can be necessary and lifesaving in many cases, functional medicine aims to address health issues through lifestyle changes and natural interventions, when possible, potentially reducing the need for long-term medication use.

Perhaps most importantly, functional medicine offers hope for those struggling with chronic health issues. By taking a comprehensive, personalized approach, functional medicine practitioners can often find solutions for patients who haven’t found relief through conventional methods.


If you’re struggling with chronic health issues or simply want to take a more proactive approach to your health, call to schedule a free 15 minute consultation with Lemont Natural Healthcare. Dr. Jeffrey E. Forzley, DC has 40 years of experience in the healthcare field and has helped thousands of patients. While this approach may not be suitable for every health condition, for many patients, it offers the potential for long-lasting improvements in health and quality of life.

We bring together all the pieces and treat the Whole Person!