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Looking at the whole picture
Functional medicine helps identify the root cause of health issues


May 2015

People today may be living longer, but often they’re living with significant health issues. While conventional medicine routinely relies on medication to treat symptoms, another approach, which focuses on identifying the cause of health problems, is gaining ground in the health care industry.

"Until recently, we haven’t done a good job of trying to understand the underlying causes of health issues," says Dr. Kristen Reynolds, a family practitioner with Aurora Health Care who specializes in integrative medicine.

But with functional medicine gaining a foothold in the health care industry, doctors are beginning to look beyond pills and prescriptions. Using basic science, functional medicine focuses on identifying the root cause of health issues rather than just treating the symptoms. "Functional medicine digs deeper," explains Reynolds.

Natural healing

According to Anne Sherman, a nurse practitioner in Brown Deer who has incorporated natural remedies into her practice for more than 25 years, functional medicine looks at how the body functions and heals itself.

"There’s a growing patient demand for functional medicine," says Sherman.

People are embracing the approach as both a preventative measure and a means for treating chronic health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia and arthritis. "If people’s symptoms don’t improve with conventional treatments, they’re willing to explore other options," says Reynolds.

Although pharmaceuticals may be used temporarily to control potentially life-threatening conditions like high blood pressure, functional medicine focuses on lifestyle changes, including nutrition, stress management and using supplements, vitamins and herbs to get people’s health back on track.

Proper nourishment

Both Reynolds and Sherman say nutrition is a fundamental component of functional medicine. The approach advocates eliminating processed foods and incorporating more whole foods. In some cases, doctors may prescribe an elimination diet to identify food allergies or sensitivities that may be triggering certain health issues.

"It’s believed that most health problems can be alleviated through good nutrition and by removing stressors that impede the body’s normal functioning and ability to heal," explains Sherman.

Background story

Typically, when meeting a new patient for the first time, Reynolds asks, "When was the last time you felt well?"

"I listen to the patient’s story so I can understand the evolvement of events and identify any major stressors or trauma that triggered dysfunction in the body."

From there, Reynolds orders a battery of lab tests, from routine blood work to a toxic metals screen to genetic screening. She may also recommend dietary changes, as well as a regimen of vitamins and supplements. At a follow-up visit six to eight weeks later, treatment plans are tweaked based on lab results and patients’ specific needs.

Complementary care

Reynolds and Sherman are quick to point out that functional medicine is not an alternative to conventional health care. "Functional medicine isn’t an ‘either or’ scenario," says Reynolds.

Oncology is one area that successfully uses both conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, coupled with lifestyle changes advocated by functional medicine to support patient healing.

"With more research available to support treatments commonly associated with functional medicine, people have become more interested in the approach as a complement to conventional health care," says Sherman.

Farm to School

Angela Rester, executive director of Wellspring, an organic farm and educational center in West Bend, knows that kids are more likely to eat foods they’re involved in growing. In fact, it’s the impetus behind Wellspring’s Farm to School program.

In 2012, the organic farm partnered with Kewauskum Elementary School to teach fourth grade classes where food comes from and basic gardening skills. Since then, the program has expanded to elementary schools in Grafton and Cedarburg, and next fall, Wellspring will partner with a Mequon elementary school, thanks to a community partner grant from Outpost Natural Foods.

Along with regular classroom visits, Wellspring hosts monthly veggie tastings in participating school lunchrooms. Students from all grades are invited to try and rate a new vegetable each month.

"The kids are so enthusiastic and willing to try something new," says Kassie DeMarsh, Wellspring’s education director.

To deepen the roots of the Farm to School program, Wellspring partners with a grocery store in each community. Throughout the school year, signs are posted in the produce section advertising the vegetable of the month. Rester says it’s not unusual for sales of the featured veggie to double. "When zucchini was the veggie of the month, Sendik’s in Grafton couldn’t keep enough in stock," she says.

Students also travel to Wellspring twice a year to put their hands in the soil — planting, weeding, harvesting and composting. "We want the kids to get a sense of what it’s like to work on an organic vegetable farm," says Rester.

— Rebecca Konya


This story ran in the May 2015 issue of: