Many people in the green-living community are wary of medical professionals. That’s understandable, as Western medicine is reactive rather than proactive — and notorious for dismissing patients’ health concerns (especially women’s). And the more we learn about the ubiquity of toxins, the more we realize that many health issues stem from that exposure.
However, some medical providers have recognized that patients need a holistic approach to treatment. They’re pioneering the field of functional medicine, which considers our environmental and lifestyle factors when treating disease. Better yet, they’re encouraging their patients to embrace total wellness rather than merely “not being sick.”
Here’s what to know about functional medicine and how it can support a green lifestyle.
Anyone with chronic illness has heard it from at least one doctor: they’re considered “healthy” if they have no apparent illness and their test results are in the “normal”: range. But what is “normal,” truly? Many of these benchmarks, aka reference indicators (RIs) were established based on a limited population of white males. In actuality, different ethnic groups and genders can have vastly different RIs.
And what if patients feel ill despite these “normal” results? They’re often dismissed as overreacting, perhaps even hypochondriac. Women and POC in particular are more susceptible to this so-called medical gaslighting. In fact, the word “hysterical” is derived from the Greek word for uterus, hystera. In the 19th century, doctors believed that women’s stress responses were a physical ailment called “hysteria.”
Today, the medical profession has flipped the script. Rather than construing female stress as an illness, doctors are more likely to dismiss illness as “in your head.” Many will assume that any abdominal discomfort is PMS, any hormonal imbalance is pregnancy, and any chronic pain is “attention-seeking.”
A large part of the problem (besides the lingering sexism) is that Western doctors are taught to resolve ailments first, ask questions second. Medical practices spend very little time with patients, and they’re also reluctant to provide any treatment for which insurers may deny the patients’ claim. This leads to the “revolving-door” model of patient care, in which people come in with symptoms, get those symptoms treated, and leave until they reappear. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In sum, the state of American healthcare discourages a holistic approach to patient health. Too many doctors can’t or won’t treat the root cause(s) of one’s illness. When possible, they regurgitate a generic diagnosis — especially when women or POC have symptoms that can’t be easily explained. Practitioners of functional medicine strive to shift the profession toward a more empathetic approach that tackles those root causes.
However, even if all patients were treated equitably, there remains a distinction between resolving illness and promoting true wellness. In other words, why do we assume that the absence of a diagnosable ailment equates to “health”?
The Functional Path Toward Total Wellness
Chronic pain and illness are vastly misunderstood, although there has thankfully been a surge in research. Many such ailments comprise autoimmune conditions, nutritional deficiencies, hormonal balances, or a blend of all three. And unfortunately, women and POC are more likely to develop these health issues.
Thyroid disorders are among the most common autoimmune conditions, especially for women. Dysfunction of the thyroid has a wide range of symptoms: both hair loss and excessive hair growth, constantly feeling cold and constantly feeling hot, mania and lethargy, dry skin and sweat, etc. That’s because the thyroid produces hormones that modulate many of our body’s systems. Both hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) can lead to crippling side effects.
Yet because many of these symptoms are vague and possible “mental,” thyroid disorders often go undiagnosed. Consider the story of Raimey Gallant, who told her doctor that she was losing hair and breaking out in rashes. He dismissed her as “young, healthy, and just lazy.” In reality, she had Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder causing hyperthyroidism.
Functional medicine treats the patient’s concerns as legitimate, then pursues the true cause of their ailments. Moreover, it seeks ways to promote balance and overall wellness so that illness is less likely.
Conventional doctors will treat thyroid disorders with medications aimed at controlling the symptoms. By contrast, functional medicine practitioners ask, “What’s contributing to the hyper/hypothyroidism?”
If it’s an autoimmune condition, as it often is, the patient may benefit from rebalancing their immune response. That can include boosting their gut health and eating foods rich in selenium and zinc, for example. Functional nutritionists will make dietary recommendations for patients dealing with thyroid disorders.
Functional doctors also emphasize our innate healing response and immune defense. They understand that we are more resilient against disease when our bodies are best nourished. For example, rather than advising athletes to take NSAIDs to relieve inflammation, functional medicine encourages them to trigger their natural anti-inflammatory response by increasing their levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, curcumin, and ginger.
And while doctors may not have specific advice on this matter, eliminating toxins from your environment can help avoid such an autoimmune response, as well as hormone disruption and other root causes of common diseases.
From Mental to Physical Wellness
Medical gaslighting is a serious issue, and no one deserves to be told: “it’s all in your head” when reporting symptoms. That said, chronic stress certainly contributes to many health conditions. So while you may not be imagining your illness, it’s worth considering that a poor psychological state could exacerbate your symptoms.
Western medicine (and society in general) tends to draw a false dichotomy between our mental and physical selves. In truth, our minds stem from a physical organ, the brain, enmeshed in our highly interconnected bodies. Our mental well-being, gut health, stress levels, and immunity are closely related. Consider that our gut features its own “brain”: the enteric nervous system (ENS) comprising more than 100 million nerve cells! That’s why we get “butterflies in our stomach” when we’re nervous and why good gut health is associated with a good mood!
Functional medicine practitioners look for ways to help their patients elevate their overall well-being, whether psychological or physiological. That means not only treating root causes but also promoting total health as a way of warding off disease. For example, gut health contributes to a stronger immune response which helps prevent illness. Mental wellness is associated with lower inflammation and cortisol levels, which allows the body’s natural healing and antioxidant responses to reach their full potential.
And that’s really what functional medicine is about: helping patients achieve their best possible health. In the green-living context, that entails:
- Identifying the root cause(s) of our ailments, whether environmental, lifestyle-related, or genetic.
- Nourishing and strengthening our bodies properly with good food, water, and physical activity
- Eliminating toxins that disrupt the body’s natural balance and trigger illness
- Embracing complementary and alternative treatments that promote wellness with fewer side effects
So, before you write off doctors altogether, look for a functional medicine practitioner who treats you as a person, not just a bundle of symptoms. A functional approach emphasizes good nutrition, bodily balance, and toxic reduction — all of which you’re likely already striving for! In time, more medical providers will shift toward a holistic approach to your health.
This article is inspired by an interview with functional practitioner Heather Gray.