Updated: Jan 20
Photo by @weelicious on Instagram
The UK’s equitable access to healthcare is highly commended by the rest of the world. In a 2017 report by the Commonwealth Fund ranking developed-country healthcare systems, the United Kingdom was ranked the best healthcare system in the world overall, something certainly to celebrate.
However, the Department of Health states there are currently about 15 million people in the UK who suffer from chronic or long-term conditions that have no cure and are only managed by medication, including diabetes, obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia, and cancer. Meanwhile, over in the US, 60% of adults have at least one chronic condition.
The sobering reality of chronic disease
Around the world, chronic health problems continue to rise — an indication that conventional medicine has failed to adequately address the challenge.
We can’t afford to keep ignoring chronic disease and its devastating effects. As it slowly and silently develops across countries, lifespans are being cut short, the quality of life for many is being destroyed, and the health of future generations is very much under threat. According to the WHO, chronic diseases are the leading causes of death and disability worldwide. At some point, chronic illness became so common that we began accepting it as normal.
But common shouldn’t equate to normal
From the side of patients, consider the following US statistics from the Kresser Institute:
Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, one in three is obese, and half of Americans will be obese by 2030.
In the last 50 years, autoimmune disease rates have doubled (or even tripled) and are expected to continue to rise sharply.
Over half of adults take prescription drugs and 40% of the elderly take more than five medications.
Doctors and healthcare professionals in the US haven’t been spared, either. For example:
90% of doctors feel medicine is on the wrong track.
83% have thought of quitting medicine.
50% say they often or always feel “burnt out”.
Compared to 1970, the average physician’s patient list has doubled but wages have stayed the same (when adjusted for inflation).
So, how is conventional medicine failing us?
1. Failure to address chronic issues
Conventional medicine stems from a time when acute (also referred to as a short-term problem), infectious diseases were the leading causes of death. Treatment in these cases was relatively simple: the patient developed something like pneumonia, went to see the doctor, received an antibiotic (once they were invented), and either got well or didn’t. There was one health problem, one doctor, one treatment.
Today, things aren’t as simple. The average patient isn’t going in for pneumonia. Instead, they’re likely suffering from one or more chronic issues that, in addition to being lifelong conditions, are difficult to manage and often expensive to treat.
Despite the sharp increase in the number of people who suffer from chronic diseases, the system of medicine practised by most physicians in Western society remains oriented towards acute care. It’s about treating the immediate problem or symptom through a specific, prescribed treatment such as drugs or surgery.
Chronic disease is difficult to define when only using textbook symptoms and causes. Many diseases develop gradually over time and often have an assortment of health consequences that range from a skin rash to headaches to bowel issues — variations that make it less clear that one issue may be related to another. Simply put, the acute-care approach doesn’t accommodate the specific needs of complex chronic diseases and long-term care and prevention.
2. A questionable one-size-fits-all approach
The primary causes of the chronic disease epidemic are not genetic, but behavioural. It comes down to people continuously (and often, unknowingly) making the wrong decisions about diet, physical activity, sleep, stress management, etc.
With this in mind, one of the most important roles healthcare providers should play is supporting patients in making positive behaviour changes. Unfortunately, the conventional medical system is not designed to do so.
Looking at places like the US and the UK, GPs can have upwards of 2,000 registered patients, and the average patient visit with a primary care provider lasts a mere 10 minutes. If a patient has several chronic conditions, is taking multiple medications, and develops new symptoms, it is simply impossible to provide adequate care during that 10-minute visit.
It’s no wonder why experts in conventional medicine rely on pre-existing practises that are often generalised for people experiencing the same condition, and which have an ideally prescribed drug. However, individuals have genetic and biochemical differences, resulting in different responses to medication. This is often ignored and can be a major disadvantage that holds people back from successful treatment.
3. It ignores the root cause and doesn’t prevent future diseases
While drugs are powerful and can be life-saving for everything from heart disease to cancer, they are administered far too often and don’t heal the underlying cause. Recent statistics suggest that more than 85% of chronic disease is caused by environmental factors like diet, behaviour, environmental toxins, and lifestyle.
Unfortunately the majority of health care providers are focused on managing disease, not reversing it. But introducing lifestyle changes around these modifiable risk factors (such as sleep, exercise, nutrition, and relaxation) can help to reverse or prevent chronic illness.
Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Andrew Weil’s latest book:
“Drugs are powerful. Some are miraculously effective – like opium and its derivatives for pain and antibiotics for bacterial infections that are commonly killed throughout most of human history. [...] Chemotherapy agents have cured forms of leukemia and lymphoma that have always been fatal. Antiviral drugs have turned HIV infection from a death sentence into a manageable chronic illness. No responsible physician today would reject medication as a method of treating disease and maintaining health. But it is one method only. Many other interventions exist that do not involve drugs; sadly, they are not taught in conventional medical schools, and that is one reason that most doctors rely on medication.”
(For any sceptics, Dr. Weil has the knowledge and education to back this up. He is a clinical professor of internal medicine and the founder and director of the Program in Integrative Medicine (PIM) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Weill also has both a medical degree and undergraduate AB degree in biology from Harvard University.)
The takeaway is clear. To prevent and reverse chronic disease, we need to:
Recognise the mismatch between our genes, behaviour, and environment as the primary driver of chronic disease.
Focus on preventing and reversing the underlying causes of disease, rather than just suppressing symptoms.
People are waking up to the benefits of functional medicine
Luckily, there are alternatives like holistic and functional medicine, which can much more effectively tackle chronic disease. Rather than just treating the symptom, these are about getting to the root causes of diseases, preventing future health problems, and optimising health.
In its annual medical round-up, The College of Medicine and Integrated Health Organisation suggests that in the UK, 9 million people are using functional medicine, and in Europe, there are around 328,000 registered providers that offer functional medicine treatments.
It aims to lessen the reliance on conventional medication by offering a wide range of treatments, including:
Alternative therapies such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, and naturopathy
Patient education for self-care and wellness through diet, exercise, psychotherapy, stress reduction techniques, and spiritual counselling
Targeted supplements and natural medications such as herbal medicine and whole foods
What exactly is functional medicine?
The Institute for Functional Medicine defines this as a “systems biology-based approach” that concentrates on the root cause of diseases. Unlike conventional medicine, functional medicine examines all potential factors contributing to a condition.
For example, depression can be caused by various deficiencies, low thyroid, antibiotic use, or inflammation. Each of these causes would then rely on how a person is uniquely assessed, such as considering how low thyroid can be hereditary and cause weight issues. Rather than quickly prescribe antidepressants, it would be sensible to assess a patient’s lifestyle and environment, which are major contributors to conditions.
Moreover, integrative medicine and functional medicine have similarities, but there is one important distinction. Both practices support the patient as a whole; however, functional medicine aims to determine the root cause of each disease, particularly chronic diseases like autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases as well as, diabetes and obesity. Rather than simply making a diagnosis and then determining which drugs or surgery will best treat the condition, Functional Medicine practitioners dive deep into the patient's history and biochemistry and try to determine why their patient is ill. Functional medicine is highly personalised and often includes a detailed analysis of an individual’s genetic makeup.
Who is it for and what are the benefits?
Functional medicine is for everyone. Whether you’re dealing with a specific issue like insomnia, fertility issues, burn out or losing weight, or just want to optimise your health and prevent future diseases.
1. It offers a personal experience
The holistic approach in functional medicine is highly recommended for a more personalised experience that leaves you better positioned to prevent future diseases. The open and supportive dialogue between the practitioner and the patient makes it easier to build a rapport.
It is also much easier to make appointments with your practitioner, avoiding the hassle that you go through with seeing a GP. Experts will get to know you personally and recognise your differences so they can determine what type of tailored treatments or tests should be administered for you.
2. It has in-depth interpretations of lab results
Lab testing for conventional medicine categorises health between “normal” (anything that falls within a reference range) and “abnormal” (anything outside this range). On the other hand, functional medicine can determine the stage or intensity of the condition by considering where you fall within the normal range.
Practitioners can then provide recommendations before a formal conventional diagnosis because lab tests provide information on infections, imbalances, and deficiencies (hence its popularity in diagnosing and treating autoimmune diseases, hormonal issues, and chronic illnesses).
3. It empowers you with actionable steps towards a healthier, more balanced lifestyle
All functional medicine practitioners promote a healthy lifestyle mainly through recommendations in diet, supplements, and exercise regimen, in addition to maintaining a good state of mental and emotional health. It’s designed to teach you how to live well and to support you in maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle, so you can improve your quality of life and strengthen your overall well-being.
Moreover, it gives you a sense of empowerment — an essential part of one’s journey towards healing and living a healthier life. When you’re provided changes that can be incorporated into your life and you start to see the positive effects, it fosters a sense of hope that things can and will improve. Unfortunately, that’s not something often experienced when treating chronic disease through conventional medicine.
Moving towards better overall health
In a nutshell, functional medicine focuses on the underlying causes of health conditions. It aims to optimise one’s health and prevent future diseases by considering each patient’s unique background (including genetics, lifestyle, and diet choices) and identifying the root issues. A range of treatments and personalised programmes are then administered with a focus on natural solutions and therapies that have fewer side effects for patients.
We encourage you to also do your own research about functional medicine but when you look at the massive gaps in conventional medicine’s approach to chronic disease and overall health, it’s not hard to see why more and more people are embracing it.
Your health is unique to you and we believe how you take care of yourself should be, too.
Rosie Letts and Mirthe Eckl are our certified functional medicine practitioners at Wonder Source. Book our experts today and feel the change through living well and generating happiness like never before. Get in touch with us through firstname.lastname@example.org.
Post written by Michelle Velan and edited by Yoko Izu.