Unburdening Healthcare: The Role of Functional Medicine
Leading functional medicine expert Dr. Will Cole's dedication to uncovering the root causes of health issues and empowering patients extends beyond clinical practice, which includes authoring multiple best-selling books and hosting a popular podcast.
Functional medicine doctors focus on identifying root causes and upstream issues to address chronic diseases, providing patients with alternatives to traditional disease management.
Functional medicine centers are on the rise due to the need for personalized, multi-component therapeutic approaches to address the growing burden of chronic non-communicable diseases, making them a valuable complement to conventional healthcare systems.
Online functional medicine doctor restores hope
There's always that one heart-warming encounter that brings a smile to your face. For Dr. Will Cole, a leading online functional medicine doctor, it was the couple who flew in for an initial consultation earlier in his career.
The patient’s husband clutched the handles of her wheelchair, much like he clung to the remnants of hope left for their shared future, as they entered Cole's office for the first time.
She was there, but not really, as she suffered from severe brain fog, and cognitive issues and struggled to walk on her two feet.
“We ran labs, we did a full health history, we spent about an hour [to an] hour and a half initially just on health history, and running labs for multiple data points and getting objective data on what's going on in her case and amongst many other things, she had mould toxicity, she had very very low cholesterol…,” said Cole.
Conventional doctors gave her medicine that significantly lowered her cholesterol levels. While Cole admits that these types of medicine have their place of use, he also believes that she was over-medicated and that “it was not the most effective option causing her the least amount of side effects.”
The brain contains the highest amount of cholesterol in the human body and is itself close to 60 percent fat. A deficiency of this type of fat could impair brain function, which is what happened in this patient’s case.
Cole spent a month coordinating with her prescribing doctor virtually and figuring out the upstream issues driving chronic inflammation in her body, which was a product of mould toxicity.
“I saw her online, months later, as we were monitoring, and just slowly evolving, like her health was coming alive,” Cole said.
Soon, she was able to walk with a cane — Although that wasn’t what left a lasting imprint on Cole's heart. It was her one comment that reminded him why he chose to embark on this journey.
Not long after, she didn’t need her cane anymore.
“She had increased energy. She had come to life literally, [it] was just so stark contrast between who I met and who I was seeing online a month later,” Cole explained in excitement, looking forward to relaying the particular comment that made this entire experience so memorable.
“She said: ‘I was planning my funeral when I met you, now I'm planning vacations with my family,’” Cole finally let it out.
“That's what makes me think of wow, like, that's what's at stake for so many people. They think, 'This is my Latin life, I'm just getting older, this is who I am,' and they identify with their chronic health problems. I think it's when you think of how short life is, even for the longest living of us, and looking at the quality of life that's lost with these chronic health issues, it makes you want to do better.”
This isn’t a unique story. Functional medicine has increased the quality of life for thousands of people at the very least, which is why Cole started one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world over 13 years ago.
A national study of 36 million working-age people with private insurance claims reveals that within the first three months of the pandemic, telemedicine encounters increased by over 700 percent.
This, however, had no impact on Cole's clinic since he already practiced functional medicine online years before the pandemic. "If anything, it just grew the clinic because more people knew 'oh, this was an option,' because they were forced to realize that a lot of things could be done differently, not just healthcare," he said.
"Obviously, we're not replacing someone's primary care physician. You can't telehealth physical exams; there are some things that you're going to have to go to your local doctor to do, and we do a lot of group telehealth calls with their local doctor to collaborate with them."
What is a functional medical doctor?
The goal of functional medicine practitioners is to identify the root cause of diseases and address them there and then. They may, for example, identify inflammation as the root cause of a patient's heart disease or diabetes.
"In many ways, we feel like clinical Sherlock Holmes," Cole said.
(Institute of Functional Medicine)
Let's take the example of cancer. When a conventional doctor notices abnormal cells from a bone marrow biopsy, the patient would receive a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), and the doctor would then monitor their condition until it worsens. That’s when the patient would undergo chemotherapy treatment.
If a functional medicine doctor were to spot the same abnormality in the cells, he would focus on guiding the patient to help her body heal itself. The doctor would make specific recommendations that would support the patient’s immune system and remove any obstacles preventing the body from succeeding in its journey to healing.
At the very least, functional medicine doctors would try to prevent the disease from getting worse and delay the need for chemotherapy for many years.
Despite the highlighted differences, it is important to note that functional medicine practitioners do not diagnose or treat diseases. They don't replace conventional medical doctors. Rather, they work alongside medical doctors to help patients reach optimal health.
Instead of prescribing medicine, they use nutritional therapy, herbs, supplements, stress management techniques and lifestyle changes to promote optimal health.
Cole has a background in both. He is a Functional Medicine Practitioner, Doctor of Natural Medicine and Doctor of Chiropractic, but has also received training in biological sciences as well as conventional medical diagnosis and treatment.
"It's kind of my passion is to figure out what's the upstream causation or drivers, the pieces to their health puzzle, and then give them tools to overcome their health problems and to reclaim their health," Cole said.
His passion, however, extends far beyond the clinic's walls. Several years ago, he was a pioneer in the dissemination of extensive online content about functional medicine. He has also authored several bestsellers, including Ketotarian, Gut Feelings, The Inflammation Spectrum, and Intuitive Fasting.
Cole also hosts a podcast called The Art of Being Well, where he discusses similar topics with guests who are equally passionate about functional medicine.
With his wealth of expertise, it comes as no shock to learn that he earned recognition as one of the top 50 doctors in the United States who specialize in functional and integrative medicine.
Is functional medicine legit?
One challenge patients encounter when seeking access to functional medicine is not the proximity of clinics, as many now provide functional medicine online. Rather, it's the doubts and uncertainties surrounding the legitimacy of functional medicine.
"I think the people that are constantly warring with each other are on the wrong side of history, that we're seeing people improve, we're seeing labs improve, we're seeing quality of lives improve, because of that, their cost of disease goes down. That's a positive thing. This should not be controversial," Cole said.
There is also a constant fear of functional medicine taking over the jobs of conventional doctors. It is not a substitute for regular doctors, but it is based on evidence and should be used in conjunction with other medical doctors.
"Like many things in our world, [it] has devolved into this sort of toxic tribalism where it's us versus them and like, we're better, they're less than. It's this God complex. It's this constant other-ism when it comes to the way that we do health care, or politics or social media or diets or whatever we're talking about," said Cole.
"There's a time in place for the amazing, positive advancements of modern medicine. We have cutting-edge technology in acute emergency care, and life-saving surgeries, wonderful, but when you're talking about the plight and burden of chronic health problems, which is what's plaguing a lot of people [...] they're largely overcome edible, improvable, manageable supportable, healable with conservative lifestyle, data-driven but lifestyle tools."
The model being used in the current healthcare system is more focused on diagnosing diseases and then matching it with the corresponding medication, which Cole calls a "pharmaceutical matching game."
"It should be both and not either or, but we just ask the question in functional medicine, 'What is your most effective option that causes you the least amount of side effects?" he said.
"That should be the litmus test, that should be the criteria in which we vet what we're doing, but yet, that's oftentimes not asked. It's not the most effective option. It costs the person a lot of money, it costs the country a lot of money when it comes to economic burden and the burden of paying for these chronic diseases and disease management, and they have a lot of potential side effects and look at the loss of quality of life as well."
Cole believes that these challenges could be addressed with more education and awareness about what functional medicine is really about and knowing that it serves as no threat to conventional medicine.
"There's enough of people to help; we should come together to want to serve people and realize we're not going to be for everybody, but there's enough people for us to help," he said.
‘Clinical Sherlock Holmes’ investigates chronic pain cycle in a troubled healthcare system
Functional medicine centres are starting to become more prevalent, as chronic non-communicable diseases now account for 70% of healthcare costs. Such diseases require personalized care and a multicomponent therapeutic system rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, which is what functional medicine doctors do best.
"Right now, the system is burdened, it's unsustainable, and economists will tell you that, medical doctors that are in the mainstream system will tell you it's unsustainable, we have to do something different to see something different, and I feel like there's pockets of change happening that realize this," Cole said.
Between 2020 and 2021, the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) had more than 18,000 registrations for its training programs. Many hospitals and medical institutions, like the Cleveland Clinic, have also opened their own functional medicine centres.
Researchers are also currently actively exploring what is called an epigenetic genetic mismatch, which explains how a majority of our genetics haven't changed in 10,000+ years, while the rest of the world has.
"It's triggering genetic predispositions that have always been there for 10,000 plus years but are being triggered, being awoken because of this evolutionary mismatch," Cole said. Genetic predispositions refer to inherited genetic traits or characteristics that increase a person's chances of developing a particular condition or disease.
That's what functional medicine doctors aim to address.
"We have to look at foods and their impact on microbiome, we have to look at environmental toxins that we were not exposed to just a few generations ago, we have to look at biotoxins that were always there, but are being just stressing in an already stressed out system, like chronic Lyme disease, other bacterial, viral issues [...] these things, as I said earlier, are largely healable, reversible overcomeable. So if that's the case, why would we want to settle for anything less?"
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