The Institute for Functional Medicine describes it as “Functional Medicine is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. Each symptom or differential diagnosis may be one of many contributing to an individual’s illness.”

Photo Credit: Institution for Functional Medicine

To break it down into easier terms. Those who practice functional medicine look at the problem and instead of just calling it by it’s name and finding a generic solution to it they would dig deeper to find the root to the problem and fix THAT instead. But how exactly does it work? In her article “Functional Medicine: What’s All the Hype?” Valerie Sjobergerg describes functional medicine as a tree. I’ll break it down but you can find her full article here:


Approach: The Functional Medicine Tree   

A FM practitioner acts like a detective, exploring the clinical imbalances that give rise to your symptoms, then delving into the root causes—environmental factors and genetic tendencies that influence your health. This clinical model can be compared to a tree, where the leaves represent the symptoms, the trunk represents imbalances, and the roots are the environmental and genetic dispositions.

The Leaves: Symptoms

Your symptoms are equivalent to the leaves of a tree: highly visible and an important indication of your underlying health. FM practitioners use symptoms as guides to better understand the underlying imbalances, rather than focusing on treating symptoms directly (which is important, but not the ultimate goal).

The Trunk: Clinical Imbalances

Like a tree trunk branching into leaves, systemic imbalances develop into symptoms. FM practitioners thoroughly explore possible imbalances to gain a holistic view on where symptoms are coming from. In FM, imbalances are categorized within the following systems and processes:

  • The hormonal and nervous system
  • The process of transforming food, air, and water into energy
  • The process of detoxifying and eliminating waste
  • The immune system and inflammatory response
  • Digestive system
  • Structures—from the cellular to musculoskeletal level

A condition as simple as chronic headaches could point to an imbalance in one or many of these categories, and it is the responsibility of an FM practitioner to determine what system or process is not optimally functioning.  

The Roots: The Environment and Genetic Disposition

Environmental inputs and your genetic disposition are similar to the roots of a tree: they give rise to clinical imbalances, which then turn into symptoms.

Environment. Harmful lifestyle choices and toxic exposures can strongly influence your health. The negative effects may not appear right away, because your body is resilient, but can accumulate with time and eventually cause a chronic condition. To determine the root of clinical imbalances, an FM practitioner may ask questions such as:

  • Are you getting the right nutrients and exercise?
  • Are you exposed to toxic chemicals or radiation?
  • Could you possibly have parasites (it’s more common than you think!)?
  • Do you have allergies?
  • Have you experienced trauma?
  • Do you have a healthy support network?

Genetic Disposition. Environmental factors are filtered through your genetic (physical, mental, and emotional) tendencies. Your attitudes, beliefs, and the unique way your body and mind process environmental inputs can influence your susceptibility to developing certain conditions. Often, altering your perception of a situation, processing a traumatic memory, or learning how to better manage stress can go a long way in your healing.