Not unlike the commercials for PalMal cigarettes in the mid-80s, functional medicine has come a long way, baby. The journey started with roots in folk and traditional Chinese medicine and worked its way, slowly, to the modern-day. It's picked up a lot of knowledge, and more than a little criticism on that journey.
Many a skeptic and internet blogger has called out the question, Is functional medicine legitimate? Along with this question comes a string of arguments of varying weights.
Regardless of the skeptical approach, industry trending shows that functional medicine is on the rise with steady annual growth, a lot of practitioners and $18 billion in profits for 2019. That kind of growth doesn't come without some results to bolster it.
Read on to get an idea of the criticisms leveled at functional medicine and judge for yourself if they carry water.
The first criticism to face functional medicine is this question itself. By asking it, the skeptic implies that the question is rhetorical. The oft-quoted line from Tim Minchin, "Do you know what they call alternative medicine that's been proven effective? Medicine."
Critics of functional medicine are also quick to lump it in with a large array of other disciplines. They want to use failures in the past for alternative, complementary, and integrative medicines as evidence.
The term "functional medicine" was originally proposed by Jeffrey Bland. Bland holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry but is not a medical doctor. Critics are quick to point out that his lack of experience in the field of health and certificates in nutrition limits the scope of the field.
The other early contributor to the Functional Medicine movement was Mark Hyman, MD. Skeptics point to Hyman's relationship as a former medical advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton as a disqualifier or problem.
It doesn't help that Dr. Hyman co-authored a book on the issues with thimerosal in vaccines. He has also come out as a promoter of the idea that vaccines contribute to autism.
It's always important to learn about the credentials of a physician. However, too often these credentials are weaponized to disqualify instead of to note the approval of licensing boards and educational institutions.
The next common complaint from a functional medicine skeptic involves the Natural Fallacy. This logical fallacy is committed when a person purports that something is good because it is natural.
Critics like the late Wally Sampson talk about functional medicine practitioners as if they were witch doctors. That they only prescribe herbs and poultices that grow in the ground.
You see memes produced mocking health gurus such as Gwenyth Paltrow. Especially her quote, "I don't think anything natural can be bad for you" over a picture of a poisonous plant or a lion mauling an antelope.
This criticism comes from a quote by Dr. Richard Rawlins in the book Real Secrets of Alternative Medicine. In the book, Rawlins asserts that functional medicine works the same as traditional medicine but adds spice and flavor.
The complaint is basically that functional medicine charges a premium to do nothing that isn't already being done.
This functional medicine criticism fails to take into account the holistic approach used. Instead of treating a symptom, functional medicine looks at the underlying cause and treats the whole person.
Of course, critics such as Dr. Rawlins try to point out that traditional medicine also treats the patient and underlying disease. A person that goes in with a stomach ache isn't simply given some pain meds and discharged. Instead, tests are performed to determine the cause and then to remove a blockage, realign a twisted muscle, or change diet based on allergies and intolerances.
The next criticism tends to refer to FM doctors as quacks. The skeptic insists that practitioners don't know what they are talking about. That they substitute science-sounding words as a prop.
This often hinges on an Ad Hominem fallacy itself, with some going so far to refer to followers of Jefferey Bland the "Bland wagon."
It's true that Bland's use of terms such as "dysfunction in the physiology and biochemistry" is functionally useless. However, that does nothing to argue against the underlying principles.
Looking at the seven principles of Functional Medicine that Bland sets out, it's easy to see why critics would propose this argument.
The principles he speaks of come across as either imprecise or end up with language that scientifically minded people reject. Terms such as vitality and spirit are used, which leaves skeptics pointing out that FM sounds more magic than evidence-based.
The last critical argument made also is more of an attack than an argument. It's true that testing the efficacy of FM is difficult because it treats individual patients. Twin studies exist to give the best approximation of being able to test two different treatments on the same person.
Designing testing protocols to analyze the difference between traditional medicine and functional medicine is both difficult and creates its own issues.
Namely, whenever people know they are being tested, they tend to perform less well from the stress fo the scrutiny. This was the conclusion that came from a study on the efficacy of prayer.
When people know that the results of a treatment or a study rest on them, they get a form of performance anxiety that leads to ill health.
In science, a hypothesis that can't be disproven is useless because it provides no information. There must be a way to tet if something does or does not work to understand its value. When something can't be tested, science can't have a say on it.
It's easy to see from these arguments that when a skeptic asks "Is functional medicine legitimate?" that they have an answer in mind. The arguments hinge on fallacies and misrepresentations of the information.
Nowhere in these complaints are the actual results addressed. If you want to learn more about the practice of functional medicine in the treatment of conditions and issues that other medicine treats as gray areas, contact us.