Functional Medicine Vs. Conventional Medicine: Key Differences

In today’s society, there are various approaches to wellness and the practice of medicine. In this article, we will explore the key differences in conventional vs. functional medicine and why you may choose one approach over the other.

The CDC estimates that 6 in 10 adults in the US suffer from a chronic disease, with heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease being among the most common. These diseases are the leading contributors to the nation's $4.1 trillion spent in annual healthcare costs.

Many suffering from conditions such as these will turn to conventional medicine for treatment. Conventional medicine focuses on symptoms and treating those symptoms, most often with pharmaceuticals or surgery. By utilizing a symptoms-based approach and treatment plan, patients often become dependent or reliant on drugs as their symptoms return if/when the drug is discontinued.

Functional medicine, in contrast, takes a root-cause approach to disease management. This approach restores healthy function as the underlying cause is addressed, the body as a whole is taken into consideration, and balance is restored. According to surveys, Americans have been dissatisfied with the current conventional healthcare system for decades. This explains the growing popularity of functional medicine over the last ten years.

What is Functional Medicine?

Dating as far back as the 1950s, people began searching for alternatives to the conventional medicine approach. Ultimately, the term ‘Functional Medicine” was coined by Jeffery Bland, Ph.D., in 1990. This type of medicine uses a systems-based approach that focuses on uncovering and addressing the root cause of the patient’s symptoms/disease. Functional medicine recognizes that there may be more than one factor contributing to the patient’s illness. Prevention and restoring homeostasis are the primary focuses of functional medicine. Individualized factors such as diet, stress, sleep, movement, and genetics are considered in treatment.

This tends to be more of a personalized and tailored approach to wellness. It is considered a patient-centered care system seeking to understand and uncover why the patient is ill vs. simply treating symptoms with a ‘bandaid approach.’ As our traditional healthcare system fails at restoring health and wellness in many cases, more ractitioners have chosen to take a holistic approach to wellness and further their education in functional medicine training.

What is Conventional Medicine?

Conventional medicine is often referred to as traditional Western medicine and has been around since the 16th-18th centuries. It may also be referred to as allopathic, orthodox, modern, or mainstream medicine. Conventional medicine focuses on disease detection and management using anatomy and symptoms for diagnosis.

Once the patient has been labeled with a diagnosis, a treatment plan is generally developed to mitigate the symptoms that have occurred. Within this system, healthcare providers such as medical doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, etc., use an anatomical-symptoms-based approach to diagnose disease.

As the incidence of chronic disease continues to rise, and patients become more complex, it is increasingly difficult for traditional medical providers to help patients truly heal. Doctors are pressured to see more and more patients, which means less and less time with each patient. This is one reason we are seeing a rise in medical providers seeking functional training and consumers seeking this type of care.

Philosophy of Functional and Conventional Medicine

Conventional medicine recognizes health as more the absence of disease rather than the expression of wholeness. The conventional approach is focused on modern science, research, and viewing the human body as simply a physical entity. When taking this approach, symptoms are often masked or suppressed rather than the underlying cause being identified and properly treated.

The body is viewed as a collection of parts as opposed to a system that works intricately together as a whole. Although each individual is unique, the conventional medical system typically treats the same disease with the same treatment without taking this bio-individuality into account. This model is disease-centered and reactive by only managing the condition after it has already occurred.

Functional medicine, in contrast, is more investigative by searching for the root cause of the presenting symptoms. This is a patient-centered model of care that seeks to understand why illness occurs in order to provide a personalized plan of care. Functional medicine practitioners tend to spend more time with their clients, gathering history and identifying the root cause of chronic illness. The plan of care includes multiple aspects of life, such as nutrition, movement, sleep, stress, socialization, etc. Functional medicine practitioners partner with their patients to bring the body to a balanced state. Patients are also encouraged to be proactive and take a preventative approach to their health and well-being.

Diagnostic Approaches in Functional and Conventional Medicine

Diagnosing illness in conventional medicine focuses on presenting symptoms, basic lab testing, and often imaging such as chest x-rays or ultrasounds. In functional medicine, practitioners spend time gathering symptoms and a detailed history and utilize in-depth lab testing to uncover underlying imbalances in the body. Rupa offers many of these advanced diagnostic tests. Below, we will explore several popular functional medicine tests.

Comprehensive Stool Test

Through decades of research, we have discovered the validity of the statement “All disease begins in the gut” made by Hippocrates over 2500 years ago. It is important for functional medicine practitioners to take a detailed look at the gut microbiome as it is crucial to overall wellness.

The GI-MAP Test by Diagnostic Solutions Lab utilizes quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) technology to detect pathogens such as bacteria, parasites, candida, and viruses.  

This type of testing measures the DNA of each specific organism, making it highly sensitive and specific. Additional markers that are helpful in diagnosing and creating a treatment plan include levels of commensal or good bacteria, markers of immunity and inflammation, microscopic blood, pancreatic enzyme production, and fat digestion and absorption, to name a few. It is also capable of detecting intestinal permeability, aka leaky gut.

Micronutrients Panel

Micronutrient testing looks for deficiencies, optimal nutrient status, and how micronutrients work in the body at a cellular level. This aids the practitioner in customizing dietary recommendations based on the individual’s biochemical and cellular needs.

Vibrant America’s Micronutrient Panel measures intracellular and extracellular micronutrient levels. This test is recommended for people who suffer from chronic medical conditions, advanced aging, poor diets, or special diets such as plant-based. Results aid the practitioner in customizing the diet and prescribing proper supplementation when necessary.

Hormone Panel

A healthy menstrual cycle is an important aspect of women’s health. Our hormones affect every system in our body. The DUTCH Cycle Mapping test maps the patterns of progesterone and estrogen throughout the menstrual cycle. Women experiencing hormonal imbalances, infertility, or polycystic ovary syndrome are good candidates for this test.

The DUTCH test gives insight into hormonal fluctuations throughout a woman's cycle, allowing the practitioner to develop a personalized treatment plan to correct imbalances that are uncovered.

Food Sensitivity Panel

Food sensitivities are common, with typical symptoms including digestive discomfort, brain fog, headache, joint pain, etc. When the body creates antigens to food, massive inflammation occurs. Mosaic Diagnostics IgG Food MAP with Candida + Yeast measures antibodies to 190 common foods, herbs, and spices. It also includes testing for Candida and Yeast.

This test can be performed by serum blood or dried blood spot analysis. Functional medicine practitioners can utilize this test as they are searching for the root cause of their patient’s symptoms. By identifying the patient’s food sensitivities and beginning an elimination diet, patients begin to heal and symptoms improve.

Treatment Strategies in Functional and Conventional Medicine

Functional medicine practitioners take a whole-person approach to healing, looking at the body as a whole and how it works together to function optimally. There is no one-size-fits-all. Nutrition, supplementation when necessary, and complementary therapies are utilized to bring the body into a state of balance and promote healing. In contrast, conventional medicine practitioners take a biological approach to healing, where treatment typically includes the use of pharmaceuticals and/or surgical interventions.

Nutrition Considerations in Functional Medicine

Nutrition is the foundation of health. What we fuel our bodies with matters. When working with a functional medicine provider, your nutritional plan will focus on whole foods that are nutrient-dense and colorful, rich in polyphenols and antioxidants. Incorporating a variety of plants, fruits, and vegetables and minimizing sugar, inflammatory oils, and processed foods supports healthy metabolism and lowers inflammation.

Utilization of Supplements in Functional Medicine

It is estimated that over $30 billion is spent annually in the United States on supplementation. It is important to understand that supplementation does not take the place of eating a balanced diet. However, there are some instances when supplements are necessary and helpful. Functional medicine practitioners often utilize lab testing to help detect underlying issues and guide the dosage and duration of supplementation.

An example of testing is Vibrant America’s Vitamins Panel. This measures 12 vitamins to evaluate nutritional deficiencies and abnormalities, allowing the practitioner to customize the patient’s supplementation based on test results.

Complementary and Integrative Therapies

Functional medicine often incorporates complementary therapies to treat the person as a whole, including every aspect of their health. Some of the most common complementary therapies include:

Yoga - used to balance the mind and body through stretches and poses, meditation, and controlled breathing.

Massage therapy - the soft tissues of the body are kneaded, rubbed, tapped, and stroked to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Chiropractic therapy - manipulation of the spine, joints, and skeletal system to correct alignment and help with discomfort.

Meditation - focused awareness on a particular activity, such as breathing or the environment, helping to regulate the nervous system and produce feelings of calmness.

Acupuncture - an ancient Chinese medicine practice involving the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to balance energy flow.


Although the approach varies, conventional and functional medicine practitioners both share a commonality of wanting to help people. However, with the rise of chronic diseases, more people are turning away from conventional medicine and looking for real solutions to their health issues as opposed to a plan that simply alleviates symptoms.

This is leading more and more people to work with a functional medicine practitioner who takes a proactive approach, focusing on the root cause of disease and therefore offering a more sustainable path to long-term health and prevention.

In functional medicine, the practitioner partners with the patient, spending significant time reviewing medical history and seeking to uncover the root cause of the patient’s symptoms. The use of high-quality, in-depth lab testing, nutritional planning, supplementation when necessary, and complementary therapies provides patients with the personalized care and support they need for optimal wellness.  

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Written by Julie Davey

With 20 years of experience in the healthcare industry Julie has helped hundreds of overwhelmed people transform their lives by healing their bodies with natural medicine.

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