Why you should give functional medicine a chance

Sarah A. Downey
4 min readFeb 15, 2024
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

I cannot recommend functional medicine enough. I spent decades being tossed around by traditional doctors trying to figure out multiple serious autoimmune and genetic issues. No one ever suggested finding the root causes. They just tried to treat the symptoms, which persisted because whatever was causing them was still there. (My issues include retinal bleeding due to inflammation, Hashimoto’s Disease, Sjogren’s Syndrome, and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome).

In contrast, functional doctors recognize that the body is a complex system with interdependent factors: you dial one thing up, then this other thing goes down. There may be a third unexpected result you never anticipated, which creates a chain reaction somewhere else. And so it goes. Furthermore, the body impacts the mind, which impacts the body; I’ve learned through firsthand experience that trying to separate body from mind just leads to lackluster impact.

A good functional doctor actually takes the time (which is often a lot) to go through your entire life history — sicknesses, injuries, stressful periods, weird body responses, diagnoses, everything — and create hypotheses about *why* things are the way they are, and where they started. There’s often a narrative that makes sense in hindsight. You also fill out a super comprehensive set of intake forms around your personal and medical history.

Then functional doctors often order a lot of tests to collect data to apply to the hypotheses, looking at things like genetic markers, cortisol levels, levels of vitamins and minerals, states of certain organs, health of your gut microbiome, the presence of excessively high levels of toxins like heavy metals or mold, and your hormone levels. There’s typically a 6–8 week period where you go away, do all of these tests (some are in labs with a simple blood draw and others involve doing a urine or saliva or stool kit at home and mailing it into a third-party lab company).

Then as the results come in, a picture starts to emerge of what’s actually going on. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how illuminating this process can be. If you’ve spent decades feeling like shit and noticing mystery negative responses in your body, and then you suddenly start to see what’s actually at play to cause those responses, that means that you can actually DO something to stop or reverse them.

Once you know what the likely culprit(s) are, the functional doctor (and often their staff of nurses, nutritionists, and other specialists, given that this is a holistic issue and requires a holistic approach across teams) take steps to fix it. It’s usually implementing one thing at a time, seeing how your body reacts after a few days, then responding and repeating with other solutions. Supplements, dietary changes, removing environmental triggers, medications, and lifestyle changes are some of the common fixes. It’s a scientific trial-and-error approach based on your many test results and the doctor’s plan, which was developed from your super personalized history.

I truly don’t know where I’d be today without the help of a few really good, dedicated functional doctors, who identified not only my diagnoses, but dug deep to find out what was actually causing them (some explorations are still ongoing, but in my case a lot of it was a toxic level of repeated exposure to a certain kind of mold, combined with a diet that was triggering certain allergic responses and a lifestyle of extreme stress for 10+ years). Before them, all I felt was this weird mix of confusion and depersonalization as I was passed from general practitioners to rheumatologists to physical therapists, where almost no one spent more than 10 minutes with me at a time and no one even suggested the idea of finding the root cause.

Traditional medicine is still useful if you have things like an acute injury from a car accident, something where there’s a clear problem and a clear solution (e.g., pop that bone back in the right place). But unfortunately it rarely seeks to solve complex health problems and instead throws a band-aid on them.

I was led to believe that functional medicine was some sort of quackery, some unscientific guessing game based on hunches and quasi-mystical approaches. And sure, some functional doctors err too far on that side of things. You need to vet who you see with reviews and research, especially talking to current or previous patients. But the really good functional doctors are more data-oriented, dedicated, and process-driven than any traditional doctors I ever saw.

The future of medicine is much more personalized, holistic, and driven to find WHY symptoms are happening rather than just temporarily quieting those symptoms. It treats food as medicine, mental health as mandatory, and personal data collection and analysis as essential. If you’re someone who has struggled with a constellation of confusing health problems and been met with a tepid response from traditional medicine, it’s highly worth going the functional route.

If you want to get started with functional medicine, here are a few recommendations:

There’s a directory of functional doctors here, although I’ll caveat that I’ve seen one from this list who was a total dud, another who was truly exceptional, and a third who is also amazing who’s not listed here, so in no way is this a comprehensive or perfect database: https://www.ifm.org/find-a-practitioner/

I’m currently seeing a doctor and her team at the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, MA, which has been an amazing experience so far, although it’s early in the process. I recently got in after about a 6 month wait on the waitlist. The practice was founded by Dr. Mark Hyman, a pioneer in the functional medicine space.

If you’re in the Boston area, Hummingbird Holistic Health was founded by two nurse practitioners with exceptional functional medicine experience. It’s located in Waltham and I can’t say enough about how awesome Carolyn Gillespie has been to work with.



Sarah A. Downey

Pro 1A. Operating Partner at Accomplice; founder/GP Yubari (angel fund); co-founder Blueprint Enneagram app; capitalist; esquire. I 🖤 weights, gaming, scifi.