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What Can Functional Medicine Offer Depression?

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In order to understand what functional medicine is and what it can offer depression patients, it is first necessary to discuss conventional medicine. Conventional medicine aims to treat the disease and fix the problem using tools like medications, surgical and nonsurgical interventions, and other treatment approaches. For example, a parent makes a same-day appointment with the pediatrician for a child who may have the flu; a doctor prescribes medication to correct high blood pressure in an adult who’s newly diagnosed; and, an injured person goes to the emergency room to have a broken leg set and cast.

For many patients with depression, conventional medicine is the logical place to turn when seeking treatment. When a patient tells their primary care physician that they are dealing with depression, the doctor’s focus will be to eliminate the symptoms, likely by prescribing an antidepressant and recommending talk therapy. There is nothing wrong with this approach, nor is there anything wrong with a depressed person taking prescribed antidepressants or signing up for talk therapy per their doctor’s recommendation. Antidepressants, after all, are an essential part of treatment for countless patients dealing with various forms and levels of severity of depression.

For some depression patients, the conventional approach fits their needs perfectly. But for those who are searching for another option, it may be time to explore functional medicine, how its philosophy differs from conventional methods, and how functional medicine can benefit the patient’s overall treatment plan.

What is Functional Medicine?

The term may not be familiar, and that’s okay. According to The Institute for Functional Medicine, the functional medicine model is individualized, science-based, and patient-centered. While the goal of conventional medicine is to treat symptoms and  the disease, functional medicine strives to treat the patient by searching for and addressing the root cause of an illness.

Erica Steele, ND, a functional medicine doctor whose practice, Holistic Family Medicine, is based out of Virginia Beach, VA., compared her role in a patient’s road to health with that of a detective. Spending up to an hour-and-a-half with a new patient, Steele said this allows her to uncover contributing lifestyle and environmental factors to the patient’s illness or condition, such as their genetics and diet.

Rather than pitting one against the other, Steele explained how functional medicine and conventional medicine—referred to as “allopathic” by functional medicine doctors—can work in tandem while treating a patient.

“While the allopathic doctor is managing the disease to ensure that it does not manifest or risk the patient’s life, the functional medicine provider can go through the painstaking task of trying to understand why the body manifested the disease process, thus finding the cause of the imbalance in health rather than just diagnosing and managing the disease process,” Steele said.  

How Does Functional Medicine View Depression?

According to the most recent figure from National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 16.2 million adults in the United States—equivalent to 6.7 percent of the population—had at least one major depressive episode in 2016.

Symptoms of depression can include:

  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Changes in appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Loss of energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Sense of self-loathing
  • Reckless behavior

“Depression is seen as a neurological imbalance in health, and since the majority of the neurological system is housed in the digestive system, our first step in healing is repairing the digestive system before moving on to rebalancing the neurological system,” said Steele.

She explains that her next step might be to run an Organic Acids test, a single urine specimen that determines a patient’s markers for yeast or bacterial overgrowth, amino acid insufficiencies, the body’s ability to detoxify, as well as many other factors that must be taken into consideration.

One way to improve the health and wellbeing of the mind and body is through a food as fuel approach, says the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. As a result, nutritional counseling may be provided by a functional medicine practitioner, like a nutritionist, who assists a patient in developing an eating plan that addresses deficiencies in nutrition, offers support for a healthy microbiome, and reduces inflammation. Other ways functional medicine can support depression patients may include assisting with medication side effects, implementing healthy weight loss goals, and identifying food sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies.  

What Tools do Functional Medicine Doctors Use to Help Patients with Depression?

Dr. Steele went on to explain that functional medicine doctors will go above and beyond asking “the typical” questions conventional doctors may ask their patients during a depression screening, including questions about how long they have been experiencing depression, as well as which treatments may have helped in the past.

Additionally, functional medicine doctors use many different tools in their arsenal while treating patients with depression. A functional medicine doctor, Steele said, will start with a full case history of his or her patient by looking at various potential causatives for depression, incorporating the use of specialized software to analyze the subjective data in timeline form, and then, move on to evaluating the patient’s medical records and chart notes. A full blood panel will be ordered and laboratory specimens, Steele went on to say, are analyzed from both the conventional medicine perspective, should the patient need a referral to another specialist, and through the functional medicine perspective in an effort to focus on determining causative factors contributing to the depression of a patient, including physical, psychosocial, and mental.

According to Steele, patients seeking treatment for depression may be asked a number of questions such as:

  • Have you experienced ACEs—Adverse Childhood Experiences—that affected your self-esteem?
  • Have you built unhealthy relationships around low self-esteem?
  • Have you remained in unhealthy relationships out of fear of being alone?
  • Have you been hurt in the past?
  • Are you afraid to be vulnerable?
  • Do you use depression as a means to escape being vulnerable with others as a coping mechanism?

Steele noted that she encourages her patients to maintain their relationships with their primary care physicians, therapists, and psychiatrists for generalized care, regular screenings, and case management, respectively.

“I often work in conjunction with many general practitioners, especially if the person needs to be on a medication, as they monitor the medications on their case and I work with them to be able to build the health,” she said.

Functional medicine is unique in that it asks the patient to take an active part in their healing. Patients at Minnesota Personalized Medicine, for example, may be given “prescriptions” for dietary supplements, exercise, spiritual facilitation, and other self-care tools such a health coaching and mind-body self-care. Like Minnesota Personalized Medicine, many functional medicine institutions, can prescribe medications as needed, or refer patients to appropriate services when necessary.

How Can Functional Medicine Improve a Depressed Patient’s Life?

Elizabeth Rice, ND, who specializes in depression, anxiety, and postpartum disorders, and is a faculty member at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona, described depression as one of the emotions experienced on what she referred to as a “fluctuating continuum. “Everyone,” Rice said, has experienced “depression or anxiety in some form.”

“When our bodies are in balance, we are better able to offset the effects of depression and anxiety.  Conversely, when we are out of sync or imbalanced, depression or anxiety can overwhelm us and impair our ability to function normally,” Rice went on to say.

Approaching mental health from the functional medicine perspective, Rice added, allows for the treating functional medicine doctor to evaluate the health of the patient as a whole, also taking into consideration everything from hormone balance to relationship quality to environmental toxin exposure, and more.

“All of these subsets of health are interchangeably linked and influence our emotional stability,” said Rice. “A thorough evaluation of each of these pillars will reveal areas of weakness and deficiency that, when corrected, can promote relief from emotional burden.”

Finally, a functional medicine take on depression doesn’t mean you need to abandon conventional medicine altogether—it just means you’re adding more treatment options and resources to help you cope, manage, and support your mental health and your path to recovery.

Pauline Campos is an artist, author of Be Your Own F*cking Sunshine: An Inspirational Journal for People Who Like to Swear, and proud mother of a brilliant Autistic girl. ADHD is her superpower and autism . Pauline Lives in Minnesota, but will always be from Detroit. Find her on Twitter: @pauline_campos and at PaulineCampos.com.




Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. Why Choose the Center for Functional Medicine. Retrieved from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/departments/functional-medicine/about#faq-tab

Mayo Clinic. Depression (Major Depressive Disorder). Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20356013

Minnesota Personalized Medicine. We Aim to be Helpful. Retrieved from: http://mnpersonalizedmedicine.com/what-we-do/

National Institute of Mental Health. Major Depression. Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression.shtml

Rice, Elizabeth. (2018, August 3). Personal communication.

Steele, Erica. (2018, August 3). Personal communication.

The Institute for Functional Medicine. Functional Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ifm.org/functional-medicine/

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