What It's Like To Work With a Functional Medicine Doctor

What It's Like Working With a Functional Medical Doctor

Last fall I went in for my yearly physical, not anticipating anything different from the usual, “everything looks good!” So I was a little caught off guard when my doctor felt my thyroid and asked, “Have you ever been told your thyroid is enlarged?” 

No, I hadn’t, thanks for asking. So, am I going to die now? (#notdramaticatall)

Aside from a sports related injury, and a stomach bug or cold here and there, I’ve always been really fortunate with my health. So the thought of having a thyroid problem or disease shook me a little bit, especially after doing a little googling. (Side note: why haven’t we outlawed WebMD, yet?!) But after some blood work and an ultrasound, they said that although there was a small nodule on my right thyroid, it wasn’t large enough to cause any concern and they didn’t feel the need to do anything else. 

I realize not everyone is so fortunate, and was incredibly thankful that my doctor checked it out and that was my outcome. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how that nodule used to not be there, and wondered if it could possibly be connected to symptoms I had started experiencing in the past 3 years. Symptoms like acid reflux, low energy, stomach cramping, constant bloating, weight gain, etc.

Before this point, I’d mostly chalked those symptoms up to no longer being in my 20s. But that wasn’t an empowering approach, and I don’t like feeling helpless, so I decided to take charge of my health and look into it a little more. Plus, I got really tired of feeling bleh about 70% of the time, and I knew that pain is our body’s way of communicating to us that something is off.

When you don’t feel well, it really impacts all areas of your life. I wasn’t as active because my stomach hurt. I wasn’t as productive or creative at my work because I lacked energy. My mood would be down because I didn’t feel great. Everything was affected and I needed a change, but I wasn’t sure exactly where to start. I felt like I already made a lot of healthy decisions, but clearly something was off, and I didn’t want to wait until I actually had a serious issue before I took action.

I guess you could call this my wake up call before a wake up call. 

Instead of trying a few different random changes on my own and seeing if it worked, I wanted more guidance. I’d heard about functional medicine before, but didn’t know much about it and honestly doubted the validity of its effectiveness. Were they going to try to sell me a ton of unnecessary supplements? What’s even the background of a functional medicine doctor? Am I going to be capable of doing what they ask of me? Am I going to spend a ton of money and not see an improvement? What does a functional medicine doctor even do?

Thankfully, a fellow Exercise Physiologist and friend of mine, Julie, shared her story about working with Functional Medical Dr. Libby Orsburn on social media (you can read it here if you want). So I reached out to ask Julie a few questions about her experience, and she quickly eased my uncertainties. 

I made an appointment the next day, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Working with Dr. Orsburn has been an amazing experience. She was quick to respond, easy to talk to, spent plenty of time with me, and didn’t make me feel crazy when I was telling her how I felt something was off.

And instead of throwing a prescription at my symptoms, she looked at EVERY 👏🏼 SINGLE 👏🏼 THING going on to identify the actual root cause. So when she gave me an individualized plan, I was pumped to try it because I finally felt like I actually had power over my health.

Now, almost 3 months after our first appointment, about 90% of my physical symptoms have been eradicated. I went from feeling super frustrated, tired, crampy, lethargic, and unsure, to feeling completely empowered, energetic, leaner, and so confident in taking care of my wellbeing. I’m beyond thankful for my experience with Dr. Orsburn.

Since I started this journey, a lot of people have asked me questions like, “What is a functional medicine doctor and what do they do?” I thought it would be fun for me to introduce you to my doctor, and have her answer some of your questions!

I’m excited for you to meet, Dr. Libby Orsburn of Elevate Wellness MD!

How is functional medicine different from traditional?

In very general terms, traditional or allopathic medicine tends toward a paradigm of “name it and blame it” along with “a pill for every ill.”  It’s all about finding out “What?” and treating those symptoms. Where it falls short is in the effective treatment of chronic diseases. With that said, please hear me say I am absolutely not against allopathic medicine, as it has its place.  Functional medicine, on the other hand, focuses on the “Why?” behind the “What?” as well as on identifying and treating, as naturally as possible, the upstream or root causes of symptoms. For instance, for a person with any autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system is attacking its own tissues, I look for the root causes of this in order to improve the entire body’s functioning, thus decreasing symptoms and improving quality of life.  Traditional medicine tends to make a diagnosis then treat only the symptoms, instead of also finding and treating the root cause. I liken this to your smoke alarm screaming while your basement is on fire. Do you want to just turn off the smoke alarm or do you want to find the fire and put it out?

What inspired you to make the switch from PM&R to Functional Medicine?

Years ago I was very sick, and despite the best possible traditional medical care, I was not getting better.  This had, of course, been slowly brewing for many years, and I had been soldiering on while attending to the needs of others.  Getting well required that I completely shift my mindset and learn a new way of practicing medicine, much the same way as patients must shift their mindset in order to embrace what can be when working with me vs. settling for the disease management their insurance will cover.

Once I felt well, I wanted to offer this knowledge to as many other suffering people as I possibly could.  While I maintain my board certification in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, I practice medicine for the whole person, not just fragmented care for a specific limb or organ.  It’s really refreshing to see how people’s lives turn around with my functional approach, and I adore getting to spend such luxurious amounts of time with each patient!

What do you wish everyone knew about working with a functional medical dr?

I wish everyone knew how truly worthwhile it is to improve your health, despite lack of or spotty insurance coverage for it, and that paying a Functional Medicine Doctor to help you sort things out pays off in spades.  The insurance model is designed for disease management, not wellness promotion. I also wish more people utilized functional medicine BEFORE getting sick, in order to PREVENT illness! Once you are sick, it’s more expensive and time consuming to get well again, and many also lose valuable income due to inability to work.  My hope is that more people will begin to see the value of functional medicine in prevention of illness. I see lots of folks who have tried many things on their own and not gotten where they wanted to be with their health, and there is a lot of misinformation out there these days, so it’s difficult to sort through on your own.  Having a Functional Medical Doctor helping customize care for your situation will save you valuable time and money in the long run.

You also do acupuncture. What are the benefits?

There are so many!  Acupuncture works at the level of the nervous system to release chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals change how you experience pain and/or trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones which regulate your body's own natural healing abilities and promote well-being.  Among other things, acupuncture can help regulate hormones, decrease stress and anxiety, improve mood and sleep, decrease inflammation, and improve joint range of motion.

How do I know if I have inflammation?

That’s a great question, and I think signs of inflammation can be very obvious or sneaky things we tend to not think much about.  Red, swollen, painful joints, etc fall into the obvious category. Things like fatigue, insulin resistance, high blood sugar levels, high cholesterol and other lipids, the “spare tire” around your waist or apple body shape, GI complaints [such as gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, etc], and chronic skin conditions [eczema, psoriasis, rosacea] are also signs of inflammation.  If you’re not sure, it’s worth working with a Functional Medical Doctor to get the right lab testing done and find out what might be brewing. Remember that diseases don’t just start out of nowhere. They take years to develop. Then one day we are surprised to find out we have Hashimoto’s or Graves or Lupus or high cholesterol or diabetes...or a multitude of other diagnoses.

Is there specific testing for people who come to you with weight loss resistance?

There are many things I test in this situation, but I wouldn’t say there’s a cookbook approach or list of tests I do on everyone.  Again, I treat people, not diseases/conditions, and everyone is different. To answer what I think is at the heart of your question, YES, there is hope for weight loss resistance!  Is there a magic pill that will make excess weight fall off without some effort and persistence on the part of the patient? Sadly, there is not, and I advise people to avoid those making such claims for programs and products.

Can a cleanse actually help improve your metabolism and help you lose weight?

I suppose it depends upon what you mean by “cleanse”.  I see lots of people touting “cleanses”, and I don’t think many of them are medically sound for various reasons.  Questionable and downright false health claims abound, so I advise everyone to be cautious. Some of the “cleanse” protocols will actually decrease your metabolism and increase the toxins circulating in your system...which is why many people feel bad on them.  It’s also why that weight loss doesn’t last.

I promote sustainable, life-long changes to lifestyle and diet for optimal health...and weight loss, if that is a goal.  I honestly don’t think there is anything better.

What foods would you like to see everyone steer clear of?

An excellent start would be to avoid processed foods, added sugars, anything sprayed with pesticides, farmed fish, and factory-farmed eggs and meats.  Beyond that, everyone is different, and I base dietary recommendations upon each person’s specific situation.

What ingredients do you think everyone should use more of

Spices and culinary herbs!  You want them to be of good quality, preferably organic, stored correctly, and used within about 6 months of opening the jar.  Fresh is even better!

What kind of supplements do you recommend?

I’m quite particular about the supplements I recommend to my patients, and I spend lots of time researching the ones I end up offering.  Quality and purity are important, as supplements are processed by your body just as it processes prescription medications. Your body’s detoxification systems don’t treat something from the pharmacy differently than a supplement, so ultimately supplements are medications.  There’s a large disparity in quality among supplements on the market, and labeling can be confusing. Studies show that many don’t contain what is on the label, and many contain things not on the label, such as toxins, heavy metals, and prescription drugs. Some supplements are stored or transported in high heat environments, which may affect their stability and effectiveness.  Pretty scary, if you ask me! I only recommend supplements that I’d be willing to put in my own body and that come from companies I trust.

Beyond diet and supplementation, what lifestyle habits would you strongly recommend people doing on a regular basis?

Exercise!!! Exercise and food are the most powerful medicines we have!  Exercise improves body composition [less fat, more muscle, better bone density, lower body weight], cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health, blood sugar regulation, cognition, autonomic nervous system function and stress management, and... basically everything!  

How much of a role does stress have in regards to our health?

Stress has tremendous negative impacts on our health.  Life can be stressful, and we can’t always avoid stressful situations, but we can train our bodies to handle stress in healthier ways and thus avoid the negative consequences.

What exactly is candida and what are the symptoms?

Candida species are types of yeast, and they are natural inhabitants of our GI tract.  They can get out of balance and grow out of control in the GI tract, on the skin, or in other organs.  The symptoms of candida overgrowth in the GI tract are nonspecific and overlap with a multitude of other conditions.  Working with a functional doctor can help sort through such things.

What causes an overgrowth of candida?

Candida is normally found in the GI tract.  When there’s an overgrowth, it’s caused by an imbalance in the commensal [“good”] gut flora, ie the good gut bacteria are not keeping it in check.  Imbalance can occur due to many things, including medications, an inflammatory diet, and even injuries.  

What’s the easiest thing someone can change starting today?

“Easy” depends upon a person’s outlook and willingness to make changes.  With that said, the best way to change your health today...for free...is to exercise!  Walking is an excellent place to start!

What tests would you run for women who are having difficulty getting pregnant?

Difficulty conceiving or maintaining pregnancy can be caused by many factors and many conditions.  As far as testing, I always start with the basics and get more specific as needed. Our bodies are wise! Consider this:  If your body is ill, inflamed, or malnourished, does it make sense to try to grow a new life with limited resources? Also think about what you give your offspring as their inheritance.  If you have little to give at conception and during gestation, that is transmitted into your offspring’s genetics...and thus down the line. My approach in these situations is to optimize health and delay attempts at conception until the woman’s body has life to share.  I also encourage men to optimize their own health in order to increase the quality and quantity of their sperm.

Do you work with people virtually?

For established patients who are unable to make it to the office, I offer telephone visits for certain situations.  I believe there’s healing in relationship, and I like to sit together with my patients and really get to know them and their unique situation.  I use all of my senses during an exam and believe it’s worthwhile to be seen in person.

How does someone make an appointment with you?

There’s an intake form on my website, labeled “health assessment.”  Once I receive the form, I make contact via telephone and set the appointment.

Wherever you are with your health, it’s critically important that you make sure it’s a top priority. Our health is the most valuable asset we have, and it’s worth the time, energy, and investment!