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Functional Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine

Conventional medicine and functional medicine are two distinct health systems that offer different perspectives on diagnosing, treating, and preventing health issues. Each approach has its strengths and limitations, and understanding the differences between them can empower you to make informed choices about your healthcare journey.

In this article, we’ll explain the differences between conventional medicine and functional medicine.

Conventional Medicine

Conventional medicine is the mainstream healthcare system practiced by most medical doctors and other healthcare professionals. The primary focus of conventional medicine is to address the symptoms of a disease or condition using pharmaceutical drugs, surgeries, and other medical interventions.

Strengths of Conventional Medicine

Conventional medicine excels in acute and life-threatening situations where immediate intervention is necessary. Surgeries, trauma care, and emergency treatments are prime examples. For example, if you break your arm or require heart surgery, you need conventional medicine for treatment. Conventional medicine also allows for specialization in various medical fields. This allows doctors or medical providers to have in-depth knowledge of one organ system and prescribe specialized recommendations for rare or specific conditions.

Drawbacks of Conventional Medicine

As you may have experienced, conventional medicine is often driven by insurance reimbursement. While this may be a benefit in some ways, the downside is providers usually do not have dedicated time to gather an in-depth medical history and learn new or innovative testing and methods. Rather, due to insurance constraints, most conventional doctors have packed clinic schedules requiring patient visits to be 15 minutes or less. 

Furthermore, conventional medicine is not usually the best option for treating chronic diseases, promoting overall wellness, and prevention. 

Since this model is focused on symptom suppression, patients often feel like conventional medicine fails to address the underlying cause of their health problems and over-rely on pharmaceuticals. This may lead to unnecessary medication side effects, ongoing health problems, and missed diagnoses. 

Functional Medicine

Functional medicine aims to identify and address the root causes of illness. These practitioners also consider the interconnectedness of various bodily systems and emphasize personalized, patient-centered care. For example, we recognize that your hormones, mood, skin, and more are intricately connected to the health of your gut. 

Strengths of Functional Medicine

Because we are free from the restrictions of insurance reimbursement, our functional medicine doctors spend upwards of one hour with members during each appointment. This allows you to tell your full story, provide an in-depth history, and ask any questions. We will not discount or ignore any of your concerns and respect that you are the expert of your own body. We also have access to and advanced knowledge of personalized lab testing to evaluate hormones, gut imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, and more. Learn more about functional medicine lab testing.

As a result of identifying and treating the root cause of a health issue, 98 percent of our Root members report a reduction in symptoms after just three months. While we may use medication as needed, it is not the primary focus of our treatment plan. A functional medicine treatment focuses on factors like nutrition, lifestyle, genetics, and environmental influences. At Root, we believe in using a food first approach and have a team of specialized registered dietitians to provide individual nutrition recommendations and help you implement sustainable changes. Therefore, most people also report a boost of energy, improved digestion, clear skin, and many other positive “side effects.”

Drawbacks of Functional Medicine

A functional medicine treatment plan requires persistence and dedication. Many times, the healing journey is not linear. While you may notice a reduction in some symptoms within just a few days, functional medicine treatments often span over many months to truly address the root causes of your condition. If you’re looking for a quick fix or immediate results, a functional medicine program may not be the best fit.

Furthermore, the in-depth, personalized nature of functional medicine does not align with most insurance policies. While we hope that this will one day change, we believe it is a disservice to our members to restrict our treatments and appointments to the constraints of insurance reimbursement. Therefore, functional medicine does require an upfront cost and we recognize that it is an investment in your health. Many people ask why we do not take insurance. If you want to learn more about this topic, read our article: Is functional medicine covered by insurance?

Comparing Treatment Approaches

We have written a variety of articles reviewing functional medicine approaches for different health conditions like autoimmune disease, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), type 2 diabetes, and more. Let’s use one of these examples to explain the different treatment approaches.


PCOS is the most common hormonal disorder affecting up to 20 percent of women in their reproductive years. A conventional healthcare provider typically uses a symptom-centered approach to treating this condition. For example, they may prescribe spironolactone to reduce acne breakouts, the birth control pill to treat heavy periods, or Clomid for infertility. They may suggest general weight loss but offer no further recommendations. 

Conversely, functional medicine for PCOS is a patient-centered approach that involves a collaborative, in-depth assessment to determine the root causes of your PCOS symptoms. Your Root doctor can order a blood test to evaluate your fasting insulin, fasting blood glucose, hemoglobin A1c, vitamin B12, vitamin D, zinc, omega-3 index, testosterone, and DHEA-S. These labs, combined with your health history, symptoms, and lifestyle, help us to determine your specific type of PCOS, which then allows us to treat your root causes. We may also recommend further functional medicine testing, if needed, to accurately tailor your wellness plan. A functional medicine plan for PCOS often includes dietary changes to support blood sugar balance, lifestyle modifications, gut health protocols, and supplement recommendations as appropriate. Finally, unlike the conventional model, a functional medicine plan should include multiple follow-up appointments over a few months to promote long term success and symptom resolution.
pcos conventional vs functional medicine
Here are two other condition specific examples in comparing conventional vs functional medicine:


conventional vs functional thyroid treatment

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

conventional vs functional IBS

Key Takeaways

Conventional medicine is a symptom-centered model that relies on standardized protocols for diagnosis and treatment. It’s best to use conventional medicine when you have an acute injury or require an immediate medical intervention. On the other hand, functional medicine is an alternative approach that aims to address the root causes of health issues. Treatment in functional medicine involves personalized plans that may include dietary and lifestyle modifications, nutritional supplements, gut health protocols, and other targeted therapies. It’s best to use functional medicine when treating chronic conditions and to promote overall wellness and prevention.

At Root, we have a team of board-certified MD/DOs with specialized expertise in functional medicine. Together with our registered dietitians, we treat health issues at the root cause within our comprehensive functional medicine membership program

Get to the Root at Home 

Curious about where you should start your functional medicine journey? 

Take our Get to the Root Quiz so you can start working towards reversing disease and optimizing your health at the Root cause.
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