A Functional Medicine Point of View

Dr. Kevin Ritzenthaler, DC, DCBCN

Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure, non-accident lower-limb amputations, and new cases of blindness among adults.  In 2012, the cost of the disease was estimated at $245 billion.

If America is one of the world’s leading super-powers, then why is it that we are suffering from so many chronic health conditions?

I would contend that part of the issue is that modern medicine is taking a backward approach to treating many chronic conditions.  Today, I will contrast the medical approach with the functional medicine approach to diabetes, and you can be the judge.

Functional Medicine

Functional Medicine is a treatment approach that seeks out and treats the underlying cause of a disease rather than the disease itself.  By contrast, traditional (or allopathic) medicine treats the disease itself.  This can be a hard concept to wrap your head around, so let’s look at an analogy.

Imagine that there are a bunch of people drowning in a river, and there are a number of people who are on the river banks working very hard to save lives.  Some are throwing life preservers, others are using ropes to pull people ashore, and others are performing CPR on the river bank.  All of these people are really good at their specialties and all of them are doing their best to use their particular specialty to save lives.  These are examples of allopathic (or traditional) medicine, jumping in to treat sick people and save lives.

By contrast, a functional medicine doctor walks upstream to discover how the people ended up in the river in the first place and figures out how to keep them out of the water.

This is what we mean when we say that allopathic medicine treats the disease itself (drowning people in a river).  These doctors are trained in the use of medicines and procedures to treat disease. In contrast, a functional medicine doctor focuses on the underlying cause of the disease (why the people are in the river), and will work to correct biochemical imbalances in the body so that the body can function normally. When the body functions normally, there is no more disease.


Type 2 Diabetes is a chronic disease whereby your body has higher than normal levels of sugar in your blood.

When a healthy person consumes foods with sugar in it, blood sugar levels will spike.  The pancreas detects the spike and releases insulin.   The insulin will take the sugar from the blood and bring it into cells to be burned as fuel or stored as fat.  Once the sugar is brought into the cells, blood sugar levels are normalized.

Now, let’s look at a blood sugar analogy for a diabetic person.  In this analogy, the house represents your cells, the wood is the blood sugar, and the man at the door is the insulin.

A man (insulin) knocks at the door of the house (cell) and says, “Hey, take this wood (sugar) in.”  At first, it’s not a problem to bring the wood into the house (sugar in your cells).   But as more sugar is entering the blood stream, this guy is constantly knocking on the door:  knock, knock, knock, “take this wood in.”   Knock, knock, knock, “take this wood in.”  Knock, knock, knock, “take this wood in.”  Pretty soon, you have all of this wood (sugar) in your house (cells) and nowhere else to put any more.  So, your body just stops listening to that guy (insulin) and the wood starts to stack up outside the door (sugar stays in your blood stream).

But in the meantime, your pancreas’ reaction is to send more guys (insulin) to knock on the door, because it knows that it needs to do something about all of the wood (sugar) that’s  stacking up outside of the house (still in your blood stream).

Now, there’s a battle happening inside of your body.  Your cells are ignoring the knockers (insulin resistance), meanwhile, your pancreas knows that all of the sugar in the blood (wood outside the door) is a bad thing, so it works harder and harder at sending more door knockers.

In a person with type 2 diabetes, no matter how hard the pancreas works, it can’t produce enough insulin to normalize the blood sugar levels.  Eventually, the pancreas will become permanently damaged.  And, the increased blood sugar levels will cause increased rates of heart disease, nerve damage, kidney failure, strokes, loss of vision, circulation issues, and other effects of diabetes.

Medical Approach to Diabetes

High blood sugar can be controlled through diet and exercise, with medications, or with insulin injections.  In many cases, patients are prescribed medications to help control diabetes.  The problem with medications is two-fold.  First, this approach treats the diabetes itself – not the cause of the diabetes.  Secondly, medications can come with a long list of dangerous side effects.

InvokanaTM is a diabetes drug on the market.  Invokana controls blood sugar by telling the kidneys to dump sugar. Sounds, like a good solution, right?  But ask yourself this:  is the reason that you have diabetes because your kidneys aren’t dumping sugar?  No.  In fact, in the normal operation of your body, your kidneys should never be dumping sugar– that’s not how your body was designed to function.

Do you see how that’s not treating the actual cause of the disease?

Let’s take a closer look at Invokana.  According to www.invokana.com, some of the side effects of Invokana include: dehydration, kidney problems, vaginal yeast infection, yeast infection of the penis, urinary tract infections, changes in urination, high potassium in the blood, increases in cholesterol, low blood sugar, and allergic reactions.

Another popular diabetes drug is VictozaTM.  According to www.victoza.com, “in animal studies, Victoza caused thyroid tumors—including thyroid cancer—in some rats and mice. It is not known whether Victoza causes thyroid tumors or a type of thyroid cancer called medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) in people, which may be fatal if not detected and treated early…”  Other side effects are also listed.

So, one of these drugs may damage your kidneys, and the other might cause a deadly cancer (but we’re not really sure), and neither of them is working to restore the natural function of your body to alleviate the diabetes.

Functional Medicine Approach

A functional medicine doctor will take a drug-free approach to fixing the cause of the disease naturally.  Tests will be performed (such as a glucose tolerance test) before you’re even diagnosed with diabetes to see if you’re on the path to becoming diabetic.  If a problem is detected, a strategy will be put in place to work on preventing full-blown diabetes.

One area that will be addressed will be diet and exercise.  Do not expect to be simply told to “eat better and exercise more.”   A functional medicine doctor will provide you with a list of foods that you can eat and those that you should avoid. You will learn about glycemic index and glycemic loads so that you can make smarter, healthier choices.

In addition, the functional medicine doctor may prescribe supplements that will help your body to normalize blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity naturally.  If you can increase sensitivity, the insulin your body is naturally producing will push those sugars into the cells normally, so that blood sugar levels will decrease in the way that the body was built to function.

Do you see the difference between treating the disease and treating the cause of the disease?

One functional medicine doctor states it this way, “Functional Medicine practitioners don’t treat disease, we treat your body’s ecosystem. We get rid of the bad stuff, put in the good stuff, and because your body is an intelligent system, it does the rest.”  Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

Unfortunately, many people take prescription drugs without fully understanding their true risks and side effects.  A drug may help the symptoms of one disease, but it can also cause a whole host of other problems, and it’s often doing nothing to fix the cause of the disease itself.  It’s no wonder that Americans take so many prescription medications, yet we are not any healthier for it.

A functional medicine approach is often not a quick fix. It takes a commitment on the part of the patient. But in the end, its goal is to fix the real problems that are causing illness, make you healthier, and improve your life.

More than Diabetes

Functional Medicine is a viable alternative to traditional medicine for any disorder that has a biochemical foundation, including: diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke, auto immune diseases (MS, psoriasis, Grave’s disease), GI disorders (Chron’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis), food sensitivities, and allergies.  If you can identify and fix the biochemical factors that area causing the disorder, you will inevitably fix the disease itself.

To learn if Functional Medicine could help you, call 715-355-4224 to schedule a no-charge consultation at our Weston clinic.