Categories Expert Series

19 Functional Medicine Practitioners Share How Their Journey Began

Last December we started publishing our State of Functional Medicine series which featured interviews with over 30 active practitioners and established thought leaders to learn more about why they chose the field of functional medicine, what excites them most about their work, the most common misconceptions they hear from patients, and most importantly — how they see the field evolving in the years ahead as healthcare shifts to be more personalized, proactive, and preventative. 

You probably don’t have time to read every interview so we’ve gone through and pulled together some of our favorite answers to the various interview questions we asked practitioners. Here’s what we learned!

Why did you decide to make functional medicine your focus?

Dr. Adrienne Carmack, Medical Director at Integrative Health Matters

As a urologist, I often saw patients with complex issues that were affected by their diets, lifestyles, and other medical conditions. Although the drugs and surgical options we have in urology these days are tremendous, there are many situations in which a more holistic approach is needed. Functional medicine gave me a way to help these patients.

As an example, a very common issue is overactive bladder. We have multiple pharmaceuticals developed for this, which do work very well but unfortunately also often have significant side effects—so much so that many of these drugs actually carry black box warnings from the FDA. I have found that helping patients with elimination diets and improving their bowel habits results in a cure of a significant number of cases of overactive bladder. Though this does not eliminate the need for medications or other treatments, it does minimize that need and allow many more patients to truly be well. The beauty of a functional medicine approach is that what works for one system undoubtedly also leads to health for other systems and thus a greater expectation of long-term wellness, while more reductionistic approaches often help just one symptom at the expense of others.

Kike Oduba MBBS, MPH, Functional Health Practitioner, WellnessWits

A personal experience with an autoimmune condition, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, was the beginning of my journey with functional medicine. I was left with only one option by my conventional medicine colleagues, and that was to surgically take out my thyroid gland and live on prescription medications for the rest of my life. My curiosity and determination to heal my body naturally led me to finding functional medicine. It was the only approach that gave me hope to reverse autoimmunity. As I began seeing results from just applying simple dietary and lifestyle modifications, it only made sense to start my own practice. I realized that functional medicine truly worked and if it gave me hope of complete remission of my symptoms without using any medications, I could give many people the chance to achieve the same results without giving up hope of a medication free life.

Theresa Hernandez, Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner, Board Certified in Functional Medicine, Family First Functional Medicine

I believe that this is truly the way that medicine should be approached. Root cause medicine. I was practicing traditional medicine and seemed like it was just a cover to a bigger issue at hand. I wanted to really get people better, not just temporarily bring them comfort. Also, my oldest son started to get ear infections and allergies at a young age and that also really made me passionate about solving the problem, not just pacifying it.  

Anshul Gupta, Functional Medicine MD, Founder of AnshulGuptaMD

It started with my own health problems. When I was working as a Family Physician I started having stomach pain, fatigue, weight gain, brain fog issues. After taking medications and seeing the best specialists in the country I was not getting any better. That’s where I learned about Functional medicine, and started applying the concepts of functional medicine in my life. After just 1 month my stomach pain was gone. In the next 6 months, I was able to get off all medications, and had lost more than 40 lbs. I had more energy than I ever had in my life and my mental capacity became very sharp. That’s where I decided I need to share functional medicine with my patients to help them out. 

Brandy Zachary DC, IFMCP, Body Love Cafe

It was unexpected and not on my radar. I had earned my Doctorate of Chiropractic 20 years ago but a car accident has me close my practice and start a new career. I was working as an executive business consultant, professional speaker and created the world’s first personality profiling system which was published by McGraw-Hill out of NY. I thought I’d be in that field for the rest of my working life.

To my horror, I got a “mystery illness” that put an end to that high-profile career. I was incredibly sick and for a period of time in bed 22 hours a day and spending every 3 weeks at the John Muir infusion center getting IVIG treatments. I was declared permanently disabled by Social Security and told I’d never work again. I was a single mom and had to leave my big house on the hill in Lafayette and move home my daughter and I into grandma’s home. My medical care was over $700k a year, I was on 8 prescriptions, had 7 specialists, no answers and never felt better.

One of the symptoms of my illness was a debilitating depression so it was very difficult to preserve in the face of such odds including the loss of identity and financial ruin. Thankfully, I did fight back and began to investigate my own illness and read every medical research article that could help piece together the clues. I went back to school to study Functional Medicine and I was able to piece my health and life back together. I stopped the infusions, got off the prescriptions, lost weight, resolved many of the health issues and managed the others. I got my life back.

Although it was an isolating time, when people saw how I had healed they started showing up at my house wanting care. It was then I decided to rent space and open the first Body Love Cafe clinic. I had two moves within the first year due to the rapid growth and expanded from 100 sf and 4 walls to 1400 sf and 22 walls in a little over a year.

Rachel Headings, Certified Functional Medicine Provider with IFM, aLIVE Functional Medicine

Functional medicine has been my passion since 2011 when I was introduced to it by one of my friends/colleagues. I was chronically ill as a child and didn’t understand why I was so sick all the time until I went to my first functional medicine training. It was at that conference that they were able to explain to me why I was so sick all those years. They connected all the dots and showed me a way to get better. I was able to apply what I learned from that conference to my own health and no longer struggle with asthma, rashes, fatigue, or GI distress. I want others to be able to restore their health through functional medicine. When evaluating the client with a systematic approach + functional medicine labs, it is magical what you can offer patients. Treating root cause, at the cellular level with personalized protocols tailored to the client’s unique lab results can help the body regain balance and the symptoms resolve. 

Lara Zakaria PharmD MS CNS CDN IFMC, Functional Pharmacist and Clinical Nutritionist, Dr KF Education Programs coordinator

My “aha moment” came when I realized that my community pharmacy practice was full of patients with chronic disease with a growing list of medications but continued declining health. From there, I developed an interest in nutrition, and that would eventually lead me down the path of herbalism, environmental medicine, and nutritional biochemistry… that’s when I found my place in FxMed.

Martina Harms, PA-C, Functional Medicine Health Consultant

As a Physician Assistant practicing Emergency Medicine for over 13 years, I came to a point in my life and career where I frustrated with my own personal health, as well as the health of the patients I was seeing daily.  I was burnt out, my labs were “normal” but I knew this wasn’t the whole picture. I happened to listen to a podcast featuring Dr. Mark Hyman and my life and career were forever changed.

Zac Watkins, Functional Medicine Doctor, Founder of The Livewell Clinic and Platform Health LLC

I’ve always had this inherent belief that “I am what I eat”. I worked many hours in the hospital setting which I valued, yet I would never really see patients improve and recover from conditions that I knew were preventable (i.e. diabetes).

As I went through school, I could see that I really aligned with the practice of functional medicine. In our clinic, we call this ‘root-cause’ medicine.

Cambria DeMarco, ACNP-BC, IFM Practitioner/ Walsh & Bredesen Protocol Certified Practitioner, Functional Medicine Specialists

I was drawn to Functional Medicine out of my desperation to help my son. 

Twenty years ago I was working with the best Pediatrician in California when my son was diagnosed with Autism and a brain tumor. I painfully discovered that neither my esteemed Pediatrician nor all my education from UCLA and Columbia was enough to ensure my son would have a chance at a functioning life. Yes, he had neurosurgery by an exceptional surgeon; but after that, all they could offer was Resperidol and ABA. Surely antipsychotic medication could not be the only answer for a 3 year old. I set out on a path to learn anything and everything that could possibly help my son. I sought out supplement companies that could make good tasting applicable nutrients. I changed his diet, I sued the school district and advocated for the appropriate services and educational setting. I learned and I learned. I sought out education from occupational therapists on sensory integration disorder, and studied through IFM, Dr Walsh and Dr Bredesen. When we found stealth biochemical abnormalities, we addressed them. I am happy to say that 20 years later, my son who was slated to be disabled and terminally high needs, had graduated from College, drives and has a job. He has a chance at a functional life. There is no doubt in my mind that this would not have been on the agenda if it was not for Functional Medicine, and my desire to look elsewhere for answers when the ones they were offering did not seem correct or palatable. 

David M. Brady, Chief Medical Officer, Designs for Health, Inc. & Diagnostic Solutions Lab, LLC

Two reasons: 1) Desperation to help patients with complex chronic disease and medical school doesn’t teach you how, and 2) Seeing a lecture by Jeffrey Bland, PhD almost 30 years ago and finding a new path that resonated with my prior background in nutrition, botanical, and lifestyle medicine approaches.

Christopher LeMay, D.O., CAQSM, IFMCP, Founder of Anywhere Total Health

After working 12 years as an emergency physician, it became clearly evident that we needed to give people a better approach than one-size-fits-all medicine. Both my mother and my wife’s mother passed away in their 50’s from conditions that conventional medicine had nothing to offer. After this, I knew I needed to be part of the change.

Betty Murray, CEO and Founder of Living Well Dallas Functional Medicine Center

I actually came to functional medicine and nutrition as a patient, first. I was in a completely different career. Over my 20s, I started having severe episodes of digestive issues that were later diagnosed as colitis. At that diagnosis, I asked if there was anything I could do to change my diet and lifestyle to help my underlying condition. The doctor told me food had nothing to do with my digestive autoimmune condition and that my choices were harsh medications that would suppress my own immune system.

That answer wasn’t enough for me. I knew in my heart that I could do something myself to improve my health. It really put me on a path of discovery. I went back to school taking nutrition classes, later earning a master’s in human nutrition and certification as a nutritionist over 16 years ago. I started Living Well Dallas in 2006 as the first multi-specialty clinic, armed with the concepts of functional medicine, diet, lifestyle and exercise as the cornerstone of health. I have now gone on to earn two masters and I am currently completing my dissertation for my Ph.D. and have worked with people from all over the globe.

I found a way to take control of my health in my personal journey. Over the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of helping tens of thousands of people turn their health around with functional medicine. The beauty of a functional medicine approach is that functional medicine takes a systems approach, not a silo approach. Our bodies are not individual systems – digestive, cardiovascular, endocrine, etc. These systems are interrelated and operate in synergy with each other. So often what works for one system undoubtedly also leads to health for other systems.

Jennifer Franklin, MD, FAAP, IFMCP, CentreSpringMD

Like many functional medicine practitioners, I discovered the value of these principles through my own health struggles. As a busy mom of three young sons who was struggling with exhaustion, brain fog, skin and digestive issues, my first “a-ha” moment came when I did my first elimination diet after reading the book “It Starts With Food.” I had never learned the true science of nutrition and food to transform health, and I experienced dramatic results after 30 days of eating a whole, unprocessed diet. Furthermore, after practicing for several years as a general pediatrician, I realized that my conventional training (albeit at an excellent medical school and pediatric residency program) had not prepared me to appropriately treat children with complex, chronic conditions beyond prescribing medications. The “name-it, blame-it, and tame-it” approach to treating chronic disease, as Dr. Sid Baker refers to it, does not benefit our patients because it doesn’t investigate the root cause of their disease or imbalance. Functional medicine focuses on treating the whole patient instead of just a diagnosis, and that resonates deeply with me. I experienced first-hand how it can transform one’s life, and I knew I wanted to bring this type of healing to my patients.

Lexi Watson, Functional Medicine Pharmacist, Director of Clinical Programs, River City Pharmacy

I’m a community pharmacist who started out working for a big chain pharmacy. I loved getting to know my patients, but I never saw anyone actually getting better. Their original symptoms may have been under control and their doctors said they were doing good, but they were just taking medications that usually caused more problems. I never saw a patient come off a medication once they were put on one. Ever. It hit me hard that the medications I was dispensing allowed my patients to simply mask the real cause of their problems; the real issues weren’t getting addressed and eventually they’d have to increase a dose or add another medication to keep the symptoms at bay. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to change that, but I started doing some research and stumbled upon some notes I had taken on functional medicine from a shadowing experience as a student. I had jotted down a few things about finding the root cause and providing the body what it needs to heal itself. The best part was that I didn’t have to be a doctor to practice functional medicine since the focus is on optimizing body function and a foundational lifestyle. That was the answer I’d been looking for. Long story short I’ve been studying functional medicine ever since and started my practice a year ago. I’m happy to say I don’t have that feeling that I can’t help my patients anymore and it’s wonderful. Several of my patients have even been able to come off several of their medications!

Elizabeth Markovich, DNP, Integrative Healthcare

I started out as a family nurse practitioner after many years as an RN. After about five years in family medicine I spent a couple of years working with a rheumatologist. In rheumatology it became starkly obvious that we had nothing to offer but suppression of the symptoms. Patients were constantly asking me about very dubious natural cures and yet they did also report quite a bit of success at times. I started trying to educate myself through various books and programs to be in a better position to advise them. Eventually I settled on the Institute For Functional Medicine’s programs as the most science based.

Theresa Fontenot, Owner of Renew Integrated Medical Spa

I was tired of patting my patients on the leg and “saying your lab is fine and there is nothing wrong” They felt horrible and I was not able to give them answers. I just could not see people in 5 minutes and treat them. With the current allopathic model all aspects of health cannot be addressed or treated.

Elizabeth Board, MD, Founder of Atlanta Functional Medicine

I was practicing pain management and found that the techniques and medications I had learned to use were not always successful. In fact, they often lead to unanticipated consequences and were at times harmful. In addition, many debilitating conditions did not have diagnostic names and yet they clearly existed. How was I to categorize and document them and which treatment plan do you choose for a very real destructive process that has no known name? I was further frustrated with the “catch -22” of being mandated to treat pain despite visualizing the oncoming opiate crisis with its deadly consequences. This particularly affected me to the extent that I nearly gave up being a physician. Instead, I was led to acupuncture and functional medicine. After listening to my very first Functional Medicine lecture, I knew this field was a perfect fit for me.

Elena Klimenko, MD, Integrative Medicine Specialist

I grew up in Russia, where three significant experiences put me on the path to being the health practitioner I am today—an American board-certified internist, licensed in medical acupuncture and clinical homeopathy who empowers patients to take charge of their health, using the tools of acupuncture, homeopathy and functional medicine, supported by a deep understanding of both science and the mind-body-spirit connection. 

My father, at the age of 37 was a heavy smoker, often depressed and starting to experience chest pains. But then he discovered The Miracle of Fasting, a book by Paul Bragg, a nutritionist and pioneer in the wellness movement. He quickly realized that smoking and fasting did not go together. I watched in awe as my father’s life and health dramatically changed for the better, as he took charge of his health, quit smoking, changed his diet, and began exercising—all-important lifestyle changes. At age 42, he ran his first marathon.

The second experience began when I was just six years old, when my sister needed a series of medical procedures. I witnessed the importance of surgery in her life and saw how it transformed her. I decided then that I was going to become a surgeon. The third experience was a medical school in Moscow.