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Is Functional Medicine Evidence-Based?

Is Functional Medicine Evidence-Based?

By Dr. Patrick Lovegrove Medically Reviewed by Lindsay Langley, BSN, RN, CHT
Posted Wednesday, June 28th, 2023
Is Functional Medicine Evidence-Based

Personalized healthcare is the focal point of functional medicine, which targets the fundamental factors behind lingering health problems. It involves an analysis of a patient’s medical history, lifestyle, and genetic factors to develop a tailored treatment plan. Evidence-based medicine relies on research studies and clinical trials to guide medical practice. In this article, we explore whether functional medicine is evidence-based.

Evidence-Based Medicine vs. Functional Medicine

In evidence-based medicine, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered the gold standard for establishing the effectiveness of medical interventions.RCTs entail randomly allocating subjects to receive either the intervention or a placebo and then comparing the outcomes between the two groups. This approach helps evaluate the effectiveness of drugs or surgical procedures where the interventions are relatively straightforward.

However, functional medicine interventions are often more complex and individualized, making it challenging to design RCTs that accurately reflect the approach. For example, a functional medicine practitioner may recommend a personalized diet or supplement regimen based on a patient’s unique health profile. Creating an RCT that accurately reflects this intervention is challenging, as the intervention will vary for each patient.

Functional medicine practitioners argue that patient-centered outcomes, such as quality of life, symptom reduction, and patient satisfaction, should be considered alongside RCTs when evaluating the effectiveness of functional medicine interventions. These outcomes are highly valued in functional medicine, as they focus on the patient’s overall well-being rather than just eliminating a specific disease or symptom.

Evidence Supporting Functional Medicine

While functional medicine interventions may be challenging to study using RCTs, growing evidence supports their effectiveness for various health conditions. For example, a 2017 review of functional medicine interventions for type 2 diabetes found that these interventions significantly improved glycemic control, weight loss, and overall quality of life.

Similarly, a 2018 study found that a functional medicine approach to treating depression has improved depressive symptoms compared to standard care. These and other studies suggest that functional medicine interventions may be valuable for addressing chronic health issues, mainly when conventional medical approaches have been ineffective.

Criticisms of Functional Medicine’s Evidence Base

Concerns about lack of standardization and regulation in functional medicine: Unlike conventional medicine, which is highly regulated and standardized, functional medicine is a relatively new and unregulated field. This lack of regulation has raised concerns about the quality and consistency of functional medicine interventions. In addition, critics argue that it is challenging to ensure that functional medicine practitioners provide high-quality, evidence-based care without standardization and regulation.

The challenge of studying complex interventions in functional medicine: As mentioned earlier, functional medicine interventions are often highly individualized and complex. This complexity can make designing rigorous research studies that accurately reflect the interventions challenging. Nevertheless, critics argue that well-designed studies are necessary to establish the effectiveness of functional medicine interventions beyond anecdotal evidence.

Critiques of specific functional medicine interventions lacking scientific support: Although certain treatments have demonstrated potential in clinical trials, others have faced criticism for lacking scientific backing. For example, some functional medicine practitioners promote unproven treatments, such as intravenous vitamin therapy, chelation therapy, and ozone therapy. However, these treatments lack scientific evidence to support their effectiveness and may pose health risks.

Despite these criticisms, functional medicine continues to gain popularity as a complementary and alternative approach to conventional medicine. Functional medicine practitioners have helped many patients experience noticeable improvements in their health. However, it’s important to remember that functional medicine can be helpful. It should not be used for urgent or dangerous conditions.

The Future of Functional Medicine

Research As functional medicine continues to gain popularity. There is a growing need for rigorous research to establish its effectiveness and safety. The challenge of studying complex, personalized interventions in functional medicine requires innovative research designs that can accurately reflect the approach.

One potential solution is using “N-of-1” trials, which involve studying individual patients rather than large groups of participants. N-of-1 trials are particularly well-suited to evaluating personalized interventions and may help establish functional medicine approaches’ effectiveness.

Another solution is to develop standardized protocols for functional medicine interventions. It allows for more consistent and accurate evaluation of the approach’s effectiveness. Standardized protocols also help establish the safety and efficacy of specific functional medicine interventions, such as dietary changes or supplement regimens.

One reason for the effectiveness of functional medicine may be the use of advanced testing and personalized interventions. Functional medicine practitioners use various tests, such as blood and saliva tests, to assess a patient’s unique health profile. This approach can help identify underlying imbalances and deficiencies contributing to health issues. Then, based on the test results, functional medicine practitioners develop personalized interventions. These are dietary changes, nutritional supplements, and lifestyle modifications to address these imbalances.


To sum up, although functional medicine’s evidence base may not depend exclusively on RCTs, an increasing body of evidence backs the efficacy of functional medicine interventions. It helps in addressing various chronic health problems. Functional medicine focuses on patient-centered outcomes. Being personalized interventions makes it a valuable tool for addressing the underlying causes of chronic health issues. While ongoing research is needed to evaluate functional medicine’s effectiveness, this approach can be essential in evidence-based medicine.

About the author

Dr. Patrick Lovegrove