Dr. Frank Lipman is a proponent of functional medicine, an approach that unites properties of Chinese and Western medicine to treat the underlying causes of disease. He uses a wide variety of modalities, including nutrition, acupuncture and physical therapy, to name just a few. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t advocate a single approach to diet, aside from stressing the importance of consuming foods that are as close to nature as possible. Ultimately, he says, it’s about finding the diet that works best for your individual body.
How would you characterize what you do?
I do functional medicine, which is an approach where we look for the cause of the problem instead of just treating the symptoms.
So preventative as opposed to reactionary?
It’s partly preventative, but it’s more than that. It’s actually treating the underlying causes of disease. In Western medicine, you treat the symptom. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a knife wound. This is beyond prevention. But if someone comes with rheumatoid arthritis, if someone comes with irritable bowel syndrome, if someone comes with migraine headaches, the idea is to treat the underlying dysfunction.
What are the limitations of a preventative approach?
Prevention is wonderful. But usually people come to you when they already have a problem.
So in a sense you have to work backwards. You have to conquer the problem and then work to address the condition in a more holistic way.
Exactly. So you’re treating the problem, and then you’re doing some kind of prevention so that the problem doesn’t come back or some other kind of problem doesn’t occur. This is a very important point, because most people think that holistic stuff or functional medicine is only prevention. But it’s a way of treating chronic disease. It’s much healthier approach, whether it’s for diabetes or obesity or autoimmune diseases. These problems aren’t treated very well by Western medicine. They’re treated very well by functional medicine.
How did you arrive at this approach? This seems like it would require many of years of study. It’s integrated, which is unusual.
It’s beyond integrated. Integrated means that you’re just using different modalities, but it’s not a system or a way of thinking. Functional medicine is a philosophy, a way of thinking about the problems that’s a little bit different. I think it is taking integrative medicine a step further. How did I get there? I got very disillusioned with Western medicine early on in my training. I qualified as a doctor in 1979, and I practiced in South Africa and got exposed to alternatives there, and I came to New York in 1984 to do a residency in internal medicine, because that was how I could get a license in New York. Very soon into my residency I was extremely disillusioned with Western medicine, and I started looking for alternatives. There was an acupuncture clinic at Lincoln Hospital where I was, and I discovered acupuncture. During the next three years of my residency I would go there. I saw the strengths of the one system, and I saw the strengths and the weaknesses of the other system. I saw how they both could work together. Western medicine is really wonderful at acute care, when someone is really sick, having a heart attack or needing to have their appendix taken out, but it’s not particularly good at addressing the problems that people particularly have. That’s where I thought Chinese medicine was better. That started me on a journey of nutrition and herbs and acupuncture, and then eventually functional medicine, which is really a mix of Chinese and Western.
Is functional medicine your term, or is a term that’s generally in use in the world?
Functional medicine is in the world. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic just brought on some functional medicine people to start training the physicians there. Functional medicine was started by someone called Jeffrey Bland. He’s the father of functional medicine. It’s a system that more and more doctors are starting to learn. It’s a true mix of Western uses of physiology and the biochemistry of Western medicine, but it also incorporates the philosophy of including function and creating balance that comes from Chinese medicine. It’s a real mixture of the two.
What are the different modalities you use in your own practice?
I always use nutrition. I use supplements. I use acupuncture. I have a physical therapist here, I have a chiropractor that does active release technique, I have a compound pharmacist who works with bioidentical hormones, and I have health coaches who help me with all of my patients.
Are there nutritional guidelines that you suggest to people or that you follow yourself?
Eat as close to nature as possible. The more food is from nature, the better. Within that context, I’m not a fan of gluten or grains in particular.
Why is that?
Because gluten is an altered grain. The wheat of today is very different from the wheat of 50 years ago. It’s not that it’s genetically modified, but it seems to be modified enough that’s it’s causing problems for a lot of people. You don’t have to have celiac disease to be sensitive to wheat. There’s a spectrum, and most people fit in that spectrum. They’re not celiac positive, but they’re sensitive to wheat. They get puffy, they gain weight, they have joint pain. They get digestive problems, they get headaches–they get all sorts of problems. I tend to take most people off gluten. If people have an autoimmune problem, I’ll take them off all grains. Some people have a problem with grains in general. What I will say is that as we get older, we tend to become more intolerant of carbohydrates. We become insulin-resistant. I’ve observed that people tend to do better on a very low carbohydrate diet, one low in grains, low in beans, and low in fruit. But there’s no one right diet for everyone. We’re all biochemically unique. A lot of people do well on a paleo diet. Some people do well on a vegan diet. There’s no one right way to eat. The trick is to find the right way for a particular person to eat.