When I introduce myself to patients as an Integrative Ophthalmologist specializing in Functional Medicine, I often get quizzical looks. The response is usually, “I’ve never heard of that before! What exactly do you do?”
Many of my colleagues who are eye care providers, both ophthalmologists and optometrists, may not fully understand what this type of ophthalmology entails. In fact, just a few years ago, I was not familiar with these terms myself… until I had an epiphany, which I will share with you in a moment.
But first, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain about an integrative and functional medicine approach to eye health. What is integrative medicine? What is functional medicine? How do they differ from conventional medicine?
Conventional medicine refers to traditional Western medicine. In this approach, diseases are compartmentalized to individual organs or organ systems. Disease states are believed to stem from dysfunction within the affected organ(s). Medications or surgery are the primary approaches to treatment. Traditional medicine is based on the scientific method, and clinical trials back most treatment strategies.
Integrative medicine, also known as complementary medicine, includes approaches to health that are typically not part of conventional medical care or may have origins outside of Western practice. In integrative medicine, the body’s organ systems are believed to function together as a whole rather than in isolation. Examples of integrative approaches include Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurvedic Medicine, Naturopathy, and Functional Medicine.
Integrative medicine encompasses the mental, emotional, functional, spiritual, social, and community aspects of health. The goal is a patient-focused, more holistic approach to health care and wellness. An integrative approach may consist of therapeutic diets, natural products (such as botanicals, vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and essential oils) and mind-body techniques (such as massage, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, and relaxation, among many more).
It is important to note that in integrative medicine, these non-traditional methods are used in conjunction with traditional Western methods, not as a substitute for them. When non-traditional methods are used to replace conventional Western medicine, that approach is something different, and is referred to as alternative medicine.
Functional medicine is a subset of integrative medicine and focuses on the root cause of a disease. The fundamental tenet of functional medicine is that our organ systems work together, in concert, in a matrix. Disease develops when this balance is disturbed. The goal of functional medicine is to restore the balance of systems (called “nodes”) within the body to restore health, not just treat a disease or put a Band-Aid on symptoms. Functional medicine is also called a systems biology approach.
Therapeutic approaches in functional medicine are firmly based on biochemistry and nutrition. Like naturopathy, dietary interventions are essential in functional medicine, combined with botanicals, vitamins, minerals, lifestyle modification, and stress management.
So how did I become introduced to Integrative Medicine? It happened a few years back when I was struggling with my own health issues. Unfortunately, the traditional Western medical system failed me, and I had to turn towards other solutions that led me to discover the world of Functional Medicine.
Since my mid-20s, I began suffering from migraines. Initially my symptoms were manageable and occurred only once or twice a year. However, over time, my migraines became more frequent and severe. Eventually they became not only chronic but daily. Imagine being responsible for seeing patients, teaching students and residents, conducting clinical trials, and performing surgeries all with the sensation of a vice around your head or an ice pick stabbing you behind the eye.
I went to multiple headache specialists in my hometown of New York City, and was prescribed numerous prescription medications. Nothing worked, or if it did, I had unbearable side effects such as somnolence or brain fog. I knew I had to find a better way.
One of my colleagues suggested doing an elimination diet. I told him that I had never heard of such a diet but was open to any solution that may help. He then explained to me that therapeutic diets like the elimination diet were the foundation of Functional Medicine. I was intrigued.
I knew that migraine is often associated with food triggers like wine and cheese, but I never considered that other foods choices could be contributing to my headaches. In the meantime, I was subsisting on pizza, ice cream, and diet Cherry Coke. I had never once thought that my poor dietary choices could be contributing to my symptoms. I also never gave mind to my daily caffeine intake of 8-12 caffeinated beverages, the fact that I was sleeping 4-5 hours a night, or the tremendous amount of stress both at work and at home. How could these diet and lifestyle choices possibly be contributing to my agony?
To make a long story short, I decided to take a week-long introductory course in Functional Medicine. That course changed the trajectory of my own health, as well as my career. I felt my eyes were opened (pun intended!) to the possibilities for therapeutic interventions based in nutrition and lifestyle.
I began putting some of the strategies in action for myself, and after seeing the powerful impact these simple changes had in decreasing my migraine severity and frequency, I began using those same principles for my migraine patients. The results were simply incredible!
I will never forget the first patient I treated using a functional medicine approach- Barbara, a 70-year-old woman who had been suffering from migraines for 50 years. Barbara had seen over 10 headache specialist and had been on the entire spectrum of migraine medications, with no improvement in her debilitating condition. Because of her headache pain, she had withdrawn from the world.
Within 3 months of implementing my recommendations – dietary changes, supplements, essential oils, and lifestyle changes – Barbara’s headaches decreased significantly. She went from daily pain reaching 9 out of 10 on the pain scale to only 2 headaches a month that reached 3 out of 10. Barbara was able to leave her house, participate in activities like grocery shopping, and meet her friends again. The improvement in her migraines after 50 years of failed therapies using simple, natural strategies was nothing short of miraculous. Most importantly, Barbara was so grateful that she had her life back!
Since that time, I have been implementing integrative approaches in my practice, both for migraine and eye disease. I employ nutritional and lifestyle strategies for common eye conditions such as dry eye, macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataract, and diabetic retinopathy, as well as for more rare eye conditions, such as optic nerve stroke, hereditary optic neuropathies, and autoimmune conditions that affect vision, such as uveitis and multiple sclerosis. My goal is not just to help my patients protect their vision, but also to help them preserve their quality of life.
Based on my training in functional medicine and my clinical experiences, I am strong believer in the power of nutrition and lifestyle choices for all aspects of our health. I have seen the incredible benefits both in myself and my patients. This is why I have made it my mission to educate both the public, as well as my traditionally trained colleagues in medicine about the power and effectiveness of integrative and functional medicine.