What is functional medicine and how can it help with depression?

Have you heard of the term functional medicine but you're not quite sure what it means? This post will give you an introduction to it, and explain why this approach might be so helpful for depression
functional medicine depression

As a friend of mine was saying to me this morning, “healthcare goes through trends but functional medicine is here to stay”. This post explains what functional medicine actually means, and why its approach can be so extremely useful for depression.

What the heck is functional medicine?

To jump straight in, functional medicine is about treating the whole person under the belief that everything is connected.

For example, your mind is affected by different organs in the body and vice versa. And you might have heard about scientists now finding evidence that our gut health, for example, has been linked to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other mental health conditions. 


The focus of a functional medicine approach is always this: To try and find the underlying causes of illness. Instead of suppressing symptoms such as pain, the focus is on what is causing this pain in the first place. What is going on beneath the symptoms?


So might look for hormonal imbalances or problems in your detoxification processes. You might investigate your gastrointestinal health, food sensitivities and allergies, autoimmunity and/or nutritional imbalances. And always keeping in mind that all these systems are connected.

My own symptoms through a functional medicine lens

Take my own health as an example. Back when I was suffering from depression, I was also dealing with very intense hip pain as well as fatigue so bad that I would fall asleep on the sofa at 8.30pm every evening. I just couldn’t keep my eyes open and watching a film was impossible. And yet my sleep was very poor too.


The eczema that used to only show up as a few dry patches on my hands became so terrible that it spread onto my arms, my legs and my face. The itchiness was unbearable and the pain from the resulting scratching made day-to-day living difficult. Every time I’d wash my skin, I’d be getting stressed out knowing that the water and soap was making things worse. And let’s face it, no one wants to have red and dry skin around their eyes, but particularly not as a 21 year old woman…


No doubt that there was bad PMS involved too, but to be perfectly honest with you, I can’t quite remember. My memory of this time – the 2 years of really struggling mentally and physically – is very very patchy. No doubt that you’ll know what this feels like if you’ve ever suffered from major depression yourself.

So there, lots of symptoms: Skin problems, joint pain, fatigue, impaired memory, depression, anxiety, hormonal issues.

Symptoms and systems are connected

It was no coincidence that these symptoms all showed up at the same time. Underlying them all were lots of different factors, but no doubt: Nutritional deficiencies. Blood sugar imbalances. Hormonal imbalances. Inefficient elimination of toxins. Chronic inflammation. Food allergies. Gut health imbalances.


And yet, if you went to the doctor you might go away with separate prescriptions for all these various symptoms. A cream for the eczema. An antidepressant. Perhaps some form of steroid medication for the joint pain. And maybe also the pill.


You might find temporary relief as the symptoms reduce, but all these factors that are causing the symptoms are still very much there. If you don’t fully address the causes of your symptoms, how can you expect to get better?


But just to be clear, I’m not criticising individual doctors here. Rather, the whole convention medical model that only allows 10 minutes max per patient and the focus on symptoms rather than systems.

Functional medicine and depression

So in how far can a functional medicine approach help in the treatment of depression?

Again, rather than treating the depression, you treat the whole person.

What else is going on for you apart from feeling so depressed? What other symptoms are you experiencing? When did they all start? What happened in the year leading up to your most troublesome symptoms?


So with a functional medicine approach, you very much try to investigate the driving factors that have led to you feeling this way. 

You can have two people suffering from major depression, yet the causes for these two people might be very different. 


You move away from a focus on the depression itself, and instead examine all the factors that may have impacted on your symptoms over however many years. 

Functional medicine considers the physical, emotional, social and even spiritual elements that influence someone’s life. 

Functional medicine testing

To give you an example, in my work with clients I make use of certain laboratory tests to help identify root causes.

For a client with gut health issues, I might order a stool test to check digestive function, bacterial balance and things like yeast overgrowth or parasites. 


If I have a client with severe PMS, I’ll order a test called the DUTCH test. It measures your sex hormones, stress hormones, certain vitamin markers and your melatonin. 


I often run a thyroid test to rule out hypothyroidism. Why? Because hypothyroidism can explain symptoms of depression, fatigue and weight gain. 

It really depends on what symptoms you experience. There is no one test that exists for people with depression. It depends on everything else that is going on for you physically and mentally.

A holistic way of healing from depression

In terms of improving your health and wellbeing with this type of approach, it’s clear that you need a holistic and well-rounded approach. 


You would want to deal with anything that the tests have brought up. So that tends to be through therapeutic diet interventions, supplementation, herbal remedies, lifestyle changes and stress management. All these natural interventions of course have their place without tests as well. 


Depending on your health, there might be also be a need for certain medication. Functional medicine practitioners are not miracle workers and you might find that you simply don’t want to or can’t live without certain drugs.


But there is also a place for counselling, psychotherapy, trauma work and other elements that are more about your emotional and perhaps spiritual health. 


I used to only offer one off nutritional therapy consultations but found them to be ineffective. Getting information and advice is one thing is very valuable and important. But actually implementing the advice into sustainable new habits is quite something else. 


Plus, you might have the perfect diet and exercise routine, yet are struggle with difficult thoughts, perfectionism or a lack of meaning in your day-to-day living. Hence why I trained as positive psychology coach as well. 


So really, what you need totally depends on you, on your symptoms and on your own needs and preferences. But it’s got to be well-rounded.

If you are experiencing symptoms affecting your mental and physical health, and my approach resonates with you, then do consider working on your health with me. You can find out more about my one to one programme “Back to Light and Laughter” here


And if you ever just wanted to chat on the phone or email about the possibility of working together, simply get in touch. We can work out whether my work will best suit your needs and goals. 

functional medicine depression

Hello, I'm Claudia

I’m Claudia Smith, a qualified nutritional therapist, functional medicine practitioner and coach specialising in depression. This is where I share my thoughts and advice on natural and holistic approaches to overcoming depression.

Download my free guide: 15 ways to overcome depression naturally