Heading into a new year, we all want to stay as healthy as possible — and some doctors believe that identifying and eliminating the issues that cause disease are critical actions to take, as opposed to treating and reacting to symptoms afterward.
Known as “functional medicine,” this alternative form of health care has drawn mixed reviews over the years.
Some claim it lacks scientific evidence and that the treatments aren’t standardized. Yet some studies — including one by Cleveland Clinic — have found that functional medicine was associated with improvements in health-related quality of life.
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Shilpa P. Saxena, M.D., chief medical officer of Forum Health in Tampa, Florida, shared with Fox News Digital the 10 functional health trends she expects will see growth in 2024.
Melanie Avalon, a health influencer, entrepreneur and biohacker based in Atlanta, Georgia, also weighed in on these emerging trends.
1. Preventative assessments
Identifying the earliest signs of disease or dysfunction, functional medicine doctors believe, is key to managing health imbalances, said Saxena.
“Whether it’s genomics, hormones, microbiome assessments or nutrition-oriented physical examination, better information leads to bigger transformation,” she told Fox News Digital.
Preventative cancer screenings have given at least 12 million more years of life and have saved at least $6.5 trillion in added economic impact, according to a recent study. (iStock)
The conventional medical system typically approaches disease and illness retroactively, often by prescribing drugs for conditions defined by an active barometer — such as medication for diabetes, statins for problematic cholesterol and chemotherapy for late-stage cancer, Avalon agreed.
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“A paradigm shift toward diagnostics, which can establish earlier benchmarks for disease pathways, will be key to the shift from disease management to disease prevention,” she told Fox News Digital.
2. Proactive versus reactive care
Preventative cancer screenings have given Americans at least 12 million more years of life and saved at least $6.5 trillion in added economic impact, according to a recent study published in BMC Health Services Research.
“Savvy patients are figuring out that waiting for an issue to be ‘bad enough’ to warrant a mediocre treatment isn’t a wise strategy for long-term health,” Saxena said.
The “trifecta of data, AI algorithms and a human eye when appropriate transforms what could be an overwhelming pool of information into applicable, personalized action steps,” Avalon said. (iStock)
“More patients are turning to functional and integrative medicine providers who understand that early detection and prevention are smarter, more sustainable strategies for well-being.”
Patients should take an active role in understanding their own risk factors — and take action to mitigate them, said Avalon.
“Savvy patients are figuring out that waiting for an issue to be ‘bad enough’ to warrant a mediocre treatment isn’t a wise strategy for long-term health.”
As an example, “a person with a genetic tendency for Alzheimer’s disease can work with functional and integrative medicine providers, and implement lifestyle and biohacking techniques to reduce the chances of developing cognitive decline,” she said.
3. Wearables and data-driven change
Wearing a wristband, watch or ring that monitors vital health information is becoming mainstream, Saxena said.
“Not long ago, devices like these were targeted at health enthusiasts, but now we will see progressive medical offices asking to synchronize your wearable’s data to guide your care plan and track your response to it along the way,” she predicted.
Wearing a wristband, watch or ring that monitors vital health information is becoming mainstream, one health expert said. (Reuters)
Avalon said she is “thrilled” that today’s wearable devices are providing doctors with a more detailed, comprehensive overview of their patients, “beyond the snapshot of a doctor’s office.”
She added, “These wearables are also excellent for prevention, as they can often identify changes in a person’s biology indicating a path toward illness before the person feels acutely sick, allowing them to rest and potentially fight off illness before it takes over.”
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Heading into 2024, Avalon predicted that wearables may also become pertinent in the pet sphere, allowing cat and dog owners to better identify and tackle illness in their furry loved ones.
4. Smartphone apps
As more people advocate for their own health care, there’s been a proliferation of apps that can track virtually any aspect of wellness, Saxena noted — “anything from your next anticipated period, if you’re in atrial fibrillation, or how many carbs are in the smoothie you’re about to consume,” she said.
“Access to information is pushing the patient into the driver’s seat.”
As more people become interested in advocating for their own health care, a proliferation of apps can track virtually any aspect of their wellness. (CyberGuy.com)
As Avalon pointed out, many apps use artificial intelligence to help users keep track of and interpret their data, whether it’s monitoring bloodwork, tracking carb and fat-burning data or testing blood glucose levels.
“Some apps even provide access to personalized human help within the app,” she said.
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“This trifecta of data, AI algorithms and a human eye when appropriate transforms what could be an overwhelming pool of information into applicable, personalized action steps.”
5. Regenerative medicine
Saxena predicted that in 2024, there will be a growth in, and demand for, regenerative medicine — the practice of enabling the body to “repair, regenerate and restore itself to a state of well-being,” as defined by Mayo Clinic.
“Access to information is pushing the patient into the driver’s seat.”
“With functional medicine, you can choose to take your own stem cells and inject them back into your knee and literally regrow cartilage to experience dramatically less pain and increased function,” Saxena said, as an example.
“Options like these are available for some of the most common degenerative diseases and make procedures like knee replacements with clunky hardware look like antiquated procedures.”
Identifying and eliminating the issues that cause disease will become critical — rather than just treating the symptoms afterward. (iStock)
While there has been some controversy surrounding stem cell treatments, Avalon noted, she said she believes there is “enormous regenerative potential within our very bodies.”
“The advent and evolution of endogenous stem cell-releasing supplements may also provide a pathway to support the healing power of stem cells,” she predicted.
6. IV therapies
Hydration IV bars have grown in popularity in recent years — but beyond one-size-fits-all treatments, Saxena said she foresees greater demand for more tailored IV therapies next year.
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“Functional health care professionals can select from a menu of research-driven innovative therapies that utilize strategic nutrients, ultraviolet light and ozone delivered directly into the bloodstream to reduce inflammation, remove persistent infections, resolve autoimmunity and remove toxins — all carefully prescribed to heal the patient during each stage of their recovery journey,” she told Fox News Digital.
Hydration IV bars have grown in popularity in recent years; the year 2024 may see even greater demand for more tailored IV therapies. (iStock)
While Avalon said she believes IV therapy has a “great potential benefit” in supporting health and combating disease, she recommended that patients “do their homework” and make sure they’re working with a knowledgeable practitioner.
“In particular, are they receiving the nutrients and therapies appropriate for them, in the most effective and cost-sensitive way possible?”
7. Gut health
Gut health has long been recognized as a major factor in overall wellness, as the balance of bacteria within the digestive system impacts everything from the immune system to cardiovascular risk.
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“Old becomes new again as functional medicine leverages ancient healing systems’ evidence alongside modern scientific research,” Saxena predicted.
“Connections between the gut microbiome, immunity and brain performance are opportunities that promise improved protection from some of the most feared consequences of disease and aging.”
Gut health has long been recognized as a major factor in overall wellness, as the balance of bacteria within the digestive system impacts everything from the immune system to cardiovascular risk. (iStock)
“Modern medicine is finally catching up to what ancient wisdom has known for centuries — that health and disease often starts in the gut,” Avalon added.
8. Metabolic dysfunction
Sugar, obesity and insulin resistance will continue to be revealed as the “undiagnosed causes of disease and death for almost every adult in America,” Saxena predicted.
In addition to using traditional medications to keep disease at bay, the doctor said that functional medicine will help patients make the necessary lifestyle choices to “correct the cause and enhance the health of every single cell in the body.”
“Modern medicine is finally catching up to what ancient wisdom has known for centuries — that health and disease often starts in the gut.”
Even simple lifestyle changes can have profound effects on metabolic health, Avalon agreed, “which itself is often the foundation for many subsequent diseases.”
To prevent and potentially reverse metabolic syndrome, Avalon recommended embracing a whole-foods diet, practicing time-restricted eating, getting proper sleep and ensuring daily exercise.
Even simple lifestyle changes can have profound effects on metabolic health, “which itself is often the foundation for many subsequent diseases.” (iStock)
“Better yet, optimizing just one of these areas often leads to a snowball effect, inspiring vitality in the other areas as well,” she told Fox News Digital.
9. Disease-reversing devices
Historically, prescriptions and procedures have been the mainstay of insurance-covered care, Saxena noted.
A myriad of devices can help support optimal physical and mental health and wellness, including red light therapy. (iStock)
“While getting coverage for the latest ‘wonder’ drug may feel like winning the lottery, functional medicine patients will be employing the latest innovations in neurofeedback, pulsed electromagnetic field or vagal nerve stimulation to counteract the effects of everything from post-COVID heart disease to stress-related cognitive decline,” she predicted.
As a biohacker, Avalon relies on a myriad of devices to help support optimal physical and mental health and wellness.
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“I personally use many of these devices — from sound wave therapy, to red and NIR light, to fNIRS neurofeedback — to fight insomnia, reduce my stress levels, combat anxiety and boost physical performance,” she told Fox News Digital.
10. Demand for better health care
In 2024, Saxena said she believes consumers will invest more in their health and demand better care.
In 2024, consumers will invest more in their health and demand better care, predicted one doctor. (iStock)
“They will be more willing to pay out of pocket to receive personalized care, price transparency and the freedom to try the latest therapies and treatments without restriction from insurance companies,” she predicted.
“More consumers will start realizing that receiving proper care will be less expensive in the end than to suffer from the same condition for years without the underlying condition ever being addressed.”
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With the increasing amount of health information accessible to the general population, Avalon said there’s been a growing demand for more personalized care.
“Unless or until we have a medical and insurance system truly based on disease prevention, patients are going to need to continue to pursue access via their wallet to proper comprehensive and individualized health care,” she said.
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Melissa Rudy is health editor and a member of the lifestyle team at Fox News Digital.