Functional medicine offers another approach to treating psychiatric illness


The shortage of psychiatrists, other mental health clinicians, and primary care physicians who treat patients with mental illness is a profound problem in the United States and around the world. What would happen to those trends if psychiatrists incorporated a functional medicine approach to treating patients?

Dr. Gaitour, a physiatrist, trained at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. She is a functional medicine practitioner.

Dr. Larisa Gaitour

In functional medicine, we look for underlying causes, physiological damage that results from those causes, clinical body system imbalances, and ultimately, symptoms that patients are experiencing. By addressing the root causes of chronic problems, treating physiological damage, and creating balance in body systems, psychiatrists and other physicians can help our patients achieve optimal health.

For example, a functional medicine approach to treating a child with ADHD might focus on encouraging behavioral changes such as improving sleep hygiene,1 increasing hydration,2 changing nutrition, or prescribing adjunctive meditation rather than medication alone. A functional medicine approach to Alzheimer’s prevention, for example, could include “prescribing” an increase in the amount of regular physical exercise.3 In other words, functional medicine uses a different lens to prevent, arrest, and in some cases, reverse certain diseases.

Medicine has long recognized the links between inflammation and chronic illness. Autoimmune conditions, asthma, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, peripheral neuropathy, thyroid problems, joint pain, and cancer all are chronic inflammatory diseases. Because inflammation affects the brain, it has been theorized and is being investigated that psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, panic attacks, dementia, and autism might result.4,5,6,7

Besides the brain, the GI tract is the only organ system that has its own nervous system, which is called the enteric nervous system, or ENS. The ENS functions independently from the central nervous system, and transmits important messages to and from the brain. When one feels stressed, the brain communicates to the hormonal system and floods the body with stress hormones, such as cortisol, which by themselves, can cause increased intestinal permeability. In addition, the gut produces its own neurotransmitters that affect the brain. In fact, every class of neurotransmitter found in the brain also is found in the GI tract. For example, serotonin is an important neurotransmitter for feeling happy and optimistic. Ninety-five percent of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut. It is produced from 5-HTP, which is derived from tryptophan. However, in the presence of inflammation in the body, tryptophan is converted into kynurenate and quinolate. Both cause fatigue, and quinolate causes neurotoxicity. The subsequent depletion of serotonin produces symptoms of depression. Problems in the gut can lead to problems in the brain and the whole body.

Other problems affecting patients are tied to toxins in the environment. The air we breathe, food we eat, water we drink, and clothing we wear all are sources of toxins. Toxins include biotoxins, dioxine, phthalates, PCBs, and heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, aluminum. About 2,000 new chemicals have been introduced into our environment each year since the 1940s, and it is estimated that we are exposed to more than 80,000 chemicals on a regular basis.8

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about the environment, has estimated that average babies are born with 287 chemicals in their body, 217 of which are neurotoxins.9 As children grow up, their body accumulates more toxins. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every American has hundreds of neurotoxins in their bodies right now.

As we become more aware of the many changes in our environment, functional medicine brings a new way of thinking about and looking at chronic disease. As physicians, we can continue treating symptoms, and we should. But we can look deeper and ask ourselves what has changed in our lives that has caused such a decline in human mental and physical health. Your training as psychiatrists makes you uniquely positioned to understand these connections. I urge psychiatrists to help lead the way.

Dr. Gaitour, a physiatrist, trained at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. She is a functional medicine practitioner.


1. Peppers KH et al. J Pediatr Health Care. 2016 Nov-Dec;30(6):e43-8.

2. Martin EB and PG Hammerness. ADHD, stimulant medication, and dehydration. 2014 Aug.

3. Guitar NA et al. Ageing Res Rev. 2018 Nov;47:159-67.

4. Mørch RH et al. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2017 Oct;136(4):400-8.

5. Dooley LN et al. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2018 Nov;94:219-37.

6. Yang L et al. Brain Behav Immun. 2016 Aug;56:352-62.

7. Doenyas C. Neuroscience. 2018 Mar 15;374:271-86.

8. PBS News Hour. 2016 Jun 22.

9. Houlihan J. Environmental Working Group. 2005 Jul 14.

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