With rates of type 2 diabetes and thyroid problems skyrocketing, numerous Americans are seeking out health care practitioners who specialize in treating disorders of the endocrine system. Your endocrine system, which includes glands such as your thyroid, adrenals, pituitary gland, and others, produces hormones that influence growth, metabolism, reproduction and sexual development.
Diabetes and thyroid disorders are two of the most prevalent diseases of the endocrine system. The former, diabetes, occurs when your pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or your body is not able to use the insulin that is produced effectively, leading to problems with converting blood sugar into energy properly. The latter, thyroid diseases, can include hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and others, and can influence numerous body processes leading to weight gain, fatigue, emotional problems, trouble tolerating cold temperatures and more.
Upon diagnosis, many with these conditions are referred to an endocrinologist, but you should be aware that a functional endocrinologist is an option, too — and may offer you a holistic approach to treatment that you haven’t yet considered.
Allopathic Endocrinology Vs. Functional Endocrinology
Primary care physicians often refer patients to an endocrinologist if they have a problem with their endocrine system. As The Endocrine Society states, “Endocrinologists are trained to diagnose and treat hormone imbalances and problems by helping to restore the normal balance of hormones in your system.” 
However, most endocrinologists are allopathic doctors, who are trained to recognize signs and symptoms of disease. They then typically prescribe drugs or surgery to treat those disease symptoms. There are two very important problems with this medical model:
- It typically does not treat the underlying cause of the symptoms.
- It often does not help people to prevent disease, only treat symptoms after disease is already present.
The practice of Functional Endocrinology, on the other hand, may help people to remain disease-free by recognizing early warning signs and addressing the root cause of disease using lifestyle changes. For instance, while your lab tests may appear normal according to an allopathic physician, there are always “optimal” ranges within the normal range. If your results are at the far ends of “normal” it’s often a sign that your body is out of balance and may be on its way to a disease state.
A doctor skilled in functional endocrinology will recognize this and help you make changes to your lifestyle to bring your system back into balance, with the ultimate goal being disease prevention rather than treatment.
So What Exactly is Functional Endocrinology?
Take a minute and imagine your total health as an iceberg. The symptoms or diseases you’re currently feeling? Those make up the tip of the iceberg. Hovering below the water, and making up the iceberg’s gigantic base, are the underlying causes of those symptoms or diseases, things like chemical exposures, negative emotions, hormonal imbalances, and much more.
Conventional endocrinologists may only address the tip of the iceberg. Functional endocrinologists address the rest.
To put it simply, Functional Endocrinology is a specialized branch of functional medicine, which is a broad term used to describe this proactive, patient-centered wellness care system. As the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) states: 
“Functional medicine is personalized medicine that deals with primary prevention and underlying causes instead of symptoms for serious chronic disease.”
This system of wellness care operates on the principle that every person is an individual, therefore “one-size-fits-all” treatments like synthetic hormones and drugs are often may not be appropriate. It also acknowledges the science showing that how well the human body functions is equal to the sum of all of its parts. In other words, your endocrine system does not operate in a bubble; it is influenced by, and exerts its own influence on, all the other systems in your body. Your level of health is determined by the whole of your body’s interconnected systems, rather than on one individual system functioning autonomously.
Therefore, a health care provider that addresses only your endocrine system, as some conventional endocrinologists may do, is ignoring the rest of the network in which this system functions, and therefore will have a difficult time helping your body restore wellness and balance at its foundational levels.
For example, a conventional endocrinologist would likely use thyroid hormones to solve an underactive thyroid, which is only addressing the manifestation (not enough thyroid hormones) of the real underlying disorder or imbalance. But although the synthetic hormones may patch up the problem, they will do nothing to address the root cause of the lack of hormones being produced.
This is where Functional Endocrinology comes in. A doctor practicing functional endocrinology will ask why function has been lost in your thyroid gland, and determine what can be done to restore function. This is not a Band-Aid or patch-job as prescribing synthetic hormones essentially is. Rather, this system seeks to uncover the underlying imbalances that are causing your disease condition, whether thyroid-related, diabetes or otherwise, and then address them using diet, exercise, nutrients, and other natural, restorative modalities, while also removing any habits or substances (such as toxic chemical exposures, etc.) that are impeding your healing.
A Focus on Disease Prevention
One of the aspects that makes Functional Endocrinology so beneficial is that it helps to identify the subtle warning signs that your body has underlying systemic imbalances often before disease strikes. This allows you to make changes now and avoid getting sick in the first place.
But even if you already have a condition such as diabetes or hypothyroidism, Functional Endocrinology will help you uncover and address the unique root cause of your condition so you can recover naturally and fully. This is what patient-centered, individualized wellness care like functional endocrinology is all about.
As Sir William Osler, one of the founding professors at Johns Hopkins Hospital who is often referred to as the “father of medicine” and a “functional medicine pioneer,” said: 
“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”
1. The Endocrine Society, “What is an Endocrinologist?”
2. The Institute for Functional Medicine, “What is Functional Medicine?”
3. MedGenMed. 2007; 9(1): 59.