2265 North Clybourn Avenue    Chicago, IL 60614    P: 773.296.6700     F: 773.296.1131

Functional Medicine 101 + Introducing Dr. Alaina Gemelas

Functional Medicine is without a doubt the fastest growing medical specialty of the 21st century. Public interest in it and public acceptance of it continues to please me. Every day I hear the sentence, “I made this appointment because I wanted a functional approach.” When I ask patients how they learned about it, the answer is a variation on “Dr. Google.”

We’ve been practicing functional medicine at WholeHealth Chicago for decades and many of our practitioners regularly attend professional meetings to learn the latest advances. While some mainstream MDs and DOs do use functional medicine tests and treatments, their numbers are small. The vast majority of conventional physicians are pretty clueless about it.

Thus I’m truly delighted that Alaina Gemelas, DC, a specialist in functional medicine, joins WholeHealth Chicago this week. Because Dr. Gemelas (the G is soft, like “gem,” her nickname) is a chiropractic physician who has chosen to concentrate on functional medicine, this seems like an ideal time for a quick review of how exactly functional medicine (FM) works.

Functional medicine, the basics
The FM model is a patient-centered, science-based approach that at its core is a collaboration between patient and practitioner to address the underlying causes of dysfunction and promote wellness.

FM practitioners focus on root causes rather than symptoms. They understand that dysfunction may have a variety of causes and that, as a result, FM treatment must be targeted to the individual, not the dysfunction.

Because FM tests can be ordered by any health care professional and treatment usually involves lifestyle changes and nutritional supplements rather than Big Pharma, functional tests are widely employed by chiropractors, naturopaths, nutritional counselors. Most FM practitioners are happy to remind you that correctly taken prescription medications, the fourth leading cause of death in the US, and are rarely needed when FM tests show abnormalities.

Let me make four important points about FM.

1–When you go to a doctor with symptoms, the odds are in your favor that the cause of those symptoms is dysfunction rather than an actual disease.
Functional symptoms are your body’s response to the situation in which you’ve placed it. The burning sensation in your chest that awakens you from sleep is not a heart attack or cancer of the esophagus, but rather the lasagna-chianti you were semi-consciously devouring while watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Your afternoon fatigue crash is likely not the first sign of serious illness, but rather a signal from your exhausted adrenal glands that there’s too much stress in your life.

Two major factors distinguish functional from disease-based symptoms:

  • Functional symptoms come and go, depending on your situation (diet, stress level, time of month). Disease-based symptoms start at a fairly recognizable point and get worse, often quickly.
  • With functional symptoms, common diagnostic tests return negative results. With disease-based symptoms, test results are positive and can help determine your diagnosis.

When you go to a conventional physician, it’s for reassurance that your symptoms aren’t being caused by disease. She’ll run some basic blood tests and if no disease is seen she’ll give you a prescription, mainly to relieve the symptoms. If there’s no disease, there’s virtually no inquiry to why your symptoms are occurring.

2–When you go to an FM physician, you’ll discover her goal is to uncover the “why” of your symptoms. To accomplish this, she’ll generally order a group of tests that determine how efficiently your body is functioning.

For example, let’s say you have a symptom like bloating. A conventional doc orders a couple of tests unrelated to digestion, like a blood count and cholesterol level, says everything looks fine, and tells you to take Prilosec.

An FM doc will suggest running tests such as these that specifically evaluate all aspects of how you digest and absorb food.

Other examples of common FM tests:

  • A man with an afternoon exhaustion crash but otherwise normal tests receives an Adrenal Stress kit. He collects saliva throughout a 12-hour day that will be tested for levels of the stress hormones cortisol and DHEA.
  • A generally healthy patient with concerns about a family history of heart disease or diabetes may receive a SpectraCell CardioMetabolic Profile, a package that summarizes the specifics of why she and her family may be at risk and, more importantly, what can be done in the way of prevention.
  • A patient who knows she’s not functioning at 100% but has been told by her doctors “We know you’re tired/overweight/depressed/achy but we can’t find anything wrong with you” may be advised to have an Individual Optimal Nutritional Panel, in which 150 metabolic reactions going on inside her body are analyzed to look for nutrient deficiencies that need to be resolved in order to get her body running smoothly again.
  • The patient who feels “toxic” or who suffers from multiple chemical and environmental sensitivities (and has been told there’s nothing wrong) may actually learn how her genetic make-up interferes with her body’s detoxification capacities with this test. Click through to read the really interesting information about potential food-based solutions.

These tests, which have been around for years, are unavailable at most medical centers like Northwestern or Rush. This is because physicians there are mostly unaware of them and the medical centers own their own labs and regard FM labs as competition. (Sadly, it’s always about the money.)

3–Interestingly, there’s nothing unusual about the individual tests in the profiles listed above. What an FM specialist knows is how the combination of tests can reveal the way in which a physiologic system (digestive, endocrine gland, detoxification, etc.) is functioning.

Quick example: A woman who knows her hormones are out of whack gets no benefit from a blood test that measures her hormones on the day of her appointment. Nor will receiving a prescription for birth control pills actually solve anything. But with an FM practitioner, she’ll receive a kit containing plastic vials and instructions to collect saliva specimens every three days for a month. Later, she’ll review with her doctor an entire single menstrual cycle. Click the link to see what her results might look like.

4—FM doctors at WholeHealth Chicago (Drs. Gemelis, Scott, Kelley, and myself) and clinical nutritionists Marla Feingold and Seanna Tully live and breathe FM.

As an internist, FM, which I started doing decades ago, completely changed my perspective on managing and resolving symptoms and preventing illness. Fortunately for us all, FM is part of the curriculum at all chiropractic and naturopathic colleges. Medical schools remain entrenched in the mid-20th century with two toolboxes: the prescription pad and the operating room.

Be well,
David Edelberg,  MD

PS:  Patients routinely ask if FM tests are covered by their health insurance. The answer is generally yes but never 100%. Depending on your policy, on average you’ll pay about 20% to 30% of a test’s cost. You’ll send a check or credit card number with your specimen and that will be your total cost. You won’t be responsible for anything your insurance company won’t cover. The term for this is “no billing of unpaid balance.”

Leave a Comment

  1. Mariann Chase says:

    How do I get in touch to make an appt.

    • Dr. R says:

      Mariann. Please call our Center at 773-296-6700. Our patient services staff will be happy to help you schedule an appointment with Dr. Gemelas or any of our practitioners. Thanks.

  2. C. LaPorta says:

    Is there any treatment for TRD…treatment resistant depression (drugs do NOTHING) other than the:

    Deep Brain Stimulation
    Vagus Nerve Implant

    All sound tooo invasive, son has refused treatment as such, need help fast. Thank you.

  3. C. LaPorta says:

    My comment is to ask for help for family member with deep depression, treatment resistant. See above. Thank you.

  4. Dr E says:

    Hi C. LaPorta
    Actually, for deep depression that is resistant to medication, probably the most effective treatment that works very quickly is ECT. If the depression is as deep as your comment seems to imply, your son should reconsider this–provided a good medical center experienced withECT is available.
    If he is adamantly against it,the Fisher-Wallace stimulator might help and insurance often covers it

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, delicious and time-saving recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!


Health Tips

Dr. Edelberg’s Health Tips contain concise bits of advice, medical news, nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical updates, and stress relief ideas. With every Health Tip, you’ll also receive an easy, delicious, and healthful recipe.

When you sign up to receive Health Tips, you can look forward to Dr. Edelberg’s smart and very current observations arriving in your in-box weekly. They’re packed with helpful information and are often slightly irreverent. One of the most common responses to the tips is “I wish my doctor talked to me like this!”

Quick Connect

Get One Click Access to our


The Knowledge Base

Patient education is an integral part of our practice. Here you will find a comprehensive collection of staff articles, descriptions of therapies and nutritional supplements, information addressing your health concerns, and the latest research on nutritional supplements and alternative therapies.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

Upcoming Workshops

**Winter Solstice Celebration: An evening of Acupuncture and Shamanic Healing
Tuesday, December 17, 5:45–7:30pm
Hosted by Katie Oberlin, HTCP and Mari Stecker, LAc

Course Fee: $75.00

Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season to enter the stillpoint of the Winter Solstice, reflect on the lessons of 2019, and set intentions for the new year. This will be an evening of individual and group healing, ceremony, and celebration. More →

Recent Health Tips

  • Infertility Issues? Start With The Guy

    I’ve lost track of the number of couples we treat at WholeHealth Chicago who are involved in one of the hormone injection/surgical procedure stops on the conveyor belt of infertility centers. Currently, it’s estimated that 15 to 20 percent of couples are struggling with infertility, half of them due to male factors. The infertility docs are nice enough and certainly well-meaning, but I note a Read More

  • Issues with Endocrinologists: Thyroid Approaches and Big Pharma

    My beefs with endocrinologists pretty much center on how they manage thyroid gland concerns, though they rarely win prizes for managing adrenal issues either. I don’t know any endocrinologists personally and rarely refer my patients to them. Occasionally, a patient with newly diagnosed hypothyroidism (low thyroid) will want to confirm the diagnosis with an endocrinologist. I suggest she prepare for a scolding if she’s taking Read More

  • Six Beefs With Rheumatologists

    If you find yourself in the waiting room of a rheumatologist, you’re likely there because your joints hurt and have been hurting, often for years. You’ve been getting by on aspirin or Advil for the pain, but with things worsening your primary care doctor suggests you should see a joint specialist, a rheumatologist. And because there’s a shortage of physicians in this specialty, your appointment Read More

Join our Discount Program!

Member benefits include 10% off all your purchases. Low, one-time membership fee of $25 ($35 for family).