Latest Trends Practitioners Discussed at IFM’s Annual Conference


At the beginning of June, functional and integrative medicine practitioners gathered at the Institute of Functional Medicine Annual Conference (AIC) in Orlando, Florida, to discuss some of the most pressing issues in healthcare and the latest innovative treatments and technologies to manage them.

While each presentation generated buzz, practitioners showed particular interest in clinical applications of wearable technology, the dangers of environmental toxins, intermittent thermal stress, and long COVID treatments.

Here we give you a glimpse into the future of functional medicine with a round-up of the top trends discussed at this year's conference. 

1. Preventing Autoimmune Disease Through Limiting Exposure to Environmental Toxins

Ingredients found in everyday products may put your patients at higher risk for autoimmune disease, according to Aly Cohen, MD, FACR, an environmental health expert who practices rheumatology, internal medicine, and integrative medicine in Princeton, New Jersey.

In her presentation at AIC, Cohen stressed the importance of educating patients on the dangers of environmental toxins and how to avoid them.

In addition to air pollution, harmful toxicants commonly found in food, beauty, and cleaning supplies can contribute to several health problems, including autoimmunity. According to Cohen, research suggests rising rates of autoimmune disease correspond to increased chemical exposure.  

“These chemicals are physically in our bodies. We are absorbing them through all different means, and we're not getting rid of them because we're constantly being exposed to them,” said Cohen in an interview after the session. “It's an ongoing blast, and the immune system doesn’t know what to do with it because we haven't evolved fast enough to manage many of these chemicals."

To avoid some of the most common environmental toxins and toxicants, Cohen advises her patients to drink filtered, unbottle water, look for foods that are United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certified, and avoid thermal receipts, canned foods, and plastics marked with a “7”. 

If you suspect a patient’s autoimmune disease was environmentally induced, Cohen said to get their full environmental history by asking questions like,

  • Where is your water from?
  • How old is the house you live in?
  • What is your occupation?
  • What time of cleaning products do you use?

Click here to learn more about avoiding environmental toxins in our Q&A with Cohen.

2. Using Intermittent Heat Stress to Mimic/Enhance Cardiovascular Exercise

In her presentation at AIC, Rhonda Patrick, PhD, a scientist, and health educator, discussed an integrative intervention growing in popularity that involves exposure to intermittent stressors, specifically thermal stress, through saunas and cold exposure.

According to Patrick, intermittent use of saunas mimics aerobic activity. She explained that many physiological responses to heat are similar to physical activity. For instance, they both increase heart rate. Patrick said heat exposure can increase heart rate to 120 beats per minute, as seen with moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.

In addition, a sauna session can increase cardiac output and cause blood to redistribute and go to the skin to help facilitate sweating, explained Patrick. Heat exposure also increases stroke volume and elevates core body temperature. “These are all things that happen when a person is deliberately exposing themselves to heat. But it also happens when a person is doing aerobic exercise,” Patrick said.

To experience these health benefits, Patrick said duration, temperature, and frequency need to be considered. She explained that research indicates that 19 minutes in the sauna at a temperature of 174 degrees Fahrenheit four to seven times a week has the most robust effects. However, Patrick said using the sauna two to three times a week also appears to have postive impacts on health.

Click here to read more about the health benefits of intermittent thermal stress.

3. Predicting Disease Through Deep Data Technology

Future healthcare applications for wearable technology and precision testing were a popular topic of discussion at AIC.

Michael Snyder, PhD, Chair of the Department of Genetics and Director for the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, argued that the combined capabilities of deep data technologies like wearables, DNA sequencing, and mass spectrometry have the potential to transform healthcare.

According to Snyder, deep data technologies and remote monitoring could help doctors detect risk factors for diseases and early signs of illness, providing more opportunities to stop infections from worsening or prevent them altogether with early interventions. 

In his own experience, through data from his smart watch, Snyder diagnosed himself with Lyme disease and COVID-19 before the onset of symptoms. In fact, through heart rate variability data, Snyder’s watch indicated that he had COVID-19 before he tested positive on an antigen test. 

“We can also tell when people are getting long COVID because they tend to have a higher heart rate, and then we can even correlate that to what kind of symptoms people will have with long COVID,” said Snyder.

Synder also discussed the potential of micro-sampling within precision medicine. He said micro-sampling can monitor measurements associated with depression and insulin resistance. And when combined with wearables, scientists can extract far more specific data than previously thought possible.

Click here for more on the healthcare possibilities of wearables and precision testing.

4. Expanding Access to Functional Medicine Through Group Medical Appointments

The concept of shared medical appointments invites awareness to multiple dimensions of a person’s health, putting their health problems into context and encouraging a holistic, well-rounded treatment approach, according to Scarlet Soriano, MD, ABOIM, Executive Director of Duke Health & Well-Being and Director of the Leadership Program in Health and Well-Being at the Duke University Health System in Durham, North Carolina.

In her presentation at AIC, Soriano described the benefits of shared medical appointments as well as their potential to transform healthcare and make integrative medicine more accessible.

There are several different models for shared medical appointments, and they can vary widely, Soriano explained. Typically, she said groups are made up of eight to 15 people who share some degree of attributes, such as a shared medical condition or shared health goal. Meetings can take place in person or over video call, often with two or more facilitators. 

“Shared medical appointments can be woven in so many different ways, and you can have lots of different flavors,” said Soriano.

Shared medical appointments are not a replacement for individual patient-provider consultation; rather, they supplement one-on-one appointments, often weaving multiple disciplines and approaches to healthy lifestyle change and disease management. But, to Soriano, what differentials group medical visits most from traditional care is the focus on strength-based care. 

“It’s about focusing on those strengths and then also this inherent, fundamental value that we have,” said Soriano. “Pairing those two together is this unique way in which shared medical appointments can become very important. And then when you apply an equity lens to that, you are open to a deeper understanding of people's realities, and you can really support change.”

Click here to find out how to incorporate group medical visits into your practice.

5. Dissecting the Biological Plausibility of Long COVID to Create an Effective, Multidisciplinary Treatment Approach

If we can understand the disease patterns of Long COVID, and if those patterns become predictable, then that means they are potentially preventable and treatable, said Katelyn Jetelina, MPH, PhD at the Institute of Functional Medicine Annual International Conference in Orlando, Florida.

The problem is, long COVID is a complex disease to study, explained Jetelina, an epidemiologist, data scientist, and scientific communicator. She said long COVID has become an umbrella term for a constellation of symptoms, making it difficult for scientists to reach a consensus on its general definition. In addition, while countless people, young and old, have reported symptoms of long COVID, the condition's prevalence is still unclear.

To Jetelina, long COVID is a genuine problem with significant consequences. In her presentation, she argued the condition will have profound impacts on patients, doctors, and the healthcare system as a whole.

“We must convince institutions and funders to invest in long COVID clinical research infrastructure because the problem is not going away,” Jetelina urged. “Patients are going to continue to suffer unless we all really take a multidisciplinary approach to long COVID.”

Learn more about treating long COVID here.