When an obese, depressed and lethargic 17-year-old patient came in for help, Dr. Caren Eliezer knew just what to do. After talking with her patient at length and reviewing his medical charts, Dr. Eliezer put together a program that included changes to his lifestyle and diet plus supplements. Following her recommendations not only led this patient to shed nearly 30 pounds but also increased his energy and changed his outlook on life for the better.
“He couldn’t get through lacrosse practice because he became exhausted,” Dr. Eliezer said. “Now, he can play basketball after lacrosse; he feels good and he likes himself. And he just got asked to the prom!”
It’s all thanks to something called functional medicine.
According to the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), functional medicine is “an individualized, patient-centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness. It requires a detailed understanding of each patient’s genetic, biochemical and lifestyle factors, and leverages that data to direct personalized treatment plans that lead to improved patient outcomes.”
Dr. Eliezer firmly believes that practicing functional medicine was her destiny. “My mother is a dietician, so healthy living was drilled into my head since I was little,” she says. “And I’ve always been into exercise.”
Her passion for exercise unwittingly led her to become a physician. In 1996, while training for a bike competition, she swerved to avoid a pedestrian and crashed onto the bike path, landing on her head and shoulder. Her injuries led to four surgical procedures in one long surgery and two years of physical therapy.
It was at that point, based on her experiences during her recovery that she decided to pursue osteopathic medicine. She received her Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine from the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, followed by an internship and residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Massachusetts.
“While my doctors were great, they couldn’t help me beyond giving me medications and referring me to physical therapy,” she says. “I decided I wanted to become the kind of doctor who could partner with the patient through the ups and downs and build an individualized plan, working as a team, to help them get back to feeling great.”
The answer, Dr. Eliezer came to believe, was functional medicine. “I couldn’t believe the difference in approach,” she says. “I was intrigued. I felt like this was the way to go.”
After a decade as a primary care physician, Dr. Eliezer achieved her certification in functional medicine from the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). She joined DMC Primary Care in 2018.
Dr. Eliezer has great empathy when patients who are frustrated by conventional treatment arrive at her office. She has been there herself.
“I know what they are feeling,” she says. “My greatest satisfaction is when patients tell me they feel better, that they sleep better, their energy is increased, and their memory and concentration are back.”
Dr. Eliezer treats patients with a variety of health issues, from migraines, thyroid, food intolerances, depression and anxiety to weight issues, abdominal bloating, heartburn, chronic fatigue and insomnia, among others. Visits usually begin with intake and education as Dr. Eliezer searches for the root cause of the patient’s suffering so that she can treat the underlying issue rather than the symptoms. “I spend a lot of time teaching patients about diet and why sleep is important, for example,” she says.
Recently, a patient came to her suffering from acid reflux for 20 years, as well as severe nausea. Dr. Eliezer worked through a series of dietary options to gain an understanding of what foods were creating his issues. She also prescribed supplements and multivitamins. The patient was ultimately put on what is termed an “elimination diet,” in which 12 common foods such as gluten, dairy, corn, soy, sugar and chocolate are cut out for one month.
“We added in a protein powder to promote gut healing, and both the acid reflux and nausea were gone in one month,” she says.
“The functional medicine approach can help patients lower their medications, if not come off them entirely,” Dr. Eliezer says. “It helps lower cholesterol and insulin levels. I had a patient in her 70s who had a lot of anxiety and stomach issues and was suffering palpitations. With diet and supplements like magnesium and multivitamins, she was able to get rid of the palpitations.”
By digging deep to discover why a patient is having a problem, a permanent solution can be found. “It’s the idea that we all have several sets of chemical imbalances that we may or may not run into,” she says. “It’s figuring out a personalized plan based on the patient’s experiences and genetics to provide them with a road map back to health.”