About 5-Element Functional Medicine
My name is Chris Axelrad. A native Houstonian and Texan, I was born into a family steeped in medical tradition.
My late father and late uncle were both MDs, and my living uncle, my brother, and my brother-in-law are all MDs as well.
Needless to say, being the first-born in my family, there were high hopes for me to carry on this tradition. However, at a young age, I gravitated towards more creative pursuits and, much to my family’s dismay (and despite graduating #1 in my high school class and having offers to attend schools like Stanford, UCLA, and a couple of those ivy league schools everyone’s heard of), I enrolled as Jazz Performance major at the University of North Texas.
It was during that time I was introduced to new ideas, specifically in the areas of yoga, meditation, naturopathic medicine, and other “unconventional” things that had never crossed my path growing up.
I was instantly hooked and fascinated and – even at that point in my life with my goals of becoming a professional full-time musician – I began to realize where my true passion lived.
Indeed, medicine is in my blood.
After quitting college (it took me 2 years to figure out how useless a music degree would be for me), I played professionally for a few years while working side jobs in various industries.
It was in 1994, when my friend offered me a job in his web development company (yep, 1994, right at the beginning of the internet boom), that my path into the healing arts started to accelerate.
Never having spent much time writing code in my life, I was suddenly in a situation where I had the opportunity to learn from people with experience in this area.
2 years after that initial job, I had gained enough skill and experience to land a position as a contract web developer at Enron Corp (yep… THAT Enron Corp – don’t worry it all turned out ok as you’ll find out later), where I continued to hone my skill and earn a darned good living while doing it.
It was in 1999, 2 years after starting my Enron gig and 5 years into my software developer career, that it finally became apparent to me that I could no longer deny my true calling.
I had quit Enron that spring (again, much to the dismay of my loved ones because, at the time, Enron was considered one of the great corporations in the “New Economy”) to work for a small but growing software startup, Mission Critical Software, here in Houston, TX.
Working at this new company afforded me the opportunity to flex my schedule, which gave me the time to invest in my education in the healing arts.
I serendipitously discovered there was a local college where I could earn a degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine which, by then, I’d become fascinated with via my DIY studies in all things holistic medicine from Naturopathic Medicine to Qigong & Neigong to Mind-Body NLP processes and just about anything else I could get my hands on to read about.
I enrolled as a non-degree seeking student, taking Intro to Chinese Medicine and Intro to Herbal Medicine as my two “trial” courses.
Within the first 5 minutes of my first class, I knew I was “home”. The language and focus of the medicine resonated with me, and I decided to enroll as a degree-seeking student to set my foundation in holistic medicine on the right cornerstone.
So, the foundation of my training began and, 4 years later, in 2003, I graduated with my Master of Science in Oriental Medicine degree.
In February 2004, I opened my first clinic, renting a single room in a friend’s meditation center for $200 a month.
Despite knowing virtually nothing about owning or running a business, and having a full-time job which I could not quit at the time (you know, family obligations, mortgage, stuff like that), my initial growth was steady and solid.
Out of the gate, I wanted to focus on cancer support. A dear family member had been diagnosed when I was in school and had, thankfully, successfully overcome the initial diagnosis (to this day they are still alive so I’m going to say they’ve likely gone into full remission).
I found it tough going getting buy-in from doctors and patients alike – at least in my experience. The understandable fear when faced with a deadly disease can make it difficult for patients to commit. On top of that (at the time, at least) doctors would literally tell their patients NOT to take the herbal medicines and supplements I was offering, and even sometimes tell them not to even do the acupuncture.
So… I knew I had to course-correct and start looking at a new specialty.
I remembered back in school, the ONE class that really stood out for me above all the others was Gynecology. At the time, I wasn’t sure why that was other than I knew my mother had suffered tremendously from endometriosis as a young woman, even being told she would never bear children (which obviously proved to be a highly inaccurate prognosis lol).
But, as I learned more about the endocrine underpinnings of the field of gynecology and women’s health, I just kind of got “pulled into it” and by 2006 I had decided to focus on them as my specialty in the field.
And, almost like clockwork, with that decision came my first few fertility referrals.
Two years after that I reached a point where the hours and energy required to do both my software gig and grow my practice had become unsustainable.
So, in 2008, I gave notice at my 6-figure, super-cushy software developer “day job” and made the leap into full-time practice – taking a 60% pay cut in the process. But, I was SO ready to make the leap.
My first two years after quitting my job included some serious struggles – especially as the 2008 financial crisis took hold – including a near-miss with bankruptcy and a vicious learning curve on being a boss and really “owning” my business (I’m sure some of y’all reading this can relate).
Yet, the patients kept us (as in myself and my little team) going. In spite of all the difficulty, they made it all worth it.
I’m proud and blessed to say that, as of 2020, my pride and joy, The Axelrad Clinic, employs 4 clinicians (including myself) and 4 amazing support staff across 4 physical offices in the Houston area where we typically see 200+ patient visits per week.
We even just had our third-ever 6-figure month in Sept 2020 – in the middle of a pandemic, no less. Pretty wild.
It’s been quite a journey that has now brought me here, writing this letter to you to let you know some of the conclusions I’ve reached thus far as I fast approach 20 years in practice.
It has been a journey with many ups and downs, but along the way I’ve made some interesting discoveries that have completely transformed and massively expanded my practice — in terms of how many patients seek us out on a daily basis, how we are able to capably and compassionately care for all those patients, and the results we get with those patients.
It is my sincere hope and desire that the ideas embodied in what I’m calling “5 Element Functional Medicine” (or 5EFM for short) provide helpful insights for you.
How this whole “5EFM” thing came about
Around the year 2007, after practicing pretty much “by the book” Traditional Chinese Medicine for 3 years, I studied the model of Functional Endocrinology as taught by Datis Kharrazian.
It resonated with me so much, I took the full course twice. Both times I took it I was fortunate enough to be in the room where he personally taught us.
It revolutionized the way I practice.
Initially, I was fascinated by the deep levels of biochemical mappings that his model represented. And, I did apply myself to that mode of thinking in a fairly rigorous way.
At the same time, I held fast to the profound wisdom of Chinese Medicine because, well, I never lost my awe and respect for the depth of understanding it contains.
Yet, I wanted to experiment with medical tests and labs. Something about that felt “legit” to me and I thought it would potentially convey a more “legit” vibe to the patients as well.
The tests were interesting at first and it was fun to be able to recommend them to patients. However, it didn’t take long, at least for me, for the novelty to wear off.
I quickly discovered a few key things that slowly, but surely, steered me away from the routine use of medical tests in my clinic. Not that we NEVER use them. We do. We just don’t rely on them as a primary diagnostic data source.
Thing is, my process was kind of backwards for the purposes of using medical tests to begin with. I would do my normal intake process with the patient first, asking questions, combing through their medical history via simple conversation, feeling the pulse and observing the tongue (two things which I no longer do, BTW) – just as I’d been taught to do in TCM college.
After that process I would determine which tests I thought would be useful and we would proceed with them. They might be saliva tests or food allergy tests or standard blood tests or stool tests. In any case, the patient would commence with getting those results for me while we began our treatment process based on what I had already surmised up to that point.
As test results started coming back, I increasingly found them to be simply a confirmation of what I’d already been thinking. There was rarely a case where a test result was in significant opposition to the treatment plan we’d already embarked upon.
Not only that, but by the time the test results were in, patients were frequently already reporting significant improvements across the board in the signs and symptoms we were tracking as our “guideposts” towards improvements that would lead to the ultimate results we were looking for.
As a consequence the tests became less and less important in my practice until they found their (in my opinion, rightful) place where they live today – playing a supportive role vs the starring role that is so common in both Functional Medicine and Naturopathic medicine today.
The fire, however, had definitely been lit and the door opened for me to begin exploring new ways of thinking about my patients, myself, and my practice against the backdrop of four main ingredients that were now rooted in my consciousness:
- The Traditional Chinese Medicine I had formally learned in college.
- The Transformational Psychology elements I had picked up from both my readings over 15+ years and that were solidified during – interestingly enough – my Medical Qigong training with one of the world’s foremost Western experts on the subject, Dr. Jerry Allan Johnson.
- The Functional Endocrinology training that had opened the door back into biomedicine and had started to fuel a whole new, exciting, nascent perspective which was already having profound impacts on my practice.
- Neuro-Linguistic Programming which I’d been fascinated with in my early 20’s and which I’d already started using in the practice without even realizing it. Once it hit me I was innately on that track, I started being more intentional about it and weaving it into my treatment plans and patient interactions.
Breaking free and exploring new horizons
At some point I made a conscious decision to untether myself from the academic, and begin developing my own, unique, personal style by allowing these four key ingredients to mix and coalesce in a completely intuitive and organic way, into whatever they were to become once mixed together and molded into a unified whole.
As that creative process unfolded, I received continual validation that I was on the right track in the form of ever increasing patient buy-in, compliance, referrals and, of course, results.
One of my fundamental guiding principles in clinic is that, once I enter the treatment room and the door is closed, I am entering into a sacred space — an “alchemical cauldron” — where my entire job is to be a facilitator and guide helping my patients to navigate the changes required for them to achieve the healing they desire.
Facilitating change in a living, intelligent, self-determined organism requires active, conscious participation by both facilitator and subject. Although in most cases patients simply do not have the level of awareness required to understand the depth of change they are experiencing, nevertheless, on some level the patient must consent to allowing change to occur within the domain of their own bodymind space.
Whether it is a simple adjustment in diet, a shift in attitude, more consistent sleep habits, or regularly swallowing specifically chosen herbs or supplements, the goal is to open the door for the inherent healing wisdom of nature to do its work within the patient, and with as little impedance as possible.
And while the exquisite subtlety of these changes are often dismissed or missed entirely by most… When we understand how to wield them with skill and precision, their effects can be undeniably profound.
The insertion of tiny needles into points on the body, as an example, seems virtually inert from our human vantage point. But from the inside view, from within the cells and tissues of the living organism to which it the needles are applied, it is anything but. Very specific signals are immediately elicited on both chemical and electrical levels which instantaneously diffuse throughout the entire organism. This method, used skillfully and with precision is, in my opinion, an incredibly direct way to facilitate immediate change where the patient is, in essence, playing a mostly passive role.
What we do, no matter the therapies we choose to employ, is to open the door for change. In 5-Element Functional Medicine we do not impose our idea of what that change “should” look like and, by doing so, attempt to impose our will upon the transformative process of another.
All deep, lasting healing happens spontaneously, when the conditions are right. We want to believe we have significant influence over this process, but in reality all the healing is happens at the direction of the innate “epigenetic” intelligence guiding that healing process.
When we introduce an herb, a supplement, a lifestyle suggestion, an acupuncture treatment, the only reason it works is because that healing intelligence accepted it, recognized it, understood it, and then skillfully used it to regenerate and replenish what was once damaged in order to make it whole again.
5 Element Functional Medicine is ALL about understanding the already-present thought process and intention of that healing intelligence, and how to interpret the signals it continually sends us about where it needs help and how to provide that help — then getting out of the way.
I’ve found this way of thinking to be extremely liberating for me in clinic. No longer do I feel a sense of overwhelm even when facing what appear to be cases of very complicated, difficult, chronic illness. I feel a sense of trust and openness to my intuitive process, and I am grounded in my role with and relationships to my patients.
This is because using this process I now call 5-Element Functional Medicine, I am more able to understand what that healing intelligence is saying, where it wants to go, and the simple things I can do to give it what it needs to get there.
And, when I give that profound and powerful force a little push in the right direction, it never fails to move things in the right direction for the patient. Ever.
So, in 5 Element Functional Medicine, we embrace the Spirit as much as the Cell. And, we understand that nature and the cosmos embody a level of wisdom and intelligence far beyond what our intellectual mind is able to fathom. We learn to trust nature’s process, flow with it, facilitate it, and embrace it.
And, in so doing, we help our patients reawaken to the incredible healing force they themselves embody.
This requires an intense focus on what is presenting to you in the moment… You must enter that “alchemical cauldron” of the consultation/treatment room with a sense of wonder and a mind open to new ideas. But, most importantly… YOU MUST ACTUALLY CARE about the person you wish to help.
Spirit, or Shen, is critical to the healing process. Not just critical… Absolutely fundamental. I guarantee you that almost every single person who comes to your office has been crawling through a desert looking for the oasis of soothing waters that only genuine caring can provide. They have been seen mostly as the numbers on lab tests (which is what so many doctors focus on) instead of as a living, breathing embodiment of the awe-inspiring, intelligent life force that created the Universe.
When you, as Spirit, FIRST AND FOREMOST reach out to your patient, as Spirit, you create possibilities for healing to take place on unfathomable levels. It is no longer about result, manipulation, and numbers. It is about setting the stage for healing to occur — healing that will be fully directed not by you, but by the natural wisdom embodied in your patient.
By beginning from true caring, the door opens for Spirit, which guides all material phenomenon, to come to the surface, to emerge, to awaken. This is not something that can be fully explained in words. It is something beyond words.
So, in conclusion, I want to make sure you understand that 5 Element Functional Medicine does not negate Spirit and its fundamental role in healing. Yes, we discuss many chemicals, tissues, and organs. But, these are merely “templates” for modeling nature’s cyclical processes and healing wisdom into a form we can understand and work with.
Therefore, as you read and watch and learn from what I am sharing, NEVER FORGET that all of this is worthless without Heart, without Spirit… without LIFE.
Wishing you ever expanding levels of joy, purpose, and impact in your practice and in your life,
Chris Axelrad, M.S.O.M., L.Ac.