I get this question quite a lot, along with “how can you help me?” Anyone with functional medicine training is often misunderstood (is it alternative? Pseudo science? Is there research behind it?), so I’d like to clear up some misconceptions and hopefully give you a better understanding of how functional nutrition can help you.
To start, we are not doctors. Functional nutritionists don’t diagnose or treat, and for me personally, I’m not a licensed dietician (another story, another day, but a choice I happily made). What we do instead, is help guide the body to find its natural state of health. Functional nutrition is absolutely science-based, and in fact often uses the most up-to-date research out there. Functional nutritionists also have multiple factors that they are looking at, not just diet. Trust me, we go way beyond counting calories.
Kind of a given obviously, but unlike a registered dietician, I’m not giving meal plans for conditions or diseases. What I may do though, is suggest eliminating inflammatory foods to see how your body responds, or try an elimination diet for a period of time. I don’t count calories and I’m actually not a fan of that. Instead, we look at what works for your body (as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach), figure out what’s wreaking havoc, and go from there.
We also take health conditions and symptoms into consideration. So for instance, if a client is suffering from cognitive decline, I’m going to ensure they’re eating enough protective foods like Brassica vegetables (cabbage and cauliflower) and ‘blue’ foods (blueberries, blackberries). If someone is struggling with a mood disorder, I’m going to make sure they’re eating enough flavonoids (cacao, elderberries). Or, if someone has recently had mercury fillings removed, I’m going to make sure they’re eating foods to support detoxification.
Yes, I do look at lab work, and may even encourage you to go to your PCP for additional labs, or order some functional labs myself. I don’t “read” the lab work though. Let me explain that a bit. I’m going to use a current client as an example. Per my request, she went to her PCP for an annual checkup and had labs drawn. When we spoke after her labs came back, I asked “did you review these with your Dr?” She said “no, they just said everything was fine.” Here’s my concern with that, and where I come in:
Her triglycerides were extremely elevated, and her HDL was very low. That’s already a sign of dysfunction in the body, so we discuss possible causes. Her glucose was elevated…and we noticed that it had been going up by a few points every year. If she continues with this pattern, she’s headed toward insulin resistance and then type 2 diabetes. On top of that, her blood pressure was really high, and we noticed that her sodium was a bit high, and her potassium was really quite low. Potassium is required to keep blood pressure at a good number. So, we discussed foods to help boost potassium, and I encouraged her to check her blood pressure regularly. Notice a pattern? I educate. We spend time discussing the importance of numbers, possibilities, and any dietary changes needed to get those numbers back to optimal. Understanding what’s going on in your body is crucial for maintaining health.
A massive piece of healing comes from lifestyle factors like mental, emotional and spiritual health, and then of course sleep and stress. Unfortunately conventional medicine rarely, if ever, addresses these things. If you’re unhappy with aspects of your life, or are constantly in a fight-or-flight state, then guess what? You won’t feel great. It just doesn’t happen. Same with trauma. If you had a rough childhood, did you know you’re at a much higher likelihood to develop disease later in life? So part of working with a functional nutritionist includes working on all those aspects.
Finally, coaching is usually a key component to what a functional nutritionist does. We don’t just tell you to eliminate gluten, dairy and eggs, and then send you on your merry way. I know just how hard it is to make these changes (hello, former gluten and sugar-aholic over here), and without proper support, the success rate is very, very low. My job is to coach clients through these changes, meet them where they’re at, and support them as much as possible throughout the journey.
Hopefully by now you see that a functional nutritionist does a lot. Really, we do. There are so many pieces to look at when you’re talking health (and it’s usually not a Prozac deficiency…), and a lot of education so that clients understand WHY we want you to make these changes. Unfortunately chronic disease is only on the rise…obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, etc. The good news though, is that ALL of those can be healed with diet and lifestyle changes. It just takes a while, and a lot of work, but it can be done.