Functional Nutrition Therapy helps find all the pieces of the puzzle of a chronic health condition
Medicines save lives. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors lower blood pressure by relaxing the arteries and veins. Monoclonal antibodies help control the symptoms of Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, and ulcerative colitis. Prescribed stimulants help people manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
None of these chronic diseases are currently curable. Medicines, diet and lifestyle changes help people manage them. But none of these interventions get to the root of the problem, which can lead to prolonged suffering. You may also consider functional nutrition therapy.
This is the functional alternative
To understand functional nutrition therapy, you must begin by understanding functional medicine. This discipline was given its name in the early 1990s by biochemist Jeffrey Bland, who adopted a systems biology-based approach to identify and address the root cause of disease.
While traditional medicine involves examining symptoms, diagnosing chronic disease, and treating symptoms, functional medicine aims to find the root cause so that it can be addressed. It relies on scientific research in the fields of nutrition, genomics and epigenetics. In other words, it’s the intersection of what you consume, your genetic makeup, and environmental and behavioral issues that affect how your genes work.
Functional medicine is called a type of alternative medicine. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t rely on science. It uses research evidence on issues such as the effects of genetic differences in how people absorb and metabolize nutrients and how an individual’s genes influence protein creation.
In fact, functional medicine is becoming more mainstream as people look for ways to manage chronic illnesses with less reliance on drugs and more focus on a holistic approach. Many doctors in Colombia recommend that patients explore functional nutrition therapy. The renowned Cleveland Clinic pushed the discipline out of the shadows in 2014 when it launched its Center for Functional Medicine to serve patients with an alternative approach to chronic disease management:
Functional medicine providers take the time to listen to you and take your medical history. We use this information to identify the root cause(s) of disease, including triggers such as poor nutrition, stress, toxins, allergens, genetics and your microbiome (the bacteria living in and on your body).
Once we identify your triggers, we can customize a healthy living plan for you. Your plan will address many aspects of your life, from physical needs including nutrition, exercise and sleep, to mental and emotional stressors related to social, work and community life.
Functional medicine is based on the belief that the body has the ability to heal and regulate itself. And the approach is becoming increasingly popular as a means of managing and even preventing chronic disease. When used in combination with traditional medicine, the results can be amazing.
Everyone is a puzzle
Medical nutrition therapy is routinely used to manage chronic diseases. Let’s take diabetes for example. There is a nutritional diagnosis for the patient that nutritionists use to educate patients about the diet they should follow to help manage the disease. Nutritionists do the same when creating diets designed for weight loss and heart-healthy diets and recommend foods to avoid for those who suffer from gastrointestinal disorders.
Functional Nutrition Therapy, however, goes deep into how nutrients, toxins, and genetic predispositions affect the way an individual’s system functions.
“I’m very much about how the person functions and what those root causes are from a nutritional perspective,” says Carrie Ball, a certified functional nutrition therapist.
“I’ve been there. Pharmaceuticals work really fast as far as treating the symptoms,” says Carrie. it’s still brewing because we haven’t treated the root cause.”
Curry says many medications can deplete certain nutrients, especially when taken over a long period of time. For example, there is nutrient depletion in women who use or have used oral contraceptives for years. Functional Nutrition Therapy aims to identify what is depleted and find ways to restore it.
“I work with a lot of people who want to eventually get off their meds. A lot of my clients know that they’re just treating their symptoms, not the root cause, and some of my clients have never thought about it that way,” says Carrie. “For example, they think their blood pressure is fine because their medication is controlling it, but they haven’t considered why they need the medication and what might be causing their blood pressure to be high in the first place.”
Carrie notes that there are many things in the foods we consume that are barriers to healthy body function. Take digestive health for example. Carrie’s journey from a career as a Chartered Accountant to a Functional Nutrition Therapist began with her own “gut issues,” as she calls them.
“When we’re just using medication to treat the symptoms, but we’re still following the same type of diet, the things that are in our foods can be very, very harmful,” says Carey. “I can tell clients the good stuff, like things that will calm the gastrointestinal tract, that can help start to repair and restore what’s inflamed and broken. But if we keep putting in those foods that are actually part of the problem for the individual client—even if it’s strongly recommended for gastrointestinal issues—we’re just going to keep chasing our tails. We need to figure out which things to remove that are causing the problem.
Nutritional imbalances are common, especially given how most people eat, consuming high amounts of saturated fat, sugar, salt, and processed foods. In addition, there are heavy metals that may be part of the healthy foods you eat or in the water you drink. These factors, along with how your body processes nutrients, sugars and minerals, lifestyle choices, stress and mental health issues, are all pieces of the puzzle that functional nutrition therapy aims to put together.
There is more to it than meets the blood test
Blood analysis is a common method used by doctors to diagnose disease. After you are diagnosed, blood tests are used to monitor how you are doing. But the “normal” ranges for such things as liver function, blood sugar, and thyroid function are wide and even vary depending on the lab that analyzes the results. Blood tests are helpful in functional nutrition therapy, but therapists dive deeper by starting by taking the time to get a complete history of the client’s health, family, work, and lifestyle.
“In the world of functional blood chemistry, we work with narrower ranges,” says Carey. “Then we look for correlations to understand the root cause. For example, I work with a lot of people with cholesterol imbalances and one root cause for many of them is blood sugar imbalances or they are in the stages of insulin resistance.
Functional medicine also analyzes a patient’s microbiome, those microbes that live inside and outside the body that influence health and disease. In addition, mineral analysis of hair tissue can identify nutrients and heavy metals in the body.
Carrie examines all the numbers, ranges, and information she gathers from these tests to get an idea of what’s going on in the client’s body. She and her client end up with a road map that shows the way to address the root causes of the client’s problems. With a map in hand, they can work together to make changes that should lead to better health.
“I’ve had clients who are nursing mothers whose babies have reflux. We find out what mom has that she’s passing on to the baby to solve the problem,” says Carrie. “I’ve had clients with infertility problems who have tried everything but looking at what happens to nutrition in the body, clients who suffer from chronic fatigue, children with behavioral problems, and clients undergoing cancer treatment. How amazing it is when a body is truly nourished!”
An approach to whatever ails you
In addition to individually tailored programs, Karri offers educational programs for some area employers and a program for women suffering from fatigue. She also offers a live, virtual five-week functional nutrition education program twice a year. The next one starts at the end of January 2023.
Functional medicine has found success in treating a wide variety of chronic conditions, including adrenal disorders, dementia, arthritis, asthma, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and pre-diabetes, digestive disorders, fibromyalgia, food allergies, polycystic ovary syndrome, PMS (PMS), menopause and thyroid disorders. It is even used to prevent cancer.
Functional nutrition therapy may not cure your chronic illness. But it can provide the missing piece in your health management puzzle. This makes it a useful discussion worth having with your doctor.
Karri Ball Nutritional Therapy
The Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine