Episode 026: What is Functional Nutrition?

Using Functional Nutrition to Address IBS

In Episode 025, you heard how my client Kristen used Functional Nutrition to address Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which probably left you wondering, “What is Functional Nutrition?”

In this episode, I explain:

  • What is Functional Nutrition

  • The gap that exists between a Functional Medicine Doctor and Patient

  • How a Functional Medicine Doctor, Patient, and Functional Nutrition expert can work together in a therapeutic partnership

  • Why standardized boxed systems, like diets, protocols or even pharmaceuticals don’t always work

  • The 3 Tiers of the Functional Nutrition Framework is and why it’s so effective

If you’ve ever wondered what a health coach does, or what a Functional Health Coach does, this episode will clarify how one can help you!


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Last week you heard my awesome client Kristen share how taking a Functional Nutrition approach helped her to not only address her IBS, but also help her go through a complete change in her relationship with food.

I went through a pretty similar experience myself.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was doing a lot of long-distance running to train for marathons, I was doing strength training twice a week with a personal trainer and tried to fit in swimming and yoga when I could. I had also cut out gluten and dairy from my diet.

On the surface, I appeared to be in good health, but behind the scenes, like Kristen, I had severe IBS, could not get a decent night’s sleep for the life of me and was gaining weight, despite “eating healthy”, “burning more calories than I ate” and all the typical things you’re told to do to lose weight.

What you also didn’t see was:

The Immodium I was taking before every long run so I wouldn’t poop my pants, The bland diet I ate for months of just rice, plainly baked chicken breast and steamed broccoli to try and contain my digestive problems The Ibuprofen I was popping like candy for the chronic aches and pains my body suffered from The birth control pills I was on to control my cystic acne Or the Lunesta, Ambien, Nyquil, and Benadryl I was taking in my desperate attempts to sleep. And by the way, I wasn’t sick or had any other reason to take Nyquil or Benadryl - other than I was really, really desperate to sleep.

And guess what - all of these things didn’t work.

Why? Because none of these things addressed the reason, my body had manifested these things.

Sure, they managed the acute symptoms, but the underlying reason - the root cause (or in my case causes) - of what was causing these things to happen.

And it’s so vitally important to pause, take a step back and ask yourself, “Why is this happening?”

Like Kristen said in Episode 025, she knew taking a pill wasn’t the answer, nor is it the way to live, and she wanted to understand why her body was experiencing these awful symptoms because she knew that a healthy human body isn’t supposed to function this way.

It was the same for me. When I saw my general practitioner about my health concerns, her response was, “Well some people are just this way.” And I knew it wasn’t the answer. And I knew there had to be another way.

Coming from a family with many who battle high blood pressure, diabetes, as well as other ailments, I didn’t want to become someone who had to depend on drugs for the rest of my life. Maybe it was because when I was a kid, I used to watch my grandfather inject himself with insulin every day. He had to rotate between his left thigh and his right thigh and his left arm and his right arm….

I also watched my Grandma Jean track her daily medications on her calendar.

And even doing all those things, they still didn’t feel well.

But it wasn’t until five years ago, I was complaining to my friend, Belina, about my IBS and she told me another this “different” kind of doctor, who ran all sorts of tests and could tell you what foods aren’t good for your specific body….

I mean, I had never heard of something like this, and I was floored! You mean, someone could tell me, what precisely was good for my body and what wasn’t?! I had to see this kind of doctor!

She said it was a “Functional Medicine Doctor” so I googled one for my zip code and that’s how I found Dr. Melissa, who I interviewed in Episode 002!

So if you aren’t familiar with functional medicine, its a whole-istic approach to health. And by whole-istic, I mean, w-h-o-l-e-istic, which means they look at your entire body, and your well-being and see what’s working and what’s not, and how those factors may be influencing each other.

In conventional medicine, you have your general practitioner, who will then refer you to a specialist - an orthopedic doctor for sports injuries, a gastroenterologist for digestive issues, rheumatologist, endocrinologist, dermatologist, - all of these doctors who specialize in one area of the body, but no one is really looking to see how all of these things, as a whole, are operating, or connecting the dots of what the body is saying. And we all know how complicated the US healthcare system is, and just trying to get all of these doctors to talk to each other can be an added layer of stress that we don’t need.

So in functional medicine, the question is not “WHAT,” but WHY? Why are these things happening?

  • Why did I have IBS?
  • Why did I have cystic acne well into my 30’s?
  • Why was I injury-prone?
  • Why is my thyroid not functioning correctly?
  • Why do I have SIBO?
  • Why have I not been a good sleeper my entire life?

Do you see where I’m getting at? Instead of just accepting my diagnosis and then resigning myself to having to take pharmaceuticals for the rest of my life, I asked,

“Why did these things happen?” Are they related to other things I’m experiencing? What can I do about it?

Because as much as conventional medicine silo’s the body into different parts, the truth is, the body works together as one system.

Now it may sound like I’m bashing conventional medicine, but I’m not. I’m very much a believer in conventional medicine, especially for acute conditions where someone needs immediate medical attention.

But the approach for chronic health issues could be better. And this is where functional medicine comes in.

But, there’s also a gap in the functional medicine world. A gap between the functional medicine doctor or practitioner, and the patient.

And I experienced this gap.

When Dr. Melissa told me to start every morning with some apple cider vinegar, lemon and pinch of cayenne pepper. I was like, “okay, but why?”

When she recommended I stop eating grains, I grudgingly complied - but why?

And I’ve seen it time and time again. Even though in functional and integrative medicine, you typically have 45-minutes to 1 full hour with your doctor (sometimes unheard of in conventional medicine), that still isn’t enough time for education.

And education is where the magic, the real change, really happens.

As a society, we are clueless about the basic functions of the human body. I know I was - and I considered myself health-conscious at the time!

I had no idea what my adrenals were; I wasn’t sure what my thyroid did, heck I didn’t even realize that where I thought was stomach was, was actually where my small intestines were.

And that’s where Functional Nutrition comes in.

Functional Nutrition is a modality that works not just to support, but to educate the client or patient in what’s going on with her body and how uniquely targeted diet and lifestyle modifications will shift the terrain of their health, and ultimately, help them to meet their goals.

I graduated from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, the nutrition school where I got my health coaching certification. And its one of the few schools where most health coaches come from. But if I'm honest, it was a little too basic for me.

I had already worked with a functional medicine doctor for three years before graduating, and I felt like much of what I learned there, I already knew. I wanted to go deeper into the trenches, and that’s when I found the Functional Nutrition Alliance, and that’s where I really understood what Functional Nutrition was, what is functional, and what isn’t, and how to practice within the Functional Nutrition Framework. And this is what we’ll be discussing today.

So the core principles of Functional Medicine are:

  • To have a therapeutic relationship between the practitioner and patient
  • To work with systems and frameworks - not set protocols because we are all unique and not all protocols will apply to everyone
  • And to always aim to address the root causes as opposed to just chasing signs and symptoms or “treating” a diagnosis

But Functional Nutrition is a little different Functional Medicine.

In Functional Nutrition, we do not diagnose, prescribe or treat.

Instead, our goals are to:

  • understand the whole person - not just their diagnosis, but how it’s impacting their life - physically, emotionally, mentally, practicality
  • address the environment or the situations in which the person’s signs, symptoms or diagnosis manifested
  • educate the person on why their health challenges appeared and how they to take back control of their health
  • and to build a bridge to fill the GAP that almost always exists between the doctor and their patient. And this gap is focused on education and communication.

For example, doctors, even functional medicine doctors, have their own lingo and my job is to help my clients understand what that lingo is, in layman’s terms, and how it applies to them.

Because when there is a communication or education gap, it’s much harder for the patient to comply with what the recommended treatment is for them.

In short, it’s a big barrier to their healing process.

Shortly after I started working with Dr. Melissa, she would always have these little nuggets to boost my immune system. And I did them, but I was always confused about why she was telling me to do that thing because I wasn’t there for immune problems, I was seeing her for digestive issues.

What I didn’t understand was that upwards of 70% of the immune system lives in the digestive system, so the two systems are intricately connected!

This is the kind of education gap that we, in Functional Nutrition aims to fill. Functional Medicine Doctors are technically trained to see the whole person, the interactions in the different systems of the body, and they value the role of diet and lifestyle modifications in treatment plans. They have been trained to see the big picture.

Yet, even Functional Medicine Doctors cannot possibly tend to every detail of the patient’s treatment plan. And they shouldn’t be expected to, because their time should be spent on doing the big picture work.

And in all honesty, some may not have the skillset to determine their patient’s relationship to things like habit change, the real understanding of the impact of their daily choices on their body, the sociological or economic factors that may prevent a patient from complying with a treatment plan, or even how to pivot when a plan doesn’t go as expected.

Now, the job of the patient is to manage their symptoms, navigate the recommended lifestyle changes and ultimately, create new habits.

Simple, but as we all know, not easy.

And that’s where I come in, as a Functional Nutrition Health Coach - to build the bridge - not be the bridge but build the bridge between the doctor and patient, so both achieve the goals they have for that patient.

And if you head over to the show notes, I have a diagram that illustrates this that comes courtesy of the Functional Nutrition Alliance.

So the team that we have, the doctor, patient, and Functional Nutrition expert is a team that has a therapeutic partnership. One is not better, or more in charge than the other - we all work together as a team, respecting what each person brings to the table.

And this is an entirely different approach than anything I’ve ever experienced in the conventional healthcare system.

Look people are getting sicker and sicker. Its a reality of our society. There are more autoimmune cases than ever before; more diabetics, more chronic diseases.

And that’s what makes this approach to healthcare so vital. Because working in a therapeutic partnership educates the patient, and when someone is taught, they are more likely to comply.

How many of you know someone who has a chronic illness? Maybe I should ask, “how many of you DON’T know someone who does?” That might be more of the anomaly.

And how many of you know someone who maybe has diabetes but still eats a poor diet, even though they know that it's not good for them. I would guess that that person likely doesn’t have a basic understanding of how the food choices that they make impact their body, physiologically. Or how some of the other symptoms they may be feeling that aren’t typically tied to diabetes, are actually in fact directly related to it. If this person were educated about this, do you think they’d be more inclined to make healthier choices? Or how about, how to make the healthier choice?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with people who say they can’t eat healthy because they don’t want to eat bird food. I’m like, “What’s bird food?” Do you think I’m starving over here?

Eating healthy isn’t eating sparse bird or rabbit food. And that’s a huge gap that we fill in Functional Nutrition - teaching people what is healthy food and what isn’t, because let’s face it, we’ve been lied to by the food industry for decades.

When we help fill the gaps, the patients can then know how to make the connections between the foods that they’re eating, and the foods that they’re limiting or avoiding and how those choices cause digestive distress, hormone imbalances, brain fog, poor sleep and more.

They can understand why their body is reactive and sensitive to different things that they eat, that they do and what they’re exposed to.

So to sum things up, Functional Nutrition

  • Uncovers answers
  • Takes initiative
  • And even in some instances can end up being the leader of the healthcare team

In turn, the doctors get the support that they need, and the patients get the support that they need too!

So how do we do this?

Well, the techniques in Functional Nutrition go beyond coaching. It’s not just about dietary theory. Instead, and I’m quoting Andrea Nakayama, my Functional Nutrition teacher directly here:

“It’s a nuanced way of thinking, rooted in a comprehension of what it means to be human—to have a history and a culture and a body. All of it!”

And this is where the Functional Nutrition Framework comes in.

Like I mentioned earlier, there are not protocols in Functional Nutrition because standardized boxed systems, like diets, protocols or even pharmaceuticals don’t always work because they don’t take into account each person’s individuality.

And, many individuals, myself included, have conditions that multifactorial, meaning: we have conditions that are triggered by a number of factors or root causes, not just one.

So what is the Functional Nutrition Framework? It has three parts or tiers to it.

Now, it’s super popular and sexy to head straight to lab tests and supplements. I mean that’s what everyone wants, right? Especially when we have so many things that seem like aren’t going well.

But in Functional Nutrition, those things are addressed down the road, in Tier 3.

Because the truth of the matter is that most people aren’t taking care of the basic things they should be doing for their health - the non-negotiables.

And this is where we start in Tier 1 with backing it up.

Backing it up is where we remove the barriers to healing by “clearing the muddy waters.”

And this is where we start by removing the most common inflammatory foods of refined sugar, dairy, and gluten, as well as any other things that we find the patient is reacting to that, are unique to them.

Now for those of you who are familiar with the 21-Day Sugar Detox, you may be thinking, “isn't that what the 21DSD is?” Yes, it is, which is why I think the 21-Day Sugar Detox is a fantastic place for someone to start their journey, and its the first place I recommend most of my clients start with if they haven’t already!

Now, Tier 1 is also where we address any habits and routines that may need some work, like sleep, which is something we also talk about in the 21-Day Sugar Detox.

Then we have Tier 2, which can be done concurrently, or at the same time, as Tier 1.

And in Tier 2 is where we address any deficiencies that are going on, whether that be nutritional deficiencies - are you getting enough B vitamins, or vitamin D or magnesium?

This is also where we do a lot of gut healing practices, bringing in pre and probiotic foods, bone broth, and all the other things we do, not just from a diet, but lifestyle and self-care perspective to support gut healing.

And for most people, Tier 1 and Tier 2 are what they need to start feeling better again. Why? Because they are things that they simply haven’t been doing.

They haven’t been eating nutrient-dense meals, or making sleep a priority, or identifying food sensitivities and removing the offending foods.

But then there are those people, like me, and like Kristen, who have been so diligent about doing everything asked in Tiers 1 and 2 and not all of their complaints are resolved.

And this is where we move into Tier 3, what we can “dismantling the dysfunction.”

This is where, if a functional or integrative medicine doctor isn’t already a part of the therapeutic partnership, we bring them in.

And this is where we look to the fancy labs, and the supplements to see what else may be going on in there.

And unfortunately, this is where most of us with multifactorial cases end up, and this is where we in Functional Nutrition seek to build the bridge.

And this my friends, in a nutshell, what Functional Nutrition is, what the Functional Nutrition Framework is, and the kind of work that I do. This is precisely the approach that Kristen and I took, and if you haven’t listened to hear interview yet, go back to Episode 025 and hear how it worked for her.

I know there’s a lot of curiosity or confusion in exactly what a health coach does.

And to be honest, there are so many different things a health coach can do. Like some doctors have their specialties, attorneys who specialize in different types of laws, teachers who teach specific subjects, the same applies to health coaches - we all have our own gifts that we bring to the table.

But Functional Nutrition is unique, it’s an approach that I believe requires its own training to develop the skillset of what it means to truly be functional - and it’s the kind of work that I love to do because as a Questioner if you’re familiar with Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies,

I am a Questioner, so I always want to know WHY and taking a functional approach is asking not WHAT, but WHY. Maybe this is why I’m so drawn to Functional Nutrition.

It’s where food meets physiology, and that’s where my story stems from. When I learned basic human anatomy and how the body functions, knowing those science-based principles, changed everything for me in how my diet and lifestyle choices had a direct impact on what happens on my insides - and that’s what made it so much easier to comply with my treatment plans.

So now that you know what Functional Nutrition is, in next week’s episode, I’m going to present my multifactorial health issues as a case study to introduce the different tools that we use in the Functional Nutrition Framework.

I’m opening the doors to let you in on the nitty-gritty details on everything going on in my health - which is kinda scary, but I think is definitely something that many will be able to relate to.

So until then, have a great week, and I’ll talk to you next time!

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Naomi Nakamura is a certified Holistic Health Coach who takes a holistic approach through functional nutrition. Through her weekly show, The Live FAB Live Podcast, coaching programs, and safer skincare solutions, she helps people with acne and other chronic skin issues clear up their skin by teaching them where food meets physiology and how food, gut health, stress, and toxins are intricately connected to the health and appearance of our skin. Naomi resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and can often be found romping around the city with her puppy girl, Coco Pop! Connect with Naomi at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest.