- Photos by Anthony Jinson
Functional nutritional therapy helps find all the pieces of the chronic health condition puzzle
Medications 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. Prescription stimulants help people manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
None of these chronic diseases are currently curable. Medications, diet, and lifestyle changes help people manage them. But none of these interventions gets to the root of the problem, which may lead to prolonged suffering. You may want to also consider functional nutritional therapy.
It’s the functional alternative
To understand functional nutritional therapy, you need to begin with an understanding of functional medicine. This discipline was given a name in the early 1990s by biochemist Jeffrey Bland who took a systems biology-based approach to identify and address the root cause of disease.
Whereas traditional medicine involves reviewing symptoms, diagnosing a chronic disease, and treating the symptoms, functional medicine aims to find the underlying cause so it can be addressed. It relies on scientific research in nutrition, genomics, and epigenetics. In other words, it’s at the intersection of what you consume, your genetic makeup, and environmental and behavioral issues that affect how your genes work.
Functional medicine is referred to as a type of alternative medicine. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t rely on science. It employs evidence from research on such issues as the effects of genetic differences in how people absorb and metabolize nutrients, and how an individual’s genes affect the creation of proteins.
In fact, functional medicine is becoming more mainstream as people seek ways to manage chronic disease with less reliance on medications and more focus on a holistic approach. Many physicians in Columbia are recommending that patients explore functional nutritional 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 managing chronic disease:
Functional medicine providers spend time listening to you and gathering your medical history. We use this information to identify the root cause(s) of the illness, including triggers such as poor nutrition, stress, toxins, allergens, genetics, and your microbiome (the bacteria living in and on your body).
Once we identify the 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 premised on the belief that the body has the capacity to heal and regulate itself. And the approach is becoming more popular as means to manage chronic disease and to even prevent it. When used in conjunction with traditional medicine, the results can be amazing.
Everyone’s a puzzle
Medical nutrition therapy is routinely used to manage chronic disease. Take diabetes, for example. There’s a nutrition diagnosis for the patient which dieticians use to educate patients about a diet they should follow to help manage the disease. Dieticians do the same in creating diets designed for weight loss and heart-healthy diets and recommended foods to avoid for those suffering from gastrointestinal disorders.
Functional nutritional therapy, though, digs deep into the way nutrients, toxins, and genetic propensities affect the way an individual’s system functions.
“I am very much about how the person is functioning and what those root causes are from a nutritional standpoint,” says Karri Ball, a certified functional nutritional therapist.
“I’ve been there. Pharmaceuticals work really fast, as far as treating the symptoms,” Karri says. “The hard part is, when you don’t have the symptoms anymore, we tend to think we’re fixed. The problem is that problem is still there brewing because we haven’t treated the root cause.”
Karri says many medications can deplete certain nutrients, especially when they’re taken for a long period. For example, there are nutrient depletions in women who use or used oral contraceptives for years. Functional nutritional therapy aims to identify what’s depleted and find ways to restore them.
“I work with a lot of people who want to eventually get off medications. Many of my clients know those are just treating their symptoms but not the root causes, and some of my clients have never thought of it that way,” Karri says. “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 may be causing their blood pressure to be high in the first place.”
Karri notes there are a lot of things in the foods we consume that are barriers to a healthy functioning body. Take digestive health, for instance. Karri’s journey from a career as a certified public accountant to a functional nutritional therapist began with her own “gut issues,” as she refers to them.
“When we just use pharmaceuticals to treat the symptoms, but we keep putting in the same type of diet, the things that are in our foods can be very, very damaging,” Karri says. “I can tell clients the good things, like the things that will soothe the gastrointestinal tract that can help begin to repair and rebuild what’s inflamed and broken. But if we keep putting in those foods that are actually part of the problem for an individual client – even if it’s categorically recommended for gastrointestinal issues – we’re just going to keep chasing our tail. We have to figure out what things to remove that are causing the problem.”
Nutrient imbalances are common, especially given how most people eat, consuming high amounts of saturated fats, sugars, salt, and processed foods. Plus, there are heavy metals that may be part of the healthy foods you’re consuming, or in the water you’re drinking. Those factors, along with how your body processes nutrients, sugars, and minerals, lifestyle choices, stress, and mental health issues, are all the pieces of the puzzle functional nutritional therapy aims to put together.
There’s more than meets the blood test
Blood analysis is a common method used by physicians to diagnose illness. Once you’ve been diagnosed, blood tests are used to monitor how you’re doing. But the “normal” ranges for such things as liver function, blood sugar, and thyroid function are broad and even differ depending on the lab that analyzes the results. Blood tests are useful in functional nutritional therapy, but therapists take a deeper dive, beginning with spending time to get a full history of a client’s health, family, work, and lifestyle.
“In the functional blood chemistry world, we work with tighter ranges,” Karri says. “Then, we look for correlations to understand the root cause. For example, I work with many people with cholesterol imbalances and one underlying cause for many is in blood sugar imbalances or they are in the stages of insulin resistance.”
Functional medicine also analyzes the patient’s microbiome, those microbes that live inside and outside the body which affect health and disease. In addition, a hair tissue mineral analysis can identify nutrients and heavy metals in the body.
Karri pores over all the numbers, ranges, and information she gleans from these tests to get a picture of what’s happening in a client’s body. She and her client end up with a roadmap that shows the path to addressing the root causes of the client’s issues. Map in hand, they can work together to make changes that should lead to better health.
“I’ve had clients that are nursing moms whose babies have reflux. We figure out what mom has that she passing to the baby to solve the problem,” Karri says. “I’ve had clients with infertility issues who have tried everything except looking at what’s happening nutritionally in the body, clients who suffer from chronic fatigue, kids with behavioral issues, and clients undergoing cancer treatment. How amazing it is when a body gets truly nourished!”
An approach for whatever ails you
In addition to individually customized programs, Karri delivers education 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 kicks off in late January 2023.
Functional medicine is finding success in addressing a wide variety of chronic issues, including adrenal disorders, dementia, arthritis, asthma, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and pre-diabetes, digestive disorders, fibromyalgia, food allergies, polycystic ovary syndrome, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopause, and thyroid disorders. It is even being used in cancer prevention.
Functional nutritional therapy may not cure your chronic condition. But it might provide the missing piece in your health management puzzle. That makes it a useful discussion worth having with your doctor.
The Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine