What Is Functional Nutrition Anyway?

Functional Nutrition is absolutely my number one jam when it comes to supporting people to feel their best and to actually seeing results. Why? Well, let’s explore a few fundamental components of Functional Medicine Nutrition, aka Functional Nutrition, to help explain.

Generally speaking, Functional Nutrition focuses on using food and lifestyle to help restore optimal function to the body at a grassroots level. It does not matter what stage of health or disease someone is at, food and lifestyle can be used to help shift the terrain towards health and away from what is driving dysfunction. We focus on not only preventing future disease and symptoms but also ensuring the body has what it needs to function its best today. We spend time with people, understanding who they are. Functional Nutrition is all about being curious about your unique body and Functional Nutritionists are a lot like detectives.

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As a Board Certified Holistic Nutritionist, I can say Functional Nutrition is similar to holistic nutrition in many ways but stands out because of the structured methodology, tracking, assessing, and mapping out of each unique person. We have a clear system to help support people with complicated issues and general health goals alike.

Having my doctorate in Natural Medicine I can say it is similar to this approach as well but stands out to me because it feels more complimentary to other health modalities, working within its scope of practice, not in opposition to other practitioners. Functional Nutritionists work on teams with physicians, physical therapists, massage therapists, chiropractors, midwives, acupuncturists, teachers, naturopaths, counselors and more.

Being a certified family herbalist, of course I love using herbs but Functional Nutrition again is different in its approach in that it is not about taking X for Y but instead about going for the roots that drive disease and symptoms, using herbs as a tool to help shift the terrain.

Functional Nutrition is about the science of how each person uniquely interacts with the world. We don’t adhere to one particular diet or health fad but instead we look at what each unique person needs at this unique time, to restore balance and function. There is a partnership between client and practitioner and a large focus on empowering people to know their own body and understand what it is saying and asking for.

Here are 5 core concepts of Functional Nutrition (As developed and taught by the brilliant Andrea Nakayama at The Functional Nutrition Alliance or FxNA)

1. Functional Nutrition relies on the understanding that everyone is unique, everything in the body is connected, and everything we do impacts our health.

  • Everyone is unique– We each have our own genetic makeup, we have our own history, we were all birthed differently, fed differently, we have different microbes in our gut, timeline, health histories, different emotions, stressors, trauma, and triggers. In Functional Nutrition we map out each unique person, not only a diagnosis, symptom, or lab, but a holistic view of what makes each person unique. We take this information into consideration and focus on personalized nutrition and lifestyle plans.
  • Everything is connected– All of our body systems are connected and interact; our brain, our hormones, energy, immune system, gut, mental health, adrenals, and detox capabilities. Who we are, what we do, and how they each function impacts them all and they cannot be divided up without considering this interconnectedness. We map this out on a matrix and track it over time for each person. It is exciting to see multiple areas improve when you address the whole person.
  • Everything we do matters– What we eat clearly has a direct impact on health and how our body functions, but so does our mindset, how we process stress, if we are/have been exposed to toxins, how we move our body, how connected we are with others or a purpose, how we relax, how we breath, how we sleep, and more. These things all have a direct effect on our internal biochemistry. Everything we do impacts our health. We track this and continuously reassess efforts to support unique health goals.

2. In Functional Nutrition we are constantly addressing the root causes of symptoms and disease.

Symptoms are branches on a tree. The roots that drive symptoms and disease include Chronic Inflammation, Gut Imbalances, and Genetics. In Functional nutrition we target the roots and the terrain that health or disease take root in. We are constantly asking WHY (root cause) symptoms occur more often than WHAT (diagnosis).

  • Inflammation- Inflammation is an important immune response in the body that we rely on for healing and repairing tissues. The problem is when inflammation becomes chronic and does not turn off and results in tissue damage. We now know that Chronic inflammation is one of the major driving causes of all chronic disease. Going ‘upstream’ and addressing what is causing inflammation impacts many ‘downstream’ symptoms. Causes of chronic inflammation include blood sugar imbalance, eating foods you are sensitive or allergic to, toxic exposure, silent infections, high sugar foods or processed foods, a microbiome imbalance, emotional stress, leaky gut, nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances, and more. Calming chronic inflammation helps shifts the terrain in the body towards health and is one of the major roots to address in all health goals.
  • Gut Health– The health of the gut impacts all systems of the body and is another upstream cause of downstream symptoms and disease. Our gut is the intersection between the outside world and our internal terrain. We need our digestive system functioning from top to bottom in order to break down our foods properly so we can get the nutrients we need to function, to avoid chronic immune activation from a leaky gut, to ensure our microbes in our important gut microbiome are balanced so many systems can function properly including hormone balance, mental health, immune function, vitamin synthesis, for toxins to exit our body timely, and for so many more reasons. Addressing gut health is an important step in optimizing overall health and resilience.
  • Genetics- Our genetics have a large influence over our susceptibility and tendency to disease or health. Some things we are born with but we also now know that our food and environment influence our genetic expression, this is called epi-genetics. Being mindful of what genes we are turning up or down is an empowering way to take control of health.

3. Functional Nutrition relies on a Three Tiered approach when it comes to making recommendations-

All symptoms and disease exist in an environment. This work is meant to shift the environment towards health, setting the stage for healing and repair. This is where we go ‘upstream’ to address ‘downstream’ issues. Symptoms are downstream to bigger upstream imbalances. We do not give random suggestions but instead have a very well thought out approach that gets results.

  • Clear the muddy waters- First it works best to do some basic clean up work and set the stage for health to take root. This means strategically removing triggering foods and lifestyle practices that may be causing excessive inflammation, gut dysfunction, stress, or other damage and imbalance that is driving the problem. This looks different for everyone. We look at food, stress, sleep, hydration, blood sugar, movement, poop, toxins, joy and more. This initial cleanup work serves to clear and calm the body enough for most people to see big improvements with how they feel and function and for the body to do some necessary repair work.
  • Deficiency to sufficiency– The body needs specific nutrients and factors to function. Replacing any deficiencies in the body, such as specific nutrients (macro/micro/phyto), digestive enzymes, other digestive secretions, healthy microbes, antioxidants, whatever key substances the body needs to function and do its job is an important and often overlooked step.
  • Dismantle the dysfunction– After the first 2 tiers are addressed and the groundwork is set by removing triggers and replacing deficiencies, if still necessary, deeper digging, investigating, and possibly partnering with other professionals to repair tissues and restore function might be needed.

4. In Functional Nutrition there are 3 core basics that need to be addressed when working with any symptom or disease.

Optimizing transit time, aka poop, ensuring someone is getting enough quality sleep, and regulating blood sugar are three vital steps to address when considering any health issue. As Andrea says “don’t pass go until these important basics are functioning”. No matter what fancy protocol or herb you are taking, if these three are off it will be hard to reach your health goals. Why? These three things are like a cars ‘check engine’ light that comes on when there is an internal problem.

  • Poop– Our bowel movements are a big indicator of gut function and overall health. When transit time, poop color, shape, etc are off it tells us something is wrong somewhere upstream that needs to be addressed. Having irregular bowel movements can also cause downstream problems anywhere in the body. So it is both an indicator of a bigger problem and a driver of other problems.
  • Sleep– We heal and repair when we sleep. If we are not sleeping it can be indicative of hormone imbalances but also prevents our body from healing and repairing. So sleep, like poop, is a critical indicator of health and driver of more dysfunction.
  • Blood SugarBlood sugar swings impact everyone (not just diabetics) and impacts our hormones, energy, mood, sleep, stress levels, immune system, mental health, and more. Beyond causing problems on its own, it is challenging to heal when our blood sugar is swinging up and down impacting so many body systems. Optimizing this overflows to every other body system including gut health, inflammation, stress, metabolism, and more.

5. In Functional Nutrition we are all about empowering people to understand their own unique body and their own unique physiology. We form a partnership with clients.

Teaching people the tools to know what their own body is saying is key and is an important part of functional nutrition. We work in partnerships with people who want to take an active role in improving their health. We help you connect the dots between food and lifestyle and your symptoms and how you feel. We want you to be your own expert and advocate for yourself.

Functional Nutritionists work with people struggling with cancer, immune issues, eating disorders, mental health challenges, autoimmune disease, hormone imbalances, gut issues, energy issues, skin problems, kids, women, men, athletes, pregnant mamas and anyone looking to use food and lifestyle to help rebalance and function their best. We recognize that there is a spectrum of health, not just diseased or healthy, and we help people move the dial towards personal goals and optimal wellness.

Pretty awesome, huh?

Janel Ferrin Anderson is a Board Certified Holistic Nutritionist, a Certified Functional Nutrition and Lifestyle Practitioner, A certified BioIndividual Nutrition Consultant, a certified Yoga Therapist, and has her doctorate in Natural Medicine. Janel obsesses over why things work the way they do and supports people to discover what is true for their unique body. She has a Holistic and Functional Nutrition Office in Truckee/Tahoe but also works online with individuals and groups. Interested in using food and lifestyle to improve how you function? Check out Mountain Rebalance today! Learn more about Janel here and hear what people are saying about working with Janel here

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