With a focus on restoration and maintenance of health through nutrition, movement, mental wellness, our functional medicine collective of experts and practitioners are sharing tangible tips and techniques as well as science based facts to support your quest toward optimal health. Please use the following articles to support and guide you as you create your legacy of health.
Our health is our legacy. A seed that when nurtured can grow and continue to blossom over time. Optimal health is your complete physical, emotional, and relational well-being. It’s not just the absence or prevention of disease but taking an active role in the vitality of those parts that make up your whole. It’s feeling good in your body; a sense of freedom in your body that gives you the tools to live to your fullest.
Your highest form of health is unique to you. It’s going to be different for everyone. It may be helpful to connect with a health coach to get clear and set some health goals.
Achieving optimal health is primarily a mindset; it’s about choosing and deciding to live with intention. A quick exercise is to ask yourself ‘what things can I do every day to reach my optimal health?’ Maybe it has to do with your eating habits, what you’re choosing to put into your body. Or perhaps you need to develop a daily stretching routine or make a date with friends. You can create your health manifesto to guide you toward optimal health.
Because optimal health looks and feels different for everyone, it’s important to remember you own it! Your health and taking care and control of it is your responsibility, and it has a ripple effect. When you take care of yourself you can be the best version of yourself no matter your role (partner, friend, parent, family, employee) you can connect in meaningful ways that can span generations.
Living with the intention to make simple edits to your health can cause transformation. For example, when you change your eating habits, you’ll feel better physically and emotionally, which will change the way you think. Literally, the way your mind works and your approach to health. You’ll experience change on all levels including relational health. If you start cooking for health or moving your body more with your family or friends, you’ll create a connection of support and accountability to each other.
The steps to achieve optimal health are available and straightforward. Your biggest challenge is to decide you want to take those steps. And knowing the everlasting benefits, it’s hard to pass up.
Make sure you reach out to functional medicine practitioners to gain support. They will give you the tools you need to reach optimal health on a daily basis. Tools that are flexible enough to integrate so they can easily become a part of you and your life as it changes.
There’s a lot of confusion about what functional medicine is and what it is not, even within the medical community. By definition, functional medicine seeks to identify and address the root cause of health conditions. In practice, it’s patient-centered and biology-centered (rather than disease-centered), meaning the focus is on the origin of underlying health specific to that individual patient and his or her life experiences.
Technically considered a form of alternative medicine, functional medicine is unique because it is often practiced by physicians who are primarily trained in Western conventional medicine. That means they have the same rigorous education and training, certifications, credentials, and licensing as any other medical doctor. They are trained in recognizing all kinds of disease states, both acute and chronic; and they are trained in conventional diagnostics and treatments.
However, a functional medicine provider will have additional training to address root causes, with a focus on physiology and how the body functions as an integrated system. Part of this training includes treatment options that are not commonly used in a more conventional approach. Functional medicine is investigative, by nature, and the process begins with listening to the patient’s complete health story. Since this requires a lot of time, appointments are longer, with more face to face time with the doctor.
Another unique feature of functional medicine is its expanded approach to diagnosis and treatment. Rather than focusing on alleviating symptoms, root causes are considered, and diagnostic testing not typically available in the conventional setting can be pursued to bring clarity to the diagnostic process. Nutritional evaluation and genetics testing are a few common examples. Treatments may or may not include pharmaceuticals, but always attempts to find and fix the underlying issues that are causing the problem. Functional medicine practitioners are trained in the most current medical literature, using a more up-to-date science-based approach, and they are also trained in the art of medicine, recognizing the high value of trust and authenticity in the patient-doctor relationship.
Perhaps the greatest benefit from a functional medicine approach is the actual fixing of health problems instead of masking symptoms or even creating new ones. A common example is using repeated courses of antibiotics and steroids to treat recurrent eczema, asthma, and respiratory infections when perhaps a detailed history and targeted lab test can uncover an exposure, food allergy, or nutrient deficiency causing the problem.
Even if you’re not experiencing an acute health crisis or chronic condition, it does not mean you can’t benefit from restorative healing and health maintenance characterized by the functional medicine approach. In fact, true prevention is a major component of treatment.
Often, especially when we’re young, we experience minor health problems that we recover from or learn to live with. Sometimes we don’t even notice the symptoms because it simply becomes a “new normal” for us. But once those symptoms magnify or become unbearable, often in middle age, people take notice and either take action to see a healthcare provider or have a major event. Many times, these issues are related to previous exposures and daily habits that the body can no longer compensate for. Cumulative damage, so to speak. Then it seems like the floodgates open and the suffering begins. Even if you haven’t experienced this yourself, you probably know someone who has.
Functional medicine embraces the fact that your body has the innate ability to heal itself if given the proper environment for health restoration. It’s important to work with a practitioner who can support you as you pursue optimal health, even if you feel good today. And if you don’t feel good today, then what are you waiting for?
Your first visit to your functional medicine provider is a great starting point to take control of your physical, emotional, and relational well-being and create a plan to reach optimal health.
Determining the root cause of your illness or health condition is a top priority for your functional medicine provider. Your health history is the most important aspect of this determination. In order to create a health plan that works for your individual health goals, expect to take a deep dive into your health history to create a timeline that goes from birth until the present.
Because your health history can take some time, it’s suggested that prior to your appointment you create your own timeline. Draw a line that ends where you currently are in your health. Then start at the beginning (birth) and make note with a dashed line of significant events, "I started my menstrual cycle at 12. I had a car accident at 25, I got divorced at 32.” Start this timeline project a few weeks out from your first appointment. Throughout that time allow your subconscious to recall these significant life events and make a note on your timeline.
This exercise will prepare you to concisely deliver your story when you sit down with your functional medicine physician.
The information gathered through your health history can help explain why your health is where it’s at and lead your functional medicine team toward a healing program. Here’s a brief overview of some common health history factors to consider prior to your functional medicine appointment.
Health History: You’ll be asked to start from the beginning. Starting from birth, were you a vaginal delivery or a cesarean?
Environmental/Exposure history: What kind of environment did you grow up in? Was there mold or radon in your home or exposure to toxins? You may also be asked about trauma experience, this could be physical, sexual, spiritual.
Family History: Is there a history of autoimmune conditions in the family? Cancers? What type of cancers? Any viral infections?
Personal History: In regard to infections, have you ever had mono, recurrent ear infections or strep throat that might've required multiple doses of antibiotics?
Social History: Do you smoke, drink alcohol - how much? What about recreational drug use? In addition, what is your family setup? Are you married, single? Do you have children? How many and when did you have them?
Once you share your health history, your functional medicine team can decide what path to go and where you’re at currently, financially, mentally, physically.
The speed at which you can improve your health when guided by a functional medicine provider can be much quicker because you're truly present. When you’re involved on a detailed and personal level in creating your own health legacy, it’s possible to see improvement in a short time. This is a result of a customized program and support on every level.
Don’t be alarmed if you don’t have all the answers to your health history. There are tests that can be done for heavy metals toxicity or microbiome tests to see if you have bacterial overgrowth or other types of infections. There are also tests that can reveal your cortisol and hormone levels as well as tests to see if you have a vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
You can look forward to your functional medicine team spending time with you, listening to your health story and actively taking note to identify genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors specific to you that could influence your long-term health and vitality.
Let’s face it. There’s a boatload of ego in the field of medicine. As a medical doctor, I’m embarrassed by this, but it’s a sad reality. Everybody thinks they have the corner on truth. I dare say it’s worse than religion or cola brand loyalty. There are a gazillion ways to practice medicine, and everybody thinks it should be their way or the highway. So how do you choose your healthcare advisors? Who is “right” or the best fit for you? How do you even know how to evaluate different practitioners and their approaches?
Functional medicine is an emerging approach to medical evaluation and treatment that people are asking a lot about right now. And because it’s “new” to the modern disease-centric system, it is easily misunderstood. I say “new” in quotations because the fundamentals are rather traditional - treat the patient, not the symptom or number, by determining the root cause of the problem and fixing it. Some say we have lost our way during the past seventy years, so to the current generation of healthcare providers, the traditional patient-centric functional approach seems new and untested, and functional medicine doctors are easily misunderstood because they approach their patients and their patient’s health issues a little differently than what is conventionally done by modern doctors. Please allow me to explain the path and usual practice of functional medicine doctor.
A functional medicine doctor is a real physician and they treat all the same conditions other doctors treat, and maybe even more. They have a degree in medicine, either an MD (medical doctor) or a DO (doctor of osteopathy). Nowadays, the training is so similar that there is really very little differentiation between the two types of medical school training.
Functional medicine doctors then spend several years in a residency program (same as almost all physicians in the U.S.), which gives them additional years of practical training under the supervision of attending physicians. Some have additional fellowship training. They are trained in modern western medicine, same as every other physician you might see and are experienced in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of acute and chronic disease.
A functional medicine doctor is licensed to practice medicine, is most likely board certified in a conventional medical specialty (usually but not always family medicine or internal medicine). A functional medicine doctor is held to the same legal standard of care as other doctors and practice accordingly. He or she may also have additional fellowship training and special professional or personal interests that you should consider when determining if a particular physician is a good fit for you. These (among others) are good questions to ask when you are looking for a functional medicine doctor.
Some functional medicine doctors continue to practice primary care or internal medicine within their scope of practice, and some others prefer to specialize and act as more of a consultant. Sometimes, a functional medicine doctor is the only doctor people have, and sometimes patients will have a primary care doctor and a functional medicine doctor who work together for the best outcomes.
Now comes the main difference. A functional medicine doctor has additional training in functional medicine. During this training, the functional medicine doctor has studied additional physiology, biology, and anatomy in light of the most current research available. It is generally accepted in healthcare that it takes 17 years for research evidence to reach clinical practice.* There are many reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this article, but the main point is that a functional medicine doctor seeks to close that gap. A functional medicine doctor pays attention to all kinds of research (not just those promoted by pharmaceutical companies), and pays attention to modern research (not just review articles from the last 20 years), and uses that information in clinical practice.
Some other differences you might notice about a functional medicine doctor:
They want to spend more time with you. Visits are generally longer because listening to your whole story and the details of your symptoms are paramount in making an accurate diagnosis and determining the best treatment plan for you.
A more patient-centered approach that considers the patient’s mental, emotional, and relational health, as well as the patient’s preferences, when evaluating the disease process and recommended modes of treatment. In other words, functional medicine doctors generally are more holistic and open-minded and want you to participate in the decision-making. There is no need to hide facts about other practitioners you see, “alternative therapies”, or recommended tests or treatments you don’t want, for fear of being judged or scolded.
A more expanded repertoire of diagnostics and treatments. A functional doctor considers all options, even the ones that are your idea.
The “root cause” or investigative approach to any specific health issues you have. A functional medicine doctor’s goal is to help you get to the root of what is causing the symptoms so you can heal for good, not just alleviate the symptoms or a lab test number with pills, which can actually cause more problems down the line.
More often works with a multidisciplinary team, sometimes under the same roof. Functional medicine doctors often have trusted functionally-oriented professionals working with them to help you in areas you might need additional specialized support as you work toward optimal health. Common examples include nutritionists or dieticians, health coaches, counselors, and movement specialists. Because they work so closely together, it’s a lot easier for you to implement the treatment plan.
When you work with a functional medicine doctor, you will be supported to make changes that reverse the physiology that got you in a bad place. That means you actually have to work at it. Don’t expect a pill to make you feel better. That said, sometimes there is a place for pharmaceuticals. Because a functional medicine doctor is a real doctor with a pharmacy license and experience prescribing, it’s not out of the question to use pharmaceuticals when they are necessary. But in most cases, a functional medicine doctor doesn’t rely on them as first-line therapy and don’t want to see you on them indefinitely. What about herbs and supplements and special diets? Maybe. A functional medicine doctor will use his or her expanded knowledge and experience, recent medical literature, and your situation and preferences to suggest the best treatment options for you.
In fact, one of the many roles a functional medicine doctor can play on your team is to help you get off your medications. This is good for everyone, especially you, since we now know that most pharmaceuticals have side effects, either acute or chronic or both, and may contribute to chronic liver disease years down the line. You and your primary care doctor should be happy with this as well since this process also helps you meet standard health measures like improved cholesterol levels, hemoglobin A1c, blood pressure, and weight.
Some functional medicine doctors continue to practice primary care or internal medicine within their functional medicine practice, and some others prefer to specialize and act as more of a consultant. Sometimes, a functional medicine doctor is the only doctor people have, and sometimes patients will have a primary care doctor and a functional medicine doctor who work together for the best outcomes. Some functional medicine doctors accept insurance and some don’t. Some will only for certain services and not for others.
Speaking of insurance, I’m often asked if functional medicine services are covered by insurance. Well, it depends on a lot of factors - your individual insurance plan, the functional medicine doctor’s policies, and insurance participation status, what kind of visit you had, how the doctor bills your visit, and your copay and deductible. Again, this is a huge topic for another article. Because there is so much variation, your best bet is to ask your functional medicine doctor’s office ahead of time.
Generally, it seems that most functional medicine doctors prefer to practice medicine outside the insurance system. This gives them the ability to spend more time with you, keep costs low, pursue more up to date means of diagnosis and treatment if it’s needed, and to truly focus on the art of medicine with you instead of the paperwork and requirements inherent in the current insurance system.
Honestly, if you have a copay and deductible you typically don’t meet each year (that’s most of us), you’re paying out of pocket for most of your outpatient care even if you’re using your insurance. But you’re paying insurance rates, which are usually higher than a functional medicine doctor’s rates and higher (often by 6-8 times) the direct access diagnostics most of them have negotiated on your behalf to make your healthcare more affordable.
Generally, when you are looking for a functional medicine doctor, it means you are looking for a doctor who has more time to listen, who has an expanded repertoire of evaluation and treatment, is cost-conscious, and seeks not only to help you solve your health issues but to help you maintain optimal health for a lifetime.
Wellness Wheels have become popular recently, but what exactly is a wellness wheel, and what is used for?
A wellness wheel is simply a visual model of health that represents different areas of personal well-being that are interconnected. It is used to highlight the fact that all areas of health and well-being must be operating well in order for a person to experience optimal health and functioning.
Many organizations use a wellness wheel, and each organization tends to use its own version. Despite this, there are many similarities, and the concept of the interconnectivity of dimensions is universal. The primary components of the most basic wellness wheel are pretty standard - usually mind, body, and spirit. Other basic areas of wellness that are included in most wellness wheels are physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual areas. Organizations do tend to add more, depending on their particular needs.
For example, the National Wellness Institute has six areas of wellness in their wheel - physical, emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, and occupational. The Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation has eight dimensions of wellness in their wheel. They have added environmental and financial wellness to the above six. Table Health’s wellness wheel contains even more dimensions, on several levels, and is used not only as a guide to health assessment for members but also as a service model in the organization.
Despite their different contents and appearances, it is fair to say that all wellness wheels represent the same idea: all areas of health and wellness are interconnected, interdependent, and equally important. This is a concept that is derived from holistic health, an ancient and enduring way of seeing the whole person in context. A wellness wheel is essentially an assertion of the importance of addressing all human needs for optimal health and function, not just the physical or medical.
Organizations and individuals use wellness wheels for different purposes, but as a diagnostic tool, it excels at identifying key areas of need. The wheel helps you see which areas have been neglected, are causing stress, or are in poor condition. Focusing resources on enhancing wellness in these areas will lead to maximum results and should also lead to lasting results since you will be focusing your energy on root causes. In other words, that’s how you get more bang for your buck. Strengthening the weak link gives you faster results, and the small wins keep you motivated.
In many areas of medicine - for example, functional medicine, integrative medicine, and holistic medicine - the wellness wheel is used as a model for addressing the whole person. Rather than focusing on the disease or the symptom, the wellness wheel is used to understand the root cause of the illness. In many cases, the cause of illness can be traced back to inadequate function in one or more dimensions of personal health found on the wellness wheel. Restoring this area back to health leads to not only symptom relief but also true healing and prevention of future problems.
Specifically, in the area of functional medicine, the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) has created a different kind of wellness wheel that can be used as a tool by physicians and their patients. This wheel is referred to as ‘The Functional Matrix’ and is based on functional systems in the body. It, too, recognizes that all systems are interconnected, and it is used to identify problem areas or weak links in the body’s physiology. In the IFM’s Matrix, the physiologic areas are assimilation, defense & repair, energy, biotransformation & elimination, transport, communication, structural integrity. Using the Matrix allows physicians to easily identify areas in most need of healing so they can help their clients restore health more efficiently, for both symptom relief and true healing.
Using a wheel of wellness to evaluate, maintain, and track your health is pretty straightforward, but getting started can be a speed bump if you’ve never done anything like this before. I recommend a simple 5-step process for creating and using a personalized wheel of wellness to reach optimal health and well-being.
Following this 5-step process doesn’t have to take long. One simply must set aside a few focused hours for steps 1-3, set up an accountability solution, then just do it!
Chances are you’ve heard the term health coach before. But what is a health coach and how can I benefit from working with a health coach?
What is a health coach?
Put simply, a health coach is a “change agent”. They are experts in human behavior and what motivates a person to change unhealthy habits and behaviors into healthy ones. They help people take accountability of their health and lives, they help identify challenges and struggles as they provide support and encouragement.
A coach holds a unique role in the healthcare field. They hold the key so many patients seek and need — the key to true transformation. With their knowledge of nutrition, behavior, and lifestyle, and understanding how habits are built, a health coach can take an overwhelming wellness goal and help make it possible for lasting success.
What can a health coach do for me?
A health coach can serve you in many different ways.
Knowing your health coach supports you to improve your health and help you move forward toward your goals is critical to understanding the function of a health coach. This includes helping you implement physician recommendations by making them work within the framework of your existing lifestyle, work life, and personal life.
A health coach will strive to bring together all aspects of functional medical practice, making sure your physical health is supported as well as your mental and emotional health.
Health coaches have training in motivational psychology, active listening, and problem-solving, and are often intuitive, compassionate, and empathetic individuals. This knowledge helps set the framework for a trusting, honest, and productive relationship. They also have a strict code of ethics and insight into knowing when to get intervention from a physician, nutritionist, behavioral specialist, or other professional. They will help you find a practitioner who you can trust and feel safe sharing your story with.
What to expect when working with a health coach?
Expect your health coach to have a client-centered approach. This means that you are in the front seat. You know yourself better than anyone. When working with a health coach they expect you to take accountability for your health, for your goals, for the focus of each session, and for your successes. A good health coach will use active listening and motivational interviewing to identify how you perceive success and identify barriers to achieving that success. They will also have a great level of compassion and patience. As you work through making healthy changes, you will have ups and downs, and your coach should always be nonjudgmental and supportive.
It should be a mutual goal with your health coach that you can reassess progress throughout your journey and make sure you have access to new tools if needed. Check-ins should always be available. It doesn't have to be weekly, but you have to know that your health coach is always there and they remember your story. They want to support you as your health needs, wellness goals, and life seasons change.
The most rewarding health coaching experience often occurs when the realization that organizing your life to focus on health can positively impact the rest of life, your family, your social environment, and your community. Achieving optimal health has a rewarding ripple effect for all who come in contact with you.
Who should get help?
If you have tried a new exercise program, diet, lifestyle practice, or other program and have failed over and over again, a health coach can help.
If you have received a new diagnosis that is confusing, scary, or daunting, a health coach can help.
If you are looking to optimize your health and need help with accountability to change your lifestyle habits, a health coach can help.
Culinary medicine. This phrase may seem like an oxymoron, but it is not. The fact is we are what we eat. This is a scientific fact. Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals, are the building blocks of everything in our body. Every function, every system, every repair, every reaction exists only when the body has the raw materials needed to make that happen. And the better our nutrition, the more nutrients, the more minerals, the more phytonutrients that we get, then the more efficiently our bodies can function.
Whether you’re struggling with a disease, pain, or symptom, it all has its roots in either an excess or a deficiency. An excess could be a toxic compound like a food additive, too much salt or sugar, or too much fat. A deficiency could be a particular shortage of an amino acid, vitamin, mineral, or phytonutrients in the diet. Either excess or a deficiency can cause disease, affect your body’s capacity to heal, and limit your ability to achieve optimal health.
For some people, simply identifying what they need to do is enough. For others, knowing the “why” matters. “When I eat this food (leafy greens or berries), this is what happens in my body.”
A functional medicine practitioner such as a dietician can help you look into what types of substances might be an excess or deficiency in your diet and also why it’s important. Together, you come to an understanding of which dietary changes are going to accomplish your health goals, which can be different for each person.
If choosing foods and cooking for health does not come naturally, you can always learn! As you begin to change your diet, you’re also training your mind and body to make different choices and execute your plan for sustained transformation. A functional dietician can support you through this process and teach you valuable skills along the way. And yes, you can learn to make healthy cooking enjoyable and cost-effective.
Practicing culinary medicine in your own home may seem overwhelming, but it’s rather straightforward. In addition to talking about your food choices with a registered dietician, clearing out your kitchen space and making sure you have the essential kitchen tools (hint: there are only three things you really need) are the major components of cooking for health. Another important aspect is finding your community.
One of the best ways to create your community is through taking classes and developing new friendships with people that enjoy eating healthier types of foods. We may not always want to admit it, but our peer group influences us a lot. If our friends, family, and coworkers are eating french fries and chicken wings, then there's a lot of unspoken pressure for us to eat that same kind of thing just because it’s there. That’s human nature. On the flip side, when we surround ourselves with people who eat healthier, then it's much easier to do the same.
Especially if someone receives a new diagnosis, they feel enormous pressure to make a lot of changes really fast. In some cases, there are health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer where there’s an immediate need for change very quickly or you put yourself at risk.
In other cases, perhaps the early stages of an autoimmune disease, gastrointestinal dysfunction, or other chronic health issue that’s lessacute, you may have a little more time to make changes. These health issues may not be as time sensitive they still require significant learning, support, and community.
Whatever your circumstance, a dietary professional who is knowledgeable about functional nutrition and works with a functional medicine doctor can help you get to the root of the issue, make high-impact changes, and facilitate finding a community of like-minded people.
Practicing culinary medicine doesn’t have to be hard. The first step is gathering a team of professionals who are on your side and want to see you achieve your health goals. After that, assuming you’ve chosen a good team, you can be assured they will support you and be a positive influence as you journey toward optimal health.