What is a functional nutritionist?
The term functional nutritionist is a descriptor rather than a certification or title. As a functional nutritionist, Plum Spring Clinic registered dietitian Nate Kelly, utilizes the foundational theory of functional medicine. Namely, understanding that a healthy body is composed of a number of interconnected chemical and physiological systems. Illness arises when one or more of those systems fails to adequately function. In clinical practice, Nate uses this framework to understand the factors that precipitate and contribute to symptoms. Instead of comparing a patient’s symptoms to a pre-existing list of diseases and then utilizing laboratory tests to diagnose or rule out those diseases, Nate has learned from our Medical Director Dr. Sharp to seek to understand how a disease process began and evolved so that treatment strategies can be targeted at the roots of the illness. He maps patient symptoms and laboratory test results to detect which bodily systems are impaired. Happily, a definitive diagnosis of a predefined disease is not necessary to develop effective treatment strategies when using the functional model. Treatments are based upon correcting dysfunction instead of treating the symptoms of disease.
Due to the fact that not all symptoms can be explained by a diagnosable disease, and that many diseases first manifest as symptoms that are amorphous, functional practitioners may be able to provide effective treatment before the bodily dysfunction progresses into actual disease. Conventional practitioners may at times struggle to treat such patients using the diagnose-and-treat model and this can lead to nonsensical recommendations such as, “I can’t find anything wrong with you despite your symptoms, come back when you have a disease” or “despite all your symptoms you appear perfectly healthy to me,” or “your lab results are normal so you must be fine.”
Functional practitioners also tend to use more holistic and non-pharmaceutical approaches. The traditional model of disease management and treatment has worked in concert with the the pharmaceutical industry to create a juggernaut that dominates the health industry. The vast majority of pharmaceutical medicines are used in the management of disease and while when used correctly they may be very effective at controlling symptoms they usually are not curative. Because functional practitioners are focused on correcting dysfunction, such pharmaceutical products do not often mesh well with this model. Instead many treatments are based upon lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, stress resilience, toxin avoidance, sleep, and may often include vitamins, minerals, and other natural agents that modify the biochemistry of a bodily system. Inadequacies and breakdowns in these areas are the major drivers of disease and symptoms so treatments targeted at them have more potential to be curative.
As a good functional nutritionist, Nate will
- utilize the functional model to understand the origins and factors that lead to and propagate symptoms;
- understand and develop treatment strategies based upon functional laboratory testing;
- understand and utilize dietary and nutritional supplements in treatment strategies.
What can a functional nutritionist do for you?
Using the functional medicine model, Nate will bring a different perspective to understanding and treating your symptoms. If traditional doctors and dietitians have failed to remedy your symptoms and are stumped as to their cause, the picture may be clearer to Nate when looking through a functional medicine lens. Other elements of his work include:
- Review of any functional medicine testing ordered by Dr. Sharp or other alternative medicine providers and utilization of this data in developing treatment strategies.
- Comparing and contrasting your diet with the latest research and trends in alternative medicine and making recommendations about which diet to try and how to go about it. The world of alternative medicine offers many cutting edge dietary strategies including low histamine, paleo, ketogenic, fasting, auto-immune protocol, whole food plant-based, low FODMAP, low sulfur, and more. A functional medicine practitioner knows when to incorporate these strategies and how to help patients actually put them into practice. While there are many functional medicine practitioners from other medical disciplines such as physicians, chiropractors, naturopaths, and acupuncturists, it’s important to note that none are required to have extensive education in nutrition.
- Saving you money. Rates for nutritionists are typically on the lower end of alternative medicine providers. A trip to see your nutritionist may be a more frugal way to improve your health and obtain the information about your health that you seek.
A functional nutritionist is an expert in dietary supplements and can help you discover the best supplement regimen to optimize your health.
Have you ever asked your primary care physician or specialist about a dietary supplement that you were interested in trying? If so, you were likely to have received a dismissive response along the lines of “don’t take any of that junk.” While frustrating and unhelpful, there are a number of factors that lead to this common response.
- The supplement industry is largely unregulated and the purity of their products overall is inferior to prescription drugs. While this is a fact and a valid point of criticism, it has been exaggerated repeatedly in marketing to doctors by the pharmaceutical industry in an attempt to demonize the entire supplement market. In truth, more recently a number of independent organizations have emerged that test the purity of dietary supplements. This has led to major improvements in the market and when their data is utilized by healthcare providers a high level of assurance of purity is possible. However, doctors are largely unaware of this data and thus do not utilize it.
- Dietary supplements often interact with prescription medications, and while databases of supplement/drug interactions are available, most doctors do not have the time or inclination to look up these potential interactions and review them with their patients.
- Dietary supplements by in large are not as effective as prescription medications at treating the symptoms of diseases. When your profession is based upon diagnosing disease and then treating the symptoms of those diseases, prescription medications have a major advantage over dietary supplements. However, prescription medications often come with significant side effects and toxicity that are less likely with dietary supplements. Dietary supplements also can have a role alongside pharmaceuticals in enhancing their ability to manage disease symptoms as well as a role in disease prevention and increasing overall wellbeing.
- Many dietary supplements are entirely or partially composed of vitamins and minerals. The function of these substances in the body is generally poorly understood by modern physicians as this field of study, biochemistry, is only covered in cursory strokes during the very early stages of medical school.
- Finally, research on natural medicines and dietary supplements lags behind the multibillion dollar corporate-financed pharmaceutical research industry and lacks the army of promotional soldiers (known as drug reps) to promote their use. Doctors aspire to practice evidence-based medicine but when the evidence base is highly biased the wisdom of this aspiration is called into question.
In summary, most doctors are dismissive of dietary supplements because they are poorly educated on the topic, following a disease management model, exposed to negative propaganda and a biased evidence base, and unwilling or unable to take the necessary time to integrate them into their practice.
If you want to discover if dietary supplements can improve your health, your traditional primary care doctor is probably the wrong person to ask. As Plum Spring Clinic’s functional nutritionist, Nate Kelly is familiar with the supplement market and subscribes to and follows third party data about the quality of supplement brands. He has a strong background in biochemistry and consistently reviews new research on which supplements are effective for what conditions. Nate has extensive clinical experience using supplements in practice, and makes use of data regarding potential interactions with other supplements and prescription medications. Nate Kelly will help you make the smart choices in nutritional supplements for your health.