Graduate Spotlight: Nikki Gepner
Posted by Andrea Nakayama
As owner of Northwest Functional Nutrition located in Bothell, Washington, Nikki Gepner, RDN, CD, CSR, CFNC, FNLP, is passionate about helping clients find confidence with their nutrition and lifestyle choices, while creating or maintaining a healthy relationship with food.
Nikki has been in the field of nutrition for 18 years! She started her training with Bastyr University, later completing Full Body Systems to refine her skills with a functional method. She noticed over the years that even in natural medicine there were GAPs in care and is committed to showing up with a better approach.
Medical Challenges with Current Healthcare Protocols
Can you share your personal experiences and frustrations with care you have received?
Nikki: When I was young, in elementary school, I always had digestive issues. We didn’t know what it was at the time or what was going on in my body. I didn’t have access to a lot of medical care, so it was accepted as an “it is what it is” situation. Growing up, we had many medical books in my home because my family members had gone through nursing school.
I grew up looking through those medical books for fun. I was fascinated by how the body worked and learned that there are a lot of variabilities, recognizing that we’re not all the same.
Noticing how different families treated food
Can you speak into any “Aha!” Moments you had during that time?
Nikki: I was always curious about the differences in people’s bodies and how they functioned (or didn’t!). I noticed at a young age how different people ate. I grew up eating canned vegetables, and I hated them. I thought they tasted terrible. Then, I remember having fresh garden-grown vegetables at a friend’s house and recognizing that they tasted good. I noticed that certain friends’ houses would have a lot of packaged foods, like cup-of-noodles and those types of things, which we didn’t have at my home. I just really felt curious about why they chose these things.
It made me question what it meant and what difference it made in our bodies. So I stayed curious about food, nutrition, health, and our bodies. But, of course, it wasn’t until I was older that I could dig into learning more. By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to become a dietician and chose to attend Bastyr.
Falling into the GAPs in healthcare
Can you speak about some specific examples of falling into the GAPs of healthcare?
Nikki: I remember attending school at Bastyr and being sick for over a month. It felt like the flu the entire time, and I remember going to the doctor and being told, “Oh, you just have the flu, ride it out; your body’s just having a hard time kicking it.”
I later found out that it was probably mono (mononucleosis). Still, nobody had tested for it or explored what was really going on in my body.
That was the story of my life: “We’re not going to do any extra testing. We’re not going to dig. You’re fine.”
They would see me and say, “Well, you’re working, and you’re going to school. You’re not that sick.”–but I was toughing it out.
I think that this happens to a lot of people. Especially with women. We can make ourselves appear as if everything is fine, even when we feel like garbage. That’s what was happening with me. I had menstrual cramps that were so bad that all I could do was just cry. I’d be nauseous. I couldn’t think straight. And that level of pain I was experiencing would last for an entire day.
The X for Y Protocol Approach to Care
What were you offered as a solution to your signs and symptoms?
Nikki: I would see gynecologists, endocrinologists, primary care physicians, and naturopaths. Still, they couldn’t offer me anything other than birth control, pain medications, or surgery as a solution.
I had one care provider that offered me a hysterectomy at 19. I was in so much pain that I had to have the conversation about wanting to have children in the future.
I ended up having an egg removed from my ovary but came to find out later when doctors looked at my records, they had no idea why that procedure was done. My ovaries are fine. But because there wasn’t anything they could diagnose, they tried to find a solution. Really, what happened was I was pushed around and didn’t get any “back it up” work, no investigation into what was making me suffer.
Discovering Many Root Causes to Suffering
How did you discover that there may be more than one root cause?
Nikki: It wasn’t until later, working with another naturopath and doing my own research that I noticed that it’s going to take multiple things to shift what’s going on inside my body. It’s not one single thing.
I have to work on my sleep. I need to be more physically active. I need to eat more consistently and balance my meals. It was all these things, not just one thing. I needed supplemental support too. I discovered that my body needs to take in more magnesium than most people.
I still don’t have a diagnosis, but I feel a lot better. So, when I heard about Full Body Systems and the whole-system approach, seeing how you “back it up” and think about more than the root causes but the environment too, and how to address all of those different elements and the impact that has, it’s monumental. It made so much sense to me and made me feel less upset about not having a diagnosis.
Did you have any other experiences that were approached traditionally?
Nikki: The same thing happened with my gut too. To this day, we don’t know whether or not I have a mild case of Crohn’s or if SIBO is the reason for the inflammation in my small intestine. I saw the inflammation on a colonoscopy. I saw it on an MRI. It had been there for months and months, according to imaging. And so it was, again, one of those things where it’s like, okay, well, do I actually need a diagnosis to do something about this? No.
Discovering Functional Nutrition
Nikki: That’s when I had to do the work — the work we do in Functional Nutrition to discover where things are out of balance and what work needs to be done to bring the body back to a functional state. It’s such a huge mindset shift.
Bridging the Gap to Meet the Client
How do you bridge the gap to meet your clients?
Nikki: Clients are coming to me because they’ve experienced some of the same things I have. They feel confused and frustrated because they’ve been chasing signs and symptoms and still don’t feel better. When they come to me, they appreciate that someone is listening to their story and thinking into what’s going on in their body. It’s so empowering.
In my years of practicing, I was fortunate to work with a group of dieticians who all thought similarly, really meeting people where they are and hearing their story and recognizing that we’re treating people and not a diagnosis. So I, fortunately, had that foundation, but the shift that happened for me was learning from Andrea to “back things up” and look at the foundational pieces of nutrition and lifestyle. Unfortunately, I did reach a point where I was getting caught in the weeds of solving with a quick-fix approach, recommending things that were not functional.
Don’t Forget to do the Good Work
Can you share some client successes?
Nikki: When working in clinical, I got to a point where there are all these expectations that other providers have of what you’re going to tell people that I forgot to do the good work. It’s easy to lose sight of how important the foundational elements are in making assessments and recommendations.
I have a client who came to me struggling with being tired and unsure of what was going on. We knew that she had pre-diabetes, but I knew there was something more than that. We found out that she was anemic, but it hadn’t been looked into further. A traditional approach would’ve been to take iron supplements. But with this (Functional) mind shift, we had to dig deeper and find out how she ended up iron-deficient. What else is going on? What are her bowel movements like?
She had really bad hemorrhoids–to the point that she needed surgery–but it had not been addressed. There was blood in her stool, so we needed to keep backing up and finding out where the bleeding was coming from.
And so it’s just amazing to me how these things are just poo-pooed with an “Oh, you’re fine. You’re fine. Just take some iron supplementation, and you’ll be fine.”
The process that I love with Functional Nutrition that’s missing in medicine is the discovery and getting to know the why, not just the what. I also remind my clients that our bodies change throughout our lives, and it’s a process to learn your body and to get comfortable with that exploration.
What would you say to someone considering Full Body Systems?
Nikki: What really sets Full Body Systems apart is that you work within a community. And I think that’s huge. I tell people that that was a big part of my success as a dietician in general because I had a community that I was working with to ask and answer questions. Learning together in a group like that is so much more rewarding.
I also appreciated that it’s multidisciplinary. Other students are coming in with a lot of different perspectives. Whereas if you go into a program where everybody’s in the same discipline, there is the same thought process, and I find that you get so much more when people come in with a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different perspectives.
To learn more about Nikki please visit her website at https://www.nwfnutrition.com/
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