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What’s Functional and What’s Not - Blog Image

What’s Functional and What’s Not

BY: Andrea Nakayama

DATE: 2019-05-20

‘Functional’ has become a buzzword in the health industry lately.

And for good reason. Practicing functionally can help you in several ways:

  • Identify the root causes of issues, so you can bring your clients to true resolution.

  • Know a system that works all of the time, instead of using formulas that work some of the time (or chasing research and superfoods that go in and out of style)


  • Relax knowing that you really do know enough to help the population you want to help, no matter who they are, and no matter your scope of practice.

But just like an “All Natural” label can be found on products with MSG, GMOs, hormones, pesticides, and more, the term ‘functional’, with its growing demand and appeal, is being put on products, services, and trainings that aren’t.

So, how are you, a hardworking practitioner who’s dedicated to learning the most useful tools to help your clients, supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff?

What’s functional and what’s NOT

There are 3 tenets of a functional practice, and unless the programs you’re taking, processes you’re using, and people you’re following are using these tenets, they aren’t functional.

Functional Tenet #1: Root Cause Resolution

Practicing functionally means that we’re not chasing symptoms. Instead we’re using tools to get to the heart of what’s really going on, so we can bring resolution to the cause of someone’s symptoms, not just squelch the symptoms alone (a “solution” that usually doesn’t last very long).

Let’s take two women with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Symptoms include diarrhea and constipation (yes, often both!), abdominal cramps and/or pain, bloating and intestinal gas.

What’s not functional: Treating the symptoms of IBS alone, such as using enzymes or chamomile to relieve abdominal pain. Temporary relief? Maybe. Root cause resolution? Nope.

What is functional: Paying heed to the contextof the IBS—the history and environment in which the illness arose for each woman, the diet and lifestyle factors that cause the symptoms to flare, and the interventions that truly enable internal healing to occur.

Once you know the context, you can confidently move in the direction of root cause resolution instead of just chasing symptoms.

Functional Tenet #2: Systems & tools

In order to practice tenet #1—to not just believe in the powers of root cause resolution, but to truly practice it—we need to let go of seductive protocols, formulas and templates in favor of solid systems and tools. Why? Because formulas are one-size-fits-all. And, as you know, nobody is the same as anyone else. Two people with the same symptoms, or even the same diagnosis, do not need the same remedies, because they arrived at their illness in different ways.

If we take our example of the two women with Irritable Bowel Syndrome:

What’s not functional: Treating both women with the same “IBS protocol” without first looking at WHY they each have the symptoms they do.

What is functional: When making recommendations, paying heed to bioindividuality. To do so, we use the Functional Nutrition Matrix to determine context…

  • familial history of any similar patterns

  • birth context and childhood memories of diet, digestion and elimination

  • history and environment in which the signs and symptoms arose

  • presence of any other signs, symptoms, diagnosis or medications

  • the factors which cause the symptoms to flare

  • and

    the interventions that have helped now or in the past

Using the Functional Nutrition Matrix to capture the details specific to each client allows you to see what’s really going on for each of them.

When you know what’s really going on, you’re no longer treating the symptom alone (which leads to short-term resolution at best), but instead, you’re addressing the root causes of the person’s pain point (hello sustainable results and raving fans!).

You’ll no longer be searching for the next miracle protocol for each client. You’ll have a system that works for everyone.

Check it out:

Functional Nutrition Matrix

Functional Tenet #3: Therapeutic Partnerships

Before you bring out your tracking tools and Functional Nutrition Matrix, you need to establish a relationship with your client or patient that is going to allow you to see the connections between symptoms, find the roots, and work together in harmony toward resolution. You need to have rapport, and to practice functional empathy.

No tool in the world is going to give you the results you want unless you’ve first created a therapeutic partnership. And hold on, I’m guessing this is something you think of as an “of course”, or “yeah, I got that”. Yet a therapeutic partnership isn’t just about connection. It’s about trust, hope, and the patient knowing that they’re no longer in the weeds alone.

Why is the therapeutic partnership so important?

Because your client isn’t going to tell you all the juicy details you need to fill out the Functional Nutrition Matrix unless they trust you and that you can do something with the details they share.

And they’re not going to fill out a Food/Mood/Poop Journal unless they see the real benefits of taking the effort and know you’re on their side. (Looking in the toilet and describing what’s in the bowl without understanding why? Not likely!)

They probably won’t follow many (or any!) of your recommendations unless they feel like you get them, understand what they want, and are helping them connect the dots and make clinical associations—associations like, when I stay up after 10pm working on my computer, I have increased sugar cravings the next day, or when I eat this breakfast vs. that one, I’m better able to concentrate at work throughout the morning.

The associations between nutrition, diet, and lifestyle modification are infinite when you’re not stuck in the weeds and you understand the biological reasons for those correlations. And the therapeutic partnership requires being able to not just make those interconnections, but explain them to each patient in a way that resonates and yields action.

So before you pull out your systems and tools to and start hunting for the root causes…

You must create a therapeutic partnership.

Again, I know this step seems obvious. Yet you’d be surprised how many practitioners are missing it. And you may be shocked that you’re one of them!

Tip: The way you can catch yourself missing this step is if you find yourself researching a client’s symptoms or diagnosis, or creating a therapeutic plan with stages for intervention before you even meet them.

Once you make this connection and gain an understanding of the factors that will inspire them to make change, you can then use the functional tools to deepen your therapeutic partnership and map the details that you uncover together.

If we go back to our example of the two women with IBS, you may want to see them both have 2 solid bowel movements each day as an indicator that your recommendations are yielding results. Yet one woman is motivated by avoiding embarrassment of public accidents. The other wants desperately to be free of pain so she can play with her grandchildren and not spend the time doubled over. These are their ”inspiring factors” and they’re your key to client compliance!

What’s not functional: Creating identical treatment plans for both women, and stressing that they need to do the work so that they can have the outcome you want–decreased inflammatory markers, diminished pain, different elimination patterns.

What is functional: Remembering that your clients are people with stories, and recognizing that each individual has specific hopes and dreams that she is longing to fulfill and that her illness is keeping her from. You see, it’s not just her illness that’s the problem. It’s what it prevents her from doing.

It’s not Functional Nutrition unless you’re creating a therapeutic partnership that recognizes the entirety of the person seeking your help.

Are you ready to get to the root cause, use proven systems and tools that work all the time, and work in therapeutic partnership with your clients? Join me and the thousands of practitioners who are changing the way we do healthcare. Your first step is easy: Click here to chat with an Admissions Advisor about whether our Functional Nutrition immersion program is right for you.

Read more from Functional Nutrition AllianceThe Web of Interconnections

The Power of STORY

True, but Partial

Andrea Nakayama

By: Andrea Nakayama, FxNA Founder & Functional Medicine Nutritionist

Functional Nutrition Alliance provides the comprehensive online Functional Nutrition training in the Science & Art of the Functional Nutrition practice. Learn to address the roots of your clients’ suffering with client education, diet & lifestyle modifications.


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