What is “functional” and how does this apply to YOUR health?

Photo credit: Jan Kahánek, @honza_kahanek.

“Functional” is a bit of a buzzword these days with respect to health and healthcare.  There are applications across physical fitness and movement, food and nutrition, and healthcare practice.  For the purposes of this post, I am focusing on the application for professionals operating in healthcare and health service specialties.  My aim is to provide you a brief synthesis to support you when seeking out someone working with functional healthcare frameworks.

The term “functional” in healthcare emerged over 25 years ago as the field of integrative health practitioners and scientists was working to standardize processes into systematized approaches.  This was not just in the practice of care, but in the teaching of up and coming health professionals.  The movement is largely credited to Dr. Jeffrey Bland who still takes on national speaking roles and will leave his audiences with no shortage of relevant information.  More on this history can be found here.

Regardless, the key take-away is that the term “integrative” represents a broader application of approaches and methodologies while “functional” indicates specific training in systematized frameworks for these approaches, ie “functional” is a module within “integrative” health.

As I have found both in practice and personal experiences, taking the comprehensive lens that “Functional Medicine/Healthcare” provides leads to greater clarity and understanding for the full picture.  This is sometimes referred to as “whole health”.  Furthermore, this creates greater efficiencies and helps reduce decision fatigue.  We set better, more realistic goals for ourselves and engage better in our professional relationships with healthcare providers.

Andrea Nakayama, founder of the Functional Nutrition Lab training institute (in which I have trained), describes this further in a blog post (click here).  Furthermore, she also defines Functional Nutrition as “a therapeutic focus on restoring the optimum function of the body and its organs, that works with systems and frameworks towards resolving the root causes of any sign, symptom, or diagnosis, with a highlight on the importance of diet and lifestyle modification as part of its approach” (n.d.).

In healthcare practice and continued education, there are applications of systematized approaches and there are certification programs.  Ideally, these two components will be combined.  More realistically, neither provide an absolute for the quality of care you will receive and problem solving ability of the practitioner.  However, relying on professionals who have had some validation by way of structured training in functional approaches can help steer you in the correct direction.  Secondary to that, professional development training can speak wonders to how the professional operates (communications, utilization of time, how they run their business, expressions of empathy, etc).

In healthcare, specific licensed practitioners can become certified by the Institute of Functional Medicine.  These practitioners will likely be more involved in the community facets around functional medicine (learning modules, events, etc) and they will be included on the IFM directory.  Essentially, these providers will likely have earlier access to information and updates related to the practice.  Other practitioners select training modules leveraging the approaches, but, for a variety of reasons, may not pursue IFM certification or they may be representative of professional categories in which certification is not an option.

Over the last 10-15 years, we have observed a boom in other supportive allied health professionals, such as health coaches, herbalists, essential oil experts, etc.  Much of this is associated to our current landscape of chronic disease and conditions.  Certification and licensing of professionals in these categories is evolving and varies by state.  There has been work to standardize health coaching certification in the last 1-3 years.  However, training programs in which organizations such as the International Consortium for Health & Wellness Coaching recognize continue to evolve.

Therefore, my suggestion is to always ask questions.  Don’t be shy.  You are the health consumer and we are working to empower you to make better decisions for you and your family’s health.

I am always happy to receive and respond to questions!  More information about my background and training can be found on the “about” page within my website.

Ashley L Arnold, MBA, MPH is a lifestyle health educator and coach who supports clients to channel authority over their health, well-being, and overall vitality.  Offering health education approaches and 1-on-1 coaching modules, she gets them out of excess weeds of information and inconsistent practices that don’t get desired results.  Through helping people focus on the right applications paired with appropriate consideration for bio-individual facets, they become stronger, more confident self-advocates for their health.  Bottom line, they will surpass challenges, embrace healthful living with ease, and, best of all, feel a greater sense of empowerment and more energy!

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