When I started my career over a decade ago, I focused solely on physical fitness training. That has since evolved over the years. While I still train clients, lately, my focus has been on working out, spending time with my kids, and studying to become a functional medicine practitioner. To clarify, this is entirely separate from the Master’s Degree in Nutrition program that I finished in September 2019. The Functional Medicine (FM) program is roughly 20% centered on nutrition. The majority, and remaining 80% focuses on the body as a whole, including gastrointestinal disorders, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, hormonal and fertility issues, cardio-metabolic conditions (blood sugar, heart health, and weight), mental health, cancer support, and overall optimization of wellness. Functional Medicine (FM) practitioners dive deep into the client’s history and biochemistry and ask why this client is experiencing specific symptoms, looking for root cause resolution and not just treating symptom(s). Aspirin doesn’t fix the root cause of a headache, chemotherapy doesn’t fix the root cause of malignancies, and statins don’t fix the root cause of cardiovascular disease.
For a while now, I have been sending the message that one must focus on the 5 pillars of wellness, and not just exercise and nutrition. When I first started my business, exercise (movement) was the only pillar I focused on. This was very one-dimensional thinking. A few years later I became two-dimensional. Exercise and Nutrition! Because the media and marketing companies only focus on those two aspects when it comes to health, this is what the majority of people focus on. As I realized later, there is more to health then exercise and nutrition.
In 2018 my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. How could this be? She worked out and was a healthy eater (nutrient dense, organic, lots of fruits and vegetables). What went wrong? After her diagnosis (while still completing my nutrition degree), I began reading books on cancer, cancer prevention, hormone balance, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and overall wellness. I somehow came across the concept of functional medicine and how fixing the root cause of my wife’s condition was to be at the forefront of the action plan. One book led to another, and yet another, and so forth, leading me down a path of discovery. In the summer of 2019, I was introduced to a naturopathic doctor at UC Irvine that practiced functional medicine. While my wife had an aggressive form of breast cancer that warranted chemotherapy and radiation (to treat her condition), the doctor wanted to integrate FM in her recovery plan and it piggybacked onto some strategies that we were already doing. I became more and more interested in FM and went to her appointments and learned how her UC doctor viewed and treated her from a FM perspective.
The goal was essentially to determine the root cause of the problem, not only looking at nutrition or fitness (which she had already been doing, and continued to do well during her treatment period) but the other pillars of wellness (see diagram below). The five pillars of wellness are what I consider the foundational elements of health. As of today, my wife is doing great. You would have never known what she went through last year if you saw her. I would even go so far as to say that she is as healthy as ever.
As it stands today, the company has evolved into at least a fitness and nutrition business with the goal of integrating the other three pillars of wellness to form an overall wellness center. Equipped with this knowledge, assuming our current crisis will resolve itself, my vision is to take a deeper dive into a client’s health while staying within the scope of practice. As I have told clients, this is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Our goal is to focus on prevention.
Part of functional medicine is identifying appropriate laboratory testing and interpreting results. Most people do not know what to ask their doctors when it comes to labs and test results. We are in a world where test results labelled as “normal” often gets you the “ok everything looks good, see you next year!” response. Why settle for “normal” or “average”? I think it’s important to get more specific. Even when your lab values fall within the normal range, they may not be optimal for your health and longevity. Therefore, it’s important to establish optimal ranges for blood tests. Another issue with physicals and lab work is that sometimes (not always) your healthcare provider will miss trends. For example, if your fasting blood sugar has been 85, 92, 96, 99 (99 is still normal) over the last four years, respectively, shouldn’t there be a discussion with your doctor concerning the trend and rise? You may very well be told “all is normal, see you next year” without any concern.
Functional medicine also includes “mapping”. I have done this with a few clients to begin to uncover more information and draw parallels between symptoms. I then provide suggestions and a list of questions for the client to ask their physician. To illustrate this, I had a client who presented with low energy, overweight, headaches, cold limbs, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar, among other symptoms. I then mapped out these symptoms to help connect the dots:
While I don’t expect anyone to have any idea what this is trying to say (nor should you), I wanted to introduce to you the concept. The body is more complicated than the name and tame (diagnose and medicate) perspective. If it wasn’t, then everyone would be healthy, fertile, within normal weight, and happy as can be. But in our society we have an epidemic of chronic disease. The mapping diagram above tries to draw conclusions and piece things together for root cause resolution. One condition can lead to the onset of another condition and another condition, causing a downward spiral towards ill health. It can be so complicated that even doctors may have a hard time deciphering the interplay of information. In the example above, the client wanted to lose weight, have more energy, and improve mood. Root cause resolution would require a deeper investigation, much like the game Clue, versus just eradicating the symptoms with a lap band and Prozac.
Bear with me in this next paragraph. After filling out the questionnaire, the client and I mapped out a possible interconnectivity with his symptoms. The symptoms suggested that his stress could be a function of lack of sleep which could be a function of his magnesium levels, insulin levels or cortisol which could be a function of low Vitamin D which could be a function of malabsorption or deficiencies from a standard American diet (low in nutrients, high in processed chemicals) which could possibly be connected to a sluggish thyroid (cold hands, overweight, depression, high blood sugar). I know this is probably confusing and looks like a bunch of jargon to a lot of people, but please understand, that’s how the body works. I don’t expect clients to follow along with every little detail, clue and observation, I just want them to understand the concept.
After our mapping session, I sent an email to the client and wanted him to discuss the following tests with his doctor:
-Full Thyroid Panel
-Vitamin D, 25-OH
-Blood Sugar + A1c
-Advanced Lipid Panel
-Anything else the doctor recommends
MY goal, when I complete this course as a functional medicine practitioner should be to act as a liaison between the clients and the doctor, bridging the gap between the root cause of disease and the actual disease, prevention versus cure, not just addressing the symptom or disease. It will be an added service to OC Fitness Coach that I am hoping people really take advantage of rather that just looking at this place as a “gym.” It is much, much deeper than just fitness or even nutrition.
The diagram below shows yet another example of the concept of interconnectivity:
Thus, FM aims to spotlight the root cause of each and every disease, particularly chronic diseases such as autoimmune and cardiovascular disease, as well as metabolic disease such as diabetes and obesity. I think this is an exciting new topic and is the future of medicine. This is not hokey-pokey alternative science with magic remedies and treatment methods, rather the practice investigates and addresses symptoms by focusing on underlying causes of the problem through envisioning the body as an interconnected whole that constantly reacts to the environment and personal choices. We are not designed to be stressed, toxic, inflamed, infected, malnourished, unrested with the expectation of still being happy, healthy, and thriving.
People are motivated more than ever for disease prevention rather than disease treatment. This goes beyond working out and a healthy diet. From the functional medicine lens it is important to maximize the things that support health and wellness and minimize the things that are not supportive. To do this, we need to prioritize things that will create an environment in which one can thrive, heal, and succeed through healthy lifestyle habits. People deserve targeted recommendations specific to their uniqueness addressing basic needs for systemic benefit.
So the bottom line once again, do not look at OC Fitness Coach as just a fitness coach or a place were you can get general nutrition advice. We have much more to offer you as the client.
Dan Tatro-M.S., CSCS, President, OC Fitness Coach