Functional Health: What Is It, and How Does it Apply to Health Coaching?

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by Will Welch, A-CFHC, NBC-HWC

As a Functional Health coach, I’ve always thought that the parable of the four blindfolded men and the elephant was a useful way to think about Functional Health.

Four blindfolded men are brought into a room with an elephant and asked to guess what’s in the room with them. Each man touches one part of the elephant and shares what he has found. The first holds the tail and says, “it must be a rope.” The second feels the leg and declares, “no, it must be a tree.” The third grabs the trunk and says, “this is a snake.” And the fourth tugs on the ear and says, “you’re all wrong because I’ve got a leather jacket here.”

Each man fails to see the bigger picture. He can’t grasp how each of the parts fits together to be an elephant. Imagine if they were able to take off their blindfolds or spend some time exploring and asking questions.

In health coaching, the Functional model of health allows us to take off the blindfold, to view clients as whole people with interdependent parts, and to ask them questions to help them find clarity and harness motivation. We don’t just see clients as a bunch of separate, unrelated parts. Instead, we see them as whole people, and we understand the relationships between their body, environment, diet, lifestyle, past successes and challenges, and vision for the future.

Functional Health coaching is built on the view that each client is a whole person with interdependent parts. Check out this article from health coach Will Welch to find out how the Functional approach impacts health coaching. #kresserinstitute #functionalmedicine #wellness

What Is Functional Health?

Functional Health is a systems-based approach to addressing the root causes of chronic disease and obstacles to wellness, rather than just suppressing symptoms and looking for quick fixes. Using the Functional Health approach, we can understand and explore the relationships between the body’s systems, between people and their environments, and between people’s behavior and their health outcomes.

In Functional Medicine, this approach means that practitioners focus on identifying and addressing the root cause of each patient’s illness. Healthcare becomes a collaborative, patient-centered process that’s focused on prevention and healing, not symptom suppression.

Though the role of a health coach doesn’t include diagnosing illnesses or prescribing treatment, being trained in the Functional Health approach allows coaches to integrate seamlessly within a collaborative, Functional healthcare team. The Functional approach, when used in health coaching, supports clients’ ability to function as a whole rather than focus on one specific symptom or behavior to the neglect of others.

The Importance of the Functional Health Model

Why is the Functional model of health so important? Chronic disease is running rampant in the United States and many other countries throughout the world. You can see how chronic illness is affecting our communities in rising healthcare costs, increased risk for other diseases, and the poor quality of life that many people experience in their last decades. Unfortunately, the conventional model of healthcare is ill-equipped to tackle this problem.

The conventional model excels at acute care, symptom relief, and short-term interventions. This approach is valuable if you have a broken arm. You can walk into the doctor’s office, have them set and cast the bone, fill a prescription for the pain, and then you’re on your way to being as good as new.

But what if you have a chronic illness? The conventional approach would be to prescribe a pill for that, too. But you’ll likely have to take that pill for years, possibly with side effects, and the underlying issue will still be present. We know that 85 percent of chronic illness is due to factors other than genetics (like diet, lifestyle, and environment), and that pill won’t change your environment. (1) So what’s the answer?

The answer is Functional Health. As I mentioned above, practitioners who adopt the Functional Health model look for the root causes of chronic illness and then explore solutions to address those root causes. These solutions often tap into aspects of the immediate environment, like diet, physical activity, sleep, etc., that people have control over and that they can change. These types of solutions aren’t one-size-fits-all like a prescription pill. Instead, they are tailored to each person, for that person’s unique circumstances.

For example, a Functional Medicine practitioner could identify the root cause of a patient’s eczema as high inflammatory foods in the diet and prescribe a 30-day reset diet followed by a slow reintegration of foods to determine whether certain foods trigger the underlying inflammation. The patient could then work with a Functional Health coach to:

  • Start the 30-day reset.
  • Plan for challenges.
  • Explore strengths to lean on.
  • Set weekly SMART goals.

The coach and patient could also explore the client’s understanding of the impact of exercise, sleep, stress, work, and family support on the patient’s health and success of the reset diet, all within the context of making behavioral changes. In the end, the client would have a plan for their eczema that is reinforced by multiple areas of their life and based on healthy habits that they can continue to maintain for years to come. 

Examples like this aren’t a rare occurrence anymore. More and more people are improving their health through a Functional approach, and the healthcare industry is beginning to see the value of this model. Training programs, clinics, and hospitals have started to embrace the Functional model of health, in part because it provides lasting solutions that decrease the long-term cost of healthcare. The Functional model is also easily adapted to a virtual practice so that practitioners can deliver care to patients and clients in underserved areas or areas outside of their location. Lastly, the Functional Health model promotes habit-building around areas of our lives that many people can easily access (e.g., exercise, whole foods, mindfulness, sleep) to improve their health.

A New Model of Health and Wellness

Unlike the conventional approach, Functional Health is about more than clients managing their symptoms or feeling better immediately. It places a great deal of emphasis on the whole person, wellness, and achieving wellness goals through client-directed behavior change. As you might guess, Functional Health doesn’t stop at eliminating disease, but it also promotes mental well-being, healthy mindsets, and sustainable changes to diet and lifestyle.

In contrast, the current healthcare model doesn’t prioritize patients building healthy habits or improving their health through lasting health behavior change. The training that doctors and nurses receive enables them to diagnose, treat, and sometimes educate patients. This training is hugely important in acute care situations. However, it does not translate to the skills needed to facilitate and evoke patients’ behavior change by active listening, reflection, and asking open, powerful questions. All this adds up to a gap in the healthcare system that Functional Health coaches can fill with their expertise in behavior change.

How Do We Fill This Gap in Healthcare?

For those who practice medicine, a Functional Medicine practice emphasizes spending time getting to know patients and truly understand their health concerns. It focuses on diagnostics and treatment plans that target and resolve root causes.

For health coaches, a Functional Health model focuses on exploring with clients (and having them experiment with) behaviors that can improve their health. It also focuses on support for actions that promote wellness, rather than just the absence of disease, and actions that help clients live the healthy, happy lives they envision for themselves.

It would seem natural that Functional Health coaches and practitioners would work together, right? Here at Kresser Institute, in our ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, we emphasize the importance of coaches collaborating with licensed clinicians. A solid understanding of Functional Health is essential to coaches being valuable partners in the current healthcare environment. Health coaches need to be able to plug into existing clinical settings and frameworks, and that’s precisely why Chris started the ADAPT coaching program.

The ADAPT coaching program was born out of necessity. Chris and other practitioners that he had trained were looking to hire health coaches to assist their patients with behavior change. As Chris surveyed existing health coach training programs, he found that none of them offered the full set of skills that he wanted in a health coach. No training program provided:

  • Top-notch coaching training
  • An education in Functional Health and ancestral diets and lifestyles
  • Guidance on running a coaching business and partnering with clinicians
  • A framework to connect these dots

Bringing all these pieces together was the genesis of the ADAPT coaching program and the execution of Chris’s vision for what Functional Health coaching could bring to healthcare.

If we revisit the parable of the blindfolded men and the elephant, you might imagine that this ADAPT model of coaching training does a great job of “removing the blindfold.” The program helps students see “the whole elephant”—or all the factors that affect not just clients’ ability to achieve their goals, but also coaches’ ability to coach well and turn that into a successful career.

How Is the Functional Health Approach Applied?

As I mentioned above, 85 percent of our risk for chronic disease comes from factors in our diets, lifestyles, and environment—meaning this risk comes from our lifestyle and behavior. It makes sense, then, that helping clients align their lifestyle and behavior with how their bodies are hardwired is a critical step that we can take to prevent and reverse chronic disease, extend lifespan, and improve the quality of life.

Health coaches don’t act as nutrition, fitness, or medical experts. But with an expertise in a Functional approach to health, health coaches will be better equipped to understand their clients’ health and they will be able to use this expertise when their clients ask for it. Health coaching is all about supporting clients and empowering them to make long-lasting, successful behavior changes. Some clients won’t ask for expert information, and may be able to figure out what diet, exercise, or sleep routine they want to start, but other clients may ask you for resources or give you permission to step into an expert role and share what you know on a topic. In those situations, the information that you then provide and how you provide it can be the difference between these clients’ success and failure.

As coaches, we have to meet our clients “where they are.” For one, meeting clients where they are means abandoning our personal agenda as a coach (we don’t have the “right” answer). It also means having the training to:

  • Understand our clients’ health challenges.
  • Listen for what they’re ready for.
  • Spot red flags that pop up as clients work on their health.

All told, the Functional Health model is simple and straightforward to understand, but it’s not easy to implement. Though this is not done from a clinical or diagnostic point of view, the process that Functional Health coaches and their clients go through to explore root causes and implement solutions requires exploration, thoughtfulness, and experimentation. For clients, this means being patient and consistent and putting in the work to build lasting habits. For coaches, this means listening to your clients and allowing them to discover their own vision and motivation for change—and helping your clients connect to their motivation, values, joys, and the inner meaning that comes from making a successful change—while you provide structure, support, and accountability. Successful behavior change can take time, but ultimately, the “right” changes are those that fit the client best. These are the solutions that can last a lifetime.

How to Become a Functional Health Coach

What do health coaches need to do and know to be Functional Health coaches? Let’s briefly unpack 10 fundamentals of Functional Health coaching.

1. Know the Nutrition Fundamentals

What foods support our health, and why? Why does it make sense to eat a whole foods anti-inflammatory diet, and what does this mean?

2. Understand the Effectiveness of Different Diets

What are the benefits of one type of diet over another? How could a client with a certain illness benefit from one diet over another?

3. Understand the Principles of Safe and Effective Supplementation

A food-first approach is a great place to start with clients, but this doesn’t cover all the nutritional bases for everyone.

4. Offer Clients Support with Food Preparation and Selection

Understanding how to select healthy food and learning effective, time-saving methods to prepare it are essential steps so that clients don’t become overwhelmed as they work to eat healthier.

5. Support Your Clients with Lifestyle Factors, Too

There’s a lot more to health than food, so you should be able to support your clients as they address lifestyle factors such as:

6. Understand the Range of Specific Conditions That Clients May Discuss

This knowledge will not only give you credibility and build trust with your clients, but it will also help you spot red flags and refer clients to the right healthcare providers in your network. These conditions include:

7. Support Clients in Implementing Recommendations or Protocols Prescribed by Licensed Providers

Being able to provide treatment protocol support is valuable whether you’re working in a clinic or just coaching clients who are getting these protocols from their doctor or practitioner.

8. Explain and Clarify Treatment Protocols

As a coach, you may serve as the liaison between the practitioner and their patient (your client), so you need to understand the protocols and why clinicians prescribe them.

9. Deliver Educational Classes and Run Coaching Groups

There’s a big move toward group care in both integrative and conventional medicine because groups are more accessible and scalable than one-on-one sessions.

10. Offer Guidance and Resources When Clients Explicitly Ask for Them

Although it’s not the job of health coaches to direct and prescribe, if clients ask explicitly for resources and guidance, then health coaches need to be able to provide effective evidence-based options within their scope of practice.

Mastering the knowledge and skills represented in these 10 fundamentals requires more than just reading and studying over a few months. To become an excellent Functional Health coach, you need to:

  • Practice coaching on real clients.
  • Get mentorship from experienced coaches.
  • Find a community to support your development.
  • Understand coaching ethics and scope of practice.
  • Dedicate yourself to professional development.
  • Work through case studies.
  • Cultivate humility so that your knowledge base supplies you with supportive information for your clients rather than the “right answers.”
The ADAPT Health Coach Training Program covers all these critical areas that are necessary to become a skilled Functional Health coach. The program is one of a small number of programs approved by the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching—ADAPT-Certified Functional Health Coaches can sit for the National Board exam, which is one of the highest credentials for health and wellness coaches in the world. For more on our coaching program, visit the program page.

How to Find Functional Medicine Practitioners or Functional Health Coaches

For people who are looking for a Functional Medicine practitioner or Functional Health coach, it’s important to understand the background of the professional you are interested in working with. Does this person have practical skills training in Functional Health? How have they used this training in their practice? The Kresser Institute is committed to training practitioners and coaches who have a deep understanding of Functional Health and a commitment to helping people improve their health. To find an ADAPT-trained practitioner or health coach, visit our directory page.