What Is The Functional Medicine Approach To Nutrition?
To understand how nutrition fits into a functional medicine approach you firstly need to understand what functional medicine is. Functional Medicine is a “systems biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. There is not just one root cause for a condition. It’s multi-factorial and should be looked at as a whole versus one individual part.
Similarly, when looking at nutrition with a functional medicine approach, treatments not only address symptoms but the causes too. It is a holistic approach to diet, taking into account that each person is unique. One’s lifestyle factors can affect one’s diet, such as their environment or the presence of chronic disease. Even one’s genes can affect one’s nutritional health (we will discuss this in our next article - stay tuned). Nutrition in a functional medicine manner is therefore tailored to meet the individual’s unique needs.
You may have heard the phrase “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” coined by the ancient physician Hippocrates many centuries ago. Food certainly is a key component of health and the wrong diet can cause many physical and mental problems, whilst the right foods can make a huge positive impact on overall wellbeing.
Although a detailed nutrition treatment must be individualised for each patient, the following tips generally have a huge impact on health for most.
5 Top Nutritional Tips
1) Eat a Rainbow of Plant Foods
Fruits and vegetables contain pre-biotics which help to feed our good bacteria. These good bacteria then go on to make, what we are now calling “post-biotics” (such as short chained fatty acids) which have a local calming effect on the guts immune system and systemically on the body. A calmer immune system means less inflammation which generally helps mood. These post-biotic metabolites have been recently shown to be influencing the brain via the gut-brain axis, reducing brain inflammation and helping increasing mood. It is important to eat a rainbow of colours on a daily basis because each fruit and vegetable is a different colour which brings something different to the table that is helpful to health. The more diverse the colours on the plate the healthier your bacteria will be, the better they can help you and your moods.
A really helpful tip is to view your intake of fruit and veg in terms of colours, concentrating not just on getting your 5 a day but how many colours you are having. Why not stick an A4 rainbow colour sheet on your fridge so that you can tick off how many colours you have had in the day - more is better (it's no good just eating broccoli each day on its own). This is great to get the whole family involved as well. Another tip is to aim for 50 different plant foods a week (this includes herbs and spices!).
Herbs and spices are particularly effective at getting your plant food numbers up. Herbs and spices contain some of the most powerful and helpful compounds to humans. For example, cardamon not only reduces blood pressure and heart disease it also helps with reducing depression and anxiety.
2) Avoid Processed Foods
Typical Western diets are generally high in processed foods and these foods are not an essential part of our diet. In fact, this type of diet has been linked with the rise in obesity, heart disease, cancer, auto-immunity, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, diseases that now plague Westernised populations. Cutting out or even reducing processed foods can have beneficial effects on health such as reducing the low-grade inflammation that is often an underlying causative mechanism of these modern-day diseases.
Any type of diet that cuts out or even reduces processed foods in favour of nutrient dense whole foods will have health benefits. Whether it’s Paleo, Mediterranean, vegetarian, vegan, whole food diet, plant-based diet etc.
3) Adopt a High Fibre Diet
Eating a high-fibre diet helps to support healthy detoxification by aiding regular bowel movements. High fibre foods include things like fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, whole grains, and fermented foods like yogurt and kombucha. Fibre is essential for a healthy gut, and a healthy gut is essential for optimal overall health, physically and mentally. Gut health contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, healthy sleep, and effective digestion, and it may help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases. Read our recent article on the importance of gut health here.
4) Address Inflammation
Growing research shows that chronic inflammation is a root cause of many diseases. Omega-3 fatty acids found in foods such as fatty fish, walnuts, and chia seeds help reduce inflammation in the body and are therefore valuable tools in treating and preventing illness. The spice turmeric is also highly anti-inflammatory.
5) Support a Healthy Lifestyle Alongside Your Diet
In order to benefit from the nutrients you are feeding your body, it is essential to live a healthy lifestyle. Lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress can hugely impact the way your body digests the food you eat. Sleep deprivation as well as too much stress can also lead to a choice in the wrong ‘feel-good’ foods, usually high in sugar which can cause a crash in both your mood and energy. By taking a look at your life experiences beyond the plate, functional medicine can support you in making better nutritional and lifestyle choices that fit your needs and goals.
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