So what exactly is nutritional therapy?

Welcome to my very first blog post as Empowered Nutrition! I’m hoping to post lots of information on optimising your health through nutrition and lifestyle, which I hope you will find interesting. And if there’s a topic you’d like to learn about that I haven’t covered yet, please let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to oblige.

As I’m now in my final year studying Naturopathic Nutrition, I’ve started thinking about setting up in practice as a nutritional therapist. Exciting and just a bit scary! I did a little market research to find out people’s perceptions of nutritional therapy and natural health (if you’re reading this and you took part in the research, then thank you very much!) and one of the issues that emerged was an uncertainty about what nutritional therapy is. So in my first post I’m hoping to clear up some of the confusion and give you a little insight into the world of the nutritional therapist.

So what’s to understand? Everyone knows what a balanced diet is, don’t they? There are articles on healthy eating in every newspaper and magazine. Why would you want to go to see someone to tell you what to eat? Your mum did that for you, didn’t she?

Well, the science of nutrition is one thing, and the applied science of nutritional therapy is built upon it. Most nutritional therapists in the UK have been trained in the functional medicine model, and to understand what a nutritional therapist does, it’s helpful to understand just a little bit about functional medicine, because it can be a whole new way of thinking about health and disease.

Functional medicine is a movement that began in the US but which has now spread all over the world. Functional medicine practitioners aim to address the underlying causes of disease rather than simply easing symptoms. For example, let’s consider what might happen if a patient with rheumatoid arthritis visited a functional medicine doctor. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition – that is, the immune system has become overactive and has mistakenly begun to attack a part of the body, in this case, the joints. A regular doctor might prescribe immunosuppressant medication to ease the immune system attack and thus reduce joint pain – but this could leave the patient prone to infections. A functional medicine doctor, on the other hand, would regard the rheumatoid arthritis as the end result of a long process in the body, and would try to find out, by spending time with the patient and taking a detailed medical history, what the factors might be which had led to the dysregulation of the immune system. The doctor could then address these factors and change the environment within the body so that the body can begin to heal itself.

Of course nutritional therapists aren’t doctors – we don’t diagnose disease and we don’t prescribe medications. But the principles are similar. A client might come in to clinic with a medical diagnosis. Or they may not have a diagnosed condition, but they might not be feeling as good as they know they could be, perhaps with low energy or poor digestion. Rather than jumping to conclusions based on the illness (“Digestive issues? Probiotics will sort that – job done”), a good nutritional therapist will spend a long time taking a history from the client, to find out what the unique set of factors are that have come together to result in less than optimal health. This might mean going right back to childhood and finding out about all those antibiotics that a client took for recurrent tonsillitis. Or asking about travel habits and finding out that someone has never felt well again since having a tummy bug in Thailand. Or finding out how a client deals with stress. The point here is that there are many potential causes of the same issue (in this imaginary case, digestive disorders) and it’s important to find that cause!

Interestingly, often a nutritional therapy consultation is the first opportunity that a client has ever had to talk about all their health issues at once. Understanding how everything that happens in the body is linked, and understanding the processes that have led to ill health can be a huge eye-opener, and can really empower clients to feel that they can take steps to influence their health for the better. I have certainly found this to be the case for me, and it’s why I have decided to call my practice Empowered Nutrition. Acknowledging that what has happened to you in the past (whether by chance or by accident) has influenced your health today does not mean blaming yourself for what you did or didn’t do. By recognising that how we lead our lives has an impact on our health, we can become empowered to take steps to change our health for the better. And nutrition is a very accessible and powerful way of doing that.

Once you have established the likely cause of illness, the “therapy” part of nutritional therapy begins. In any illness, the body is operating out of its natural balance. Our bodies are amazing, and always want to work towards achieving an optimal balance, but poor nutrition, stress, toxins and infections can lead to imbalance. Many imbalances can be corrected through optimising nutrition – giving the body what it needs. Sometimes other interventions, such as exercise, relaxation or dealing with emotions, are needed. This is why there is no “one size fits all” approach. Each person is unique, with a unique history bringing them to the point at which they are today, so each person will need a different therapy plan to help bring their body back to its natural balance.

Clients would come away from a nutritional therapy consultation with a personalised health plan, which would have grown entirely out of their own “health story” and would aim to set the client on the road to achieving their health goals. This would include comprehensive advice on changes to be made with tips on how to make change, ideas for menu plans and some recipes, links to further useful resources and recommendations for other lifestyle changes (such as exercise or relaxation). Although food is the basis for the personalised health plan, supplements may also be recommended if appropriate.

Often clients seek the advice of a nutritional therapist after a long and troubled health history, perhaps almost viewing nutritional therapy as a last resort. This was my own experience, so no judgements here! This doesn’t mean that only those with relatively serious problems can benefit from nutritional therapy. Too many of us put up with minor niggles which prevent us from feeling our best, assuming that these are unavoidable consequences of modern life or of aging. It doesn’t have to be like this! Nutritional therapy can support your body to deal with digestive issues, sleep problems, fatigue, depression or anxiety, aches and pains and skin problems. If you consider yourself to be relatively healthy but feel that you should feel better than you do, then nutritional therapy might be for you.

Over the next few months between now and my graduation I hope that you’ll stick with me as I share health tips, some of my favourite recipes and information about common health conditions.

Stay well,


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