Functional Medicine Certified Health Coaching...What Exactly Is That?

When I first got into procurement as a profession a billion years ago, my best friend, a teacher, found it a little challenging to effectively describe my job to people. After all, "strategic sourcing" and "procurement" both sound a bit like corporate speak to begin with, and "buyer" can mean basically anything. So in the end, after several highly entertaining rounds of word charades, she threw in the towel and borrowed a line from one of our favorite Friends episodes. She now refers to me simply as a transpondster (and if that reference resonates, you're welcome).

It's a good thing she has that mental device handy, because she may now be using it to describe my wellness role as well. As a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach, my bestie now must consider questions like the following when describing my work to someone:

  1. Which 'function' does this pertain to, precisely?
  2. Did she study medicine at some point?
  3. Is there fitness training or a specific sport involved?
  4. What type of health does this kind of thing support, anyway?

Given the generous well of question marks on the topic, I thought it might be a good idea to take a few minutes to walk through the particular role of the Functional Medicine Health Coach and describe how our work differs from that of others in the wellness community ... and from transpondsters, for that matter.

What is Functional Medicine?

Let's start here, since we coaches ultimately support the art and science of functional medicine. Per the Cleveland Clinic, "Functional medicine is a personalized, systems-oriented model that empowers patients and practitioners to achieve the highest expression of health by working in collaboration to address the underlying causes of disease". All righty, then. There's a lot to chew on here (and chewing is important), so let's break down this definition into its key components:

  • Systems-Oriented: This field focuses on the integrative nature of the body and its systems rather than taking a "single system" approach. For example, a functional medicine practitioner will likely want to understand neurological and gut health when treating a hormone imbalance. We humans are a company of many dancers all twirling simultaneously, and we must tailor our wellness approaches to benefit each and every person on the stage.
  • Personalized: Care is taken to understand the unique construct of each patient or client, from diet to lifestyle to life history and beyond, based on the belief that each individual is just that - an individual, and the congregation of a person's life experiences have a key role in explaining that person's current state. This is N = 1 medicine.
  • Underlying Causes: A basic tenet of functional medicine is its work to identify and address the root cause of disease rather than treating symptoms alone. And this root cause may involve several distinct but interrelated system factors, some that might even come as a surprise to the individual, and some that may require a bit of professional detective work to uncover.
  • Highest Expression of Health: Functional medicine integrates therapeutic approaches across all areas of life-mind, body and spirit. One of the trade jokes is that you may be just as likely to walk out of your functional medicine doctor's office with a prescription for meditation as you are for medication. In healing as well as in root cause identification, all systems and areas of a person dance together to build wellness.

One additional note here. When we talk about a functional medicine practitioner, it is any medical professional that has been trained in the clinical aspects of functional medicine through one of several recognized organizations, such as the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). These practitioners may be MDs, RNs, acupuncturists, nutritionists, chiropractors or medical professionals of other stripes. Their overall clinical scope of practice will vary based on their license, so it's key for you as a patient to review a potential provider's credentials, think about what you're looking for in that medical relationship, and assess that against the type of care and consult that practitioner is permitted to provide.

OK, OK. But What Does a Functional Medicine Health Coach Do?

OK, OK, fair enough. The IFM expresses our role quite well by stating that we "guide patients to optimum wellness using Functional Medicine, Functional Nutrition, Mind-Body Medicine, and Positive Psychology Coaching; which - embraces and enhances people's higher selves to achieve optimal functioning."

Such training enables us, whether in partnership with practitioners or in private practice, to fully understand the integrated needs of our clients and support their related treatment plans and overall wellness journey. One important note here. An FMHC or NBC-HWC coaching credential alone does not authorize us to prescribe meds or supplements, diagnose, or treat a condition; however, we are knowledgeable about these areas and can support clients in moving along on their wellness path.

This work is the universal role of the FM-certified coach - the common denominator, if you will. However, it explains only a part of the benefit that we offer. Equally compelling are the unique skills that each coach brings to the mix. My training cohort at the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy (FMCA) included a nurse, a social worker, a marketing exec, an holistic nutritionist, and a PhD in English literature, among others. Our field presents a lovely combo of highly diverse backgrounds, united by a shared passion to support others in the blossoming of mind-body-spirit health.

It is in this diversity that the real beauty of functional medicine health coaching lies. Like our clients, each coach is N = 1, and that provides us with a fantastic opportunity to serve and support those individuals for whom our background most resonates. For me, as a longtime transpondster, I focus on corporate wellness, self-care programs for working parents, etc. I'm also a certified yoga instructor, and so my services include offerings in that space as well. My RN friend has a wider medical "scope of practice" due to her license, and can get closer than others to clinical areas of focus. My nutritionist friend incorporates diet recommendations and programs into her work.

The variations in our offerings as coaches are beautifully broad. To help a client navigate their options, most of us share on our websites, insta profiles or bios those areas that comprise our niche, making it easier for coach seekers to find just the right match. Training organizations like the FMCA also have a coach matching program, and will recommend specific alumni that may fit a prospective client's needs. Finally, coaches love to collaborate with each other and cross-refer, all helping to ensure a client is matched with the partner that can best support his or her unique profile.

Does It Work?

In a word, absolutely.  Clinical trials are now proving out the value of this personalized and integrative approach to wellness management from several perspectives.  For instance, a randomized, controlled trial conducted by two medical centers in Toronto1 found an improvement in A1C, waist circumference and other indicators among patients with Type 2 Diabetes who had received the benefit of coaching.  From another perspective, coaching has an ameliatory effect on cognitive health via lifestyle modification, as exemplified through studies on neuroplasticity in coached members of the older population2. And the benefits extend far beyond there. Anxiety management, back pain, and approach to working with chronic issues are also showing benefit through application of a wellness coaching practice3.

So there you have it. The definition of Functional Medicine Health Coaching may still be a bit of a mouthful, but that's simply because the offering is so very rich and deep. My friend may read this piece, but I'm not holding my breath in anticipation that she'll let go of that Friends reference anytime soon, even if it's no longer required. It really is good writing, after all. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go call my invisible friend Maurice. If you know what his profession is, comment below!


1) Wayne, Noah and Kaplan, David M., et. al (2015, May 10). Health Coaching Reduces HbA1c in Type 2 Diabetic Patients From a Lower-Socioeconomic Status Community: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Publications.

2) Phillips, Cristy. (2017, June 12). Lifestyle Modulators of Neuroplasticity: How Physical Activity, Mental Engagement, and Diet Promote Cognitive Health during Aging. Hindawi.

3) The Institute for Functional Medicine. Health Coaching as a Strategy to Enhance Your Practice.