Functional Medicine with Amy Sapola

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As a mother of two, avid gardener, cook, and yogi, Amy Sapola has an integrative approach to health and wellness, both personally and professionally. And today, as a Functional Medicine Practitioner, she’ll be telling us all about what she does and why this particular care is helpful, with a healthy dose of tips for proper gut health. Let’s dive in.

OUR INTERVIEW

Can you explain what functional medicine is? Functional Medicine is a “systems biology” based approach that is used to identify and address the root cause of disease. Too often, “symptoms” are treated as the primary issue without getting to the bottom of what is actually going on. So Functional Medicine is holistic, considering the whole person — mind, body, and spirit.

“what is your body trying to tell you in its infinite wisdom?”

What made you decide to go into your particular field and array of services? I have always felt aligned with a more holistic approach to health. I enjoyed being in nature and gardening from a young age, and still do to this day. I also became interested in food in 8th grade, when I decided to eat differently from everyone else in my family. Because of this, I often cooked for myself, which was challenging at first, but soon became something I really enjoyed. Through this experience, I became deeply interested in how nutrition could influence health and wellbeing. And as I’ve gotten older and continued cooking and expanding my garden, I have developed a deep appreciation for the power of food as medicine and love to share this with others.

My intention with getting a Bachelors of Science in Nutrition was to be able to help people come off of or avoid medication through diet and lifestyle. That, plus being a Pharmacist allows me to understand prescription medications, vitamins, and supplements, as well as how they work and when they are beneficial. Ultimately, all of this gives me the unique ability to work with patients who are looking to change their lives and improve their wellness.

I also absolutely love learning. Just ask my husband, who often asks “what’s next” each time I finish a training. After seeing Dr. T. Low Dog speak at the AIHM conference in 2015, I knew I wanted to join the AIHM Integrative Medicine Fellowship and was accepted and started soon after. This was a two year interdisciplinary fellowship in Integrative Medicine, which I completed in 2018. During this time, I became increasingly interested in Functional Medicine and thought that it very much complemented what I was learning in my fellowship program ... so I decided to concurrently complete training in Functional Medicine with the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). 

Studying both Integrative and Functional Medicine has been a wonderful experience, transforming how I view health and healing both personally and professionally. I feel so fortunate to have followed this unique path because it incorporates so many of my passions and allows me to help others reclaim their health, all at once. I also love teaching. I have a 4th year Doctor of Pharmacy class, hold women’s retreats, and teach Ayurveda, cooking, and gardening to people of all ages in our community.

This holistic approach to health has also given me a greater appreciation for energy medicine, as well as finding one's own intuition and quieting down the mind enough to listen. I recently had the pleasure of spending time with Dr. Bill Manahan while interviewing him for my podcast (Nourish and Shine), where he shared that he often asks “what is your body trying to tell you in its infinite wisdom?” I love this question and invite readers to ponder this with relation to any chronic symptoms they may be experiencing.

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What is a functional medicine consultation like from the patient’s point of view? While the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) provides so many great tools for Functional Medicine providers to utilize, each provider may conduct a consultation somewhat differently (depending on their scope of practice, specialty), although the fundamentals should be similar. As a Pharmacist, Nutritionist, and Certified Wellness Coach, I have to stay within my scope of practice (so am unable to prescribe medications), but work closely with a team of clinicians to provide the best care possible for patients.

I always send new clients a long questionnaire that’s about 17 pages. Functional Medicine considers many factors as contributors to health, so this questionnaire asks about diet, lifestyle, family, social, and health history, including childhood factors, environmental exposures, and so much more. I personally review all of this prior to the first appointment so that I understand the client’s history and can explore further during their initial consultation.

The consultation is often 60-90 minutes, which allows us to really dive into what is going on. I want to hear all about the client's story, set goals, and explore potential triggering events, perpetuating factors, and lifestyle factors. Often, people seek out Functional Medicine practitioners for issues that can be complex and may require testing, dietary changes (such as an elimination diet), use or adjustment of vitamins or supplements, and / or major lifestyle changes. After that, I typically work with clients in more of a coaching role to help them implement and maintain all of these changes, or make recommendations which they can then discuss with their primary care providers.

“being able to properly digest and assimilate the food that you are eating is imperative to good health.”

This week’s story is about one person’s story with gut health. How can functional medicine be helpful for someone dealing with this? Gut health is fundamental to overall health and is too often oversimplified with quick “fixes,” such as taking a probiotic without making any other diet or lifestyle changes. Being able to properly digest and assimilate the food that you are eating is imperative to good health. Inability to do so has been tied to many symptoms including brain fog, memory issues, pain, depression, and anxiety.

Maintaining a healthy gut can be difficult as we are regularly exposed to gut health disruptors from our food supply (e.g. glyphosate), medications (e.g. antibiotics), emotional stress, and environmental toxins.

There are also many foods in the Standard American Diet which are inflammatory. These are often identified as processed foods, which are high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, trans-fats, and also includes processed oils (corn, soy, canola, etc.), alcohol, and for some, may include foods to which they are sensitive (such as wheat, dairy, soy, etc.).

Functional Medicine seeks out the root cause. So in relation to gut health, I work with patients to first identify what might be causing disruption to their gut health. After removing these disruptors, we look at how we can optimize gut health. This often involves dietary changes that encourages the enjoyment of whole foods, which are healing to the gut and nourishing to the body (including anti-inflammatory foods and pre and probiotics from fermented foods).

It is also important to consider the energetic and emotional components of gut health. What are you doing when you are eating? Are you angry or thinking negative thoughts? Are you being kind to yourself? Are you on the run? How do you feel about the food that’s in front of you? All of these factors influence how well food is digested in our bodies.

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“what are you doing when you are eating? aAre you angry or thinking negative thoughts? are you on the run? how do you feel about the food that’s in front of you? all of these factors influence how well food is digested in our bodies.”

What other health challenges can functional medicine be effective for? Functional Medicine is beneficial to consider for many conditions (hormone imbalance, infertility, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, auto-immune diseases, fibromyalgia, anxiety, and depression, to name a few). For those who are interested in working with a practitioner, this website allows you to search by location, specialty, or condition. It’s important to make sure that you are working with someone who has formal training and experience in your particular condition, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Are there any universal tips you can share as far as functional medicine is concerned? Functional Medicine is really about practicing individualized lifestyle medicine, so it’s difficult to share universal tips. However, one of the most effective tools I often recommend is the Elimination Diet. This is helpful for so many people who may be trying to determine if they have food allergies or sensitivities without having to do costly testing. While this is preferably done with a skilled practitioner who can provide customization and support, you can also try it on your own:

  • There is usually a “lead in period” where you would reduce to the point of discontinuing caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods, as well as the most likely culprits (like soy, dairy, gluten, and any other foods you suspect you might be allergic or sensitive to).

  • Then, for 21 days, you would totally avoid those foods.

  • After, you would reintroduce each of the potential allergenic foods one at a time for 3 days and document any noticeable symptoms. If you have no symptoms upon reintroduction, you can resume eating that food. But if you do have symptoms, it’s advised to avoid that food moving forward.

Most people who complete an elimination diet, even if skeptical at first, will notice significant improvements to how they feel by the end of the elimination phase (21 days).

“functional medicine is really about practicing individualized lifestyle medicine.”

What would you say to someone who is skeptical about functional medicine? I’d say give it a try! While Functional Medicine is not for everybody, there are many people that find this approach helpful. Often times, those that are the most skeptical may not understand what Functional Medicine entails, so I highly recommend checking out the IFM website to learn more.


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