NACOGDOCHES, Texas — Food, nutrition and dietetics graduate interns at Stephen F. Austin State University are learning how to holistically examine a variety of issues in different body systems — even if they seem unrelated — to help their clients feel better.
Integrative and functional medicine combines conventional medicine with complementary therapies to provide a systems-based approach rather than a symptom-by-symptom assessment.
The integrative and functional medicine model was first proposed by Dr. Jeffrey Bland in the 1980s and is gaining momentum. Bland cofounded The Institute for Functional Medicine in 1991.
Dr. Darla O’Dwyer, associate professor in SFA's food, nutrition and dietetics program, offers an example of this model used for a client with eczema, depression and diarrhea, three seemingly unrelated symptoms.
“Rather than treating each of these symptoms separately, the practitioner will take an extensive health history and assess diet, lifestyle factors, gut health, conventional and functional lab testing, and genetics to determine the underlying cause,” O’Dwyer said. “Five people who have the same symptom could have five totally different root causes.”
In 2018, two integrative and functional nutrition/medicine courses were added to SFA’s Master of Science in human sciences, a 36-hour program offered in combination with a dietetic internship.
Gabriella Deleski completed this internship as part of the master’s degree she earned last year at SFA.
“During my internship, I had the opportunity to work with professionals from different backgrounds in a variety of settings,” she said. “What I appreciated most about this program is that it exposed me to diverse areas within the field of dietetics.”
Students take the integrative and functional nutrition/medicine courses during their 1,200-hour supervised practice. The functional medicine approach also is woven into assignments and seminar courses, which are required in the supervised practice component of the program.
Deleski said she’s already using what she learned during her internship in her new career as a registered dietitian at Vitality Weight Loss and Wellness Institute in Plano, where she specializes in obesity prevention and treatment.
“I firmly believe that my education in integrative nutrition from SFA allows me to treat my patients holistically and provide them with care that is uniquely suited for them,” she said.
According to the 2019 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Standards of Practice and Standards of Professional Performance, integrative and functional medicine principles are increasingly accepted by health care professionals and institutions. Registered dietitians can apply integrative and functional medicine principles across all areas of practice.
The Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has more than 5,200 members and is steadily growing.
“It is important that our dietetic interns at SFA are equipped with the skills to handle root cause resolution to chronic disease by employing integrative and functional medicine,” O’Dwyer said. “It is the future of health care, and we at SFA are embracing this new paradigm.”