Functional Testing for Complex Client Cases with Sharon Strahan

June 24, 2021

We chatted with Sharon Strahan, a Registered Nutritional Therapist and Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner, who works with people who have complex health cases and want to work towards getting to the bottom of their issues and move towards optimal health.

Sharon is also a Nutrigenetic Counsellor and can use genetic testing along with other functional testing to individually tailor nutrition advice to take into account family history.

Let’s dive in and hear more from Sharon about functional testing!

What drew you to a career as a Registered Nutritional Therapist?

I received a degree in Dietetics (Hons) from a US University, but a thirst for travel and living abroad took me in a totally different direction and I ended up working in finance and IT for many years. When I was about 31 my mother passed away from cancer, and she was only 67 so it was a real wake-up call. My first thought was – this will be me if I don’t begin to take my health seriously. We have a long history of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and mental illness in my family, and I know that diet and lifestyle greatly impact these things but I didn’t want my genes to “doom” me without me trying to do something about it.

So I started out by seeing a nutritional therapist myself here in the UK and then decided to retrain (again!) in nutrition and obtained my degree here in the UK.

What prompted you to start using genetic testing and other functional testing in your practice?

About six or seven years ago I went to a seminar where one presenter was talking about nutrigenomics and it totally fascinated me so I went on a training course which was a practical introduction to using genetic testing in clinical practice. They advocated using other functional tests such as urinary organic acids testing to be able to determine which SNPs (gene portions) were “expressing”. A genetic test alone shouldn’t be a diagnosis – it’s a predisposition. The famous saying is “genes load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger”.

From there, I fell into a rabbit hole where my interest in genetic and functional testing just kept expanding. I did a genetic test and an organic acid test on myself as a learning exercise and I just had one ‘aha’ moment after another. My family history of certain illnesses, my own experience with bipolar disorder 2, anxiety, depression and asthma. It all made sense finally – I didn’t feel like a victim of fate but felt like I had some control. Knowledge is power as they say. I also attended my first IFM training not too long after this – which drove me to learn more about functional medicine.

What is the benefit of including functional testing as part of a Nutritional Therapy practice?

It has been a real game-changer for me and my clients: it makes such an impact to share test results with clients because it really helps them understand what’s going on when they see it for themselves. So many people may have thought (or been told) that their symptoms were nothing real or just in their heads. I try to help them understand how the test results relate to their symptoms. Then if we retest later, they are thrilled to see the changes taking place. It is such a great motivator.

It is also really helpful for prioritizing their program as I believe in working strategically on just one or two things at a time instead of taking a “shotgun” approach. This plan also helps clients focus on one main thing to work on first instead of getting confused by too much too soon.

I also find combining genetic testing with other functional testing as a great way of giving clients the “why” as well as the “what” for what’s going on with them. The clarity and understanding they gain is amazing.  I do find that some clients feel confused by their symptoms. I can then explain to them where their genetic predispositions might be coming into play.

You have a passion for complex client cases! What draws you to the more unique cases that often require a deeper dive?

I do like complex cases because they are a challenge and I feel these are the people who need our help the most. These clients have often seen many different practitioners looking for answers and relief. Doing functional testing allows you to peel off layers and see where their issues are. For instance, someone might come in with symptoms like migraines, anxiety, depression, bloating after eating, and fatigue – and all their symptoms improve when they go abroad on holiday. You might say – well, sure, wouldn’t we ALL feel better if we go abroad on holiday! – but I would also think perhaps a sunnier climate means extra Vitamin D? Getting away from a toxic environment or people?  What do they eat there that they don’t eat at home and vice versa? While I would want to check the usual markers around fatigue such as adrenals, thyroid, iron, etc., I would also want to know various vitamin and mineral statuses, gut health, and oxidative stress, and toxic exposures. A genetic test would also be excellent for pinpointing something like weaknesses in methylation, neurotransmitter, or glutathione production, for instance.

Of course, I always have a wish list with clients, but I have to work with their budgets and expectations as well. I often have to choose the one single test that will give the most useful information for their case. Either way, functional testing can help connect the dots and give those lightbulb moments to you and your client.

Which Practice Better features allow you to support your complex client cases?

I offer an initial discovery call to potential clients, so I can give them a link to book our meeting directly in my PB / Google calendar. I can also provide a few questions I like them to answer before we speak, and I give them the option of a call or a video chat via PB. Many people choose the PB video call and honestly, I think that helps conversion over a phone call because they can see your face and can see that you want to help them.

The chat function is invaluable as I think clients feel better cared for when they can just ping you a question and you can just answer them, in a secure and private way.  It keeps our conversations organized in a way that trawling through dozens of emails simply does not. It also helps to just send a little motivation to a struggling client. A one-liner of “hang in there, you’re really doing well” can make a big difference.

I have all my questionnaires set up as forms in PB. I have several base protocols that I can use and tweak and a number of lifestyle and diet recommendations too. No more reinventing the wheel for each client.

I share test results or food plans via the chat function or by uploading them to their documents section. They can also share past test results with me that way.

I tend to keep my notes in a single note document for each client – I just add a new text section for each session. Or I might add two text sections – one just for my notes and one to share with the client. I also have the IFM Matrix and Timeline as Note templates.

I use the Task function a lot to either remind them to do a lifestyle activity such as take a daily walk or to remember to ask their GP for blood test results.

What advice do you have for other practitioners who are interested in adding functional testing into their practice?

I would say if you don’t know much about testing already, then start learning about it.  Many labs have free webinars talking about their products and practical application. They have practitioner portals where you can have access to past webinars, interpretation guides, etc. Register with them as a practitioner and get on their mailing lists. Find a mentor if you can. I have mentored a few other practitioners too who asked if I could help get them started.

The labs have tech support teams, so I suggest you use them to learn. I still book my support calls for a test result if I have any questions come up. It’s a great way to learn what the results mean and it only takes up to 15 or 20 minutes.

Also – start small – don’t try to become an expert in all tests all at once. First focus on the test(s) which relate most to your practice. Do you specialize in thyroid health? Then dig deeper into thyroid testing and adrenal testing too (in my opinion). If you specialize in gut health – look at stool tests. If you specialize in hormones then maybe dive deep into DUTCH tests. Do a test on yourself and learn based on your knowledge of your own body.

If you are interested in genetic testing but don’t know where to start, perhaps consider one of the companies that provide reports that are already easily understandable by your client and don’t require a lot of interpretation on your part. Once you’re comfortable with that, you can dive deeper into more complex test reports. Lastly, invest in yourself and your practice – pick some relevant training courses and go from there!

Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Sharon!

You can learn more about Sharon by visiting her website or connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.

Practice Better is the complete practice management platform for nutritionists, dietitians, and wellness professionals. Streamline your practice and begin your 14-day free trial today.

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