Functional Medicine is Personal

Brett Sparks, July 26, 2016

It’s not often that I answer the phones at my wife’s practice anymore. There was a time that I worked the front desk a couple of days a week. I answered phones, checked patients in, verified insurance—everything that makes primary care front desk an exciting and rewarding position. I don’t answer phones much anymore—or do any of what I once did—because I’ve become obsolete. The paper charts I searched for are gone, replaced by an EMR that I don’t know very well. The phone system that I programmed was replaced two systems ago, so I don’t even know how to put a call on hold or transfer it.

But for some reason, I decided I would “help out” by answering some phone calls while I was at the office. I think I answered four or five calls before it became clear that I wasn’t helping—and the staff hasn’t asked for my “help” again. One of the calls I did answer was interesting and provided me with a unique perspective on not only my wife’s practice, but our family.

The caller wanted her busy executive husband to see a functional provider. I offered appointments with some of the other functional medical physicians. “No,” the caller said. “I want my husband to see Dr. Sparks.”

I went through the script I had written for the staff encouraging patients to schedule with the other providers. “All of our providers have been to Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice. The other physicians have training from A4M as well. I can schedule your husband with one of the other physicians months ahead of an appointment with Dr. Sparks.”

“I really want my husband to see Dr. Sparks, though,” the caller persisted. “Because we have friends who are friends with her children—and I understand that her kids are gluten-free.”

At that point, I identified myself as Amy’s husband and told the caller that we had four children—ages 16, 14, 12 and 9—and that all but the youngest were gluten-free. The caller was thrilled. “I want to change my kids’ diet, too. I thought my husband seeing Dr. Sparks would be a step in that direction.”
Amy and I didn’t start out to apply functional medicine to our kids. We had started making changes to our household pantry prior to her starting functional medicine in 2013. After the birth of our fourth child, we eliminated soft drinks and most processed foods, although we still allowed our kids to have soft drinks at restaurants. We worked on portion control and healthy eating habits, focusing on preparing organized meals and managing snacks.

I went gluten-free in June 2012 after a friend shared a podcast of Dr. William Davis talking about the history of wheat. I didn’t have any specialty testing that showed being gluten-free would benefit me. I just wanted to see how being gluten-free would affect me. I felt better and lost weight. The rest of the family still was eating wheat, which meant the occasional salad at their favorite pizza restaurant, (which was no longer my favorite pizza restaurant).

In 2013, Amy started training in both integrative holistic medicine and functional medicine and she went gluten-free. Once Amy was gluten-free, the household pantry really changed. Gluten-free became the rule rather than the exception. Amy has always been really good to try new recipes and shop with meals in mind. Going gluten-free gave Amy a whole new set of challenges in the kitchen. She became pretty versed at adapting recipes that weren’t already gluten free. Our kids became kind of de-facto gluten-free. We made exceptions for the youngest, but the oldest kids just ate what Amy and I were eating.

We found restaurants that offered gluten-free options. When we went out to eat, our kids ordered from both the regular menu and gluten-free menu. At this point, we really didn’t know if being gluten-free was a sensitivity or just a preference. Amy, the two oldest kids and I had specialty blood work done to look at our gut-health. The owner of the specialty lab called Amy becaue my results were so abnormal. One of our sons had similar results. We added more food to the list of things we couldn’t eat, including dairy, (which I had given up prior to going gluten-free, but, alas, my son loved).

As Amy’s functional medicine training continued, Amy and I started on a regiment of supplements. The kids each got a daily list of supplements, too. It can be a challenge to keep them on schedule. Did you brush? Did you put away your clothes? Did you take your morning supplements? Your evening supplements?


We are still pushing our youngest to change to gluten-free, but he has such a limited diet, it has been difficult. The other three kids span the spectrum of compliance and acceptance. One goes out of his way to avoid gluten. He doesn’t eat the pizza at school functions, takes his own snacks and searches out gluten-free options on trips. Another child easily capitulates when there aren’t any easy gluten-free options. “What was I going to do—not eat pizza?”

It is a challenge when our kids go with relatives or friends. My parents have been good to have some gluten-free options, but there are also temptations for the kids at their house. I had to work with my mom on portion control. While my kids may think they want three scoops of ice cream, (they’re not completely dairy-free), one scoop is plenty. Stomach-aches have caused the kids to become believers, too. They’ll tell Mimi, “I can’t eat that much,” now rather than try to eat a full bowl of ice cream.

The biggest challenge is when my kids go with their friends or to school functions. I don’t expect other families or the schools to make accommodations for my kids, so I try to feed them before they go or send a gluten-free alternative. Our compliant child will take some digestive enzymes just in case he needs them. Our less compliant son just pretends he’s not gluten-free when he is with his friends.

I’ve read articles that kids who are gluten-free face social stigma, which I think our less compliant child would agree with. He doesn’t want to abstain from having a snack with his friends for some abstract health issue. He wants to be one of the gang, enjoying the foods and drinks that mainstream society enjoys. He wants to have cheat days so that he can enjoy his old diet.

The health benefits are too impressive to ignore, however. One of our children suffered from asthma that required frequent breathing treatments and occasional steroid use until they went gluten-free. Various skin ailments—dry elbows, rashes and hives—have disappeared. The kids who were chubby like I was as a child lost weight. Amy, who suffered from chronic fatigue during her time with corporate medicine, has more energy. Strangely, enough, my dental health improved. The family’s antibiotic use dropped from three dozen prescriptions a year to just a handful of prescriptions.

We are far from perfect and far from being compliant. We still have our youngest child to go sans wheat. We have to work on improving the compliance of our most at-risk child. It is easy now to look back and say that the changes we’ve made were easy, but they weren’t. Amy and I can’t stand to drink a soft drink, now, but there was a time when we felt like we each “needed” one can a day. There were times we caved and let the kids have food that they wanted. We just kept pushing the changes until more and more of them became permanent or consistent. I don’t think there is a magic bullet. You just have to begin.

©2016, Brett Sparks, e3Business.