What is a Health Coach?




If you’ve been part of the Case Integrative Health family for a while, you’ve probably crossed paths with one of our health coaches. But if you haven’t had a personal experience yet, you might wonder, what exactly is a health coach? Turns out, a lot.


In the functional medicine model, a health coach is often considered the “secret sauce” to a successful and sustainable treatment plan. Sitting at the intersection of health information and behavior change, health coaches support clients in making lifestyle changes big and small. Board-certified health coaches are trained in diet, nutrition, and lifestyle but also, and perhaps more importantly, in empowering patient communication and the elusive art of behavior change. Health coaches help patients set their own health goals and then support their efforts to achieve these goals.


What does this look like in practice?

You’re lucky. If you see one of the amazing integrative doctors at CIH, you know you benefit from working with a medical detective who truly listens and spends time with you. Dr. Kelley and Dr. Mafee are exceptionally well trained to diagnose and prescribe comprehensive treatment plans individually tailored to bio-individual you. You soak in as much as you can in the doctor’s office and most likely leave with a long list of follow-up recommendations. You get home and (bam!) your life is waiting for you; the recommendations seem a little less clear and a lot harder to execute from your kitchen table.

Enter: health coach.

Your health coach takes your medical history and treatment plan and overlays it with your real-world, examining your current lifestyle, stressors, obstacles, and intrinsic motivations. Coaches honor you, the client, as the expert on you, and work to meet you exactly where you are in non-judgmental, client-led sessions. Using tenets of positive psychology and motivational interviewing and with a focus on health and healing versus disease and pathology, a health coach helps clients co-create a vision of optimal wellness.


Case Study: Rhonda


Rhonda was a 38-year-old female whose quality of life was declining. Previously energetic and active, Rhonda found herself struggling to keep up with her two young children. With acute gastrointestinal distress, aching joints, and increased weight on her small frame, Rhonda dragged herself out of bed each morning. As her energy waned and her numerous symptoms increased, she sought short-term disability from her teaching job to focus on her health. Rhonda found Dr. Mafee only after her primary care doctor had referred her to an endocrinologist, gastroenterologist, cardiologist, and psychologist, none of whom had given Rhonda the answers and relief she was looking for.


After her initial consultation with Dr. Mafee, Rhonda had a comprehensive lifestyle “prescription” for gut healing, including a therapeutic elimination diet, and was referred to me for health coaching. While the doctor waited for lab results, Rhonda and I dug in. In our first session, Rhonda shared details of her day-to-day life and concerns about the feasibility of successfully following all of the doctor’s recommendations. Rhonda’s young family demanded all of the time and energy she had and she was overwhelmed with the thought of making changes to her own lifestyle. Rhonda asked questions about the doctor’s plan to get a better understanding of why the recommendations made sense for her. In the safe space of the coaching relationship, Rhonda opened up about her vision of health and what she hoped to regain if and when her current issues were resolved.


Through our conversation, Rhonda chose two areas to focus on first: 1) her diet, and 2) her sleep schedule. Both areas popped up as “low hanging fruit”, opportunities where Rhonda felt she could make incremental improvements without too much sacrifice. Although Rhonda was beginning to understand the connection between what she was eating and how she was feeling, she was not yet ready to dive into a full elimination diet. She was, however, willing to start making changes by cutting out gluten and forgoing her daily diet soda drinks. After some brainstorming around gluten substitutions that would work for the whole family and a collection of weekday recipes, Rhonda felt confident in her ability to experiment with this initial dietary shift. Rhonda also committed to switching her phone to Airplane mode and going to bed thirty minutes earlier each night. Although these changes felt small relative to the entire protocol, Rhonda left the session empowered to do something vs the paralysis she had felt trying to do everything at once.


Rhonda decided to meet with me every other week for follow-up sessions. Each session, Rhonda reflected on what had been going well and what challenges had come up. As part of her gluten elimination process, Rhonda was buying and cooking more whole foods and began to see the feasibility of a temporary full elimination. Rhonda stopped buying soda and noticed how much more water she drank as a result (and how much easier it was to pee and poop!). When Rhonda experimented with “putting her phone to bed” in another room in the evening, her total sleep and sleep quality improved almost immediately. These incremental improvements gave Rhonda hope and confidence to keep making small shifts. Rhonda ultimately completed the full elimination and was coached through a thoughtful reintroduction phase, finally isolating the foods that triggered her discomfort which she then continued to avoid while her gut healed.


Rhonda did the work. It was not always easy. There were challenges adopting change in the real world: supplement schedules to adapt, meals to plan for a vacation, and finding a bit of space to breathe. As a coach, I know all too well that there is no easy button. Regaining your health often means making major changes to your behavior and lifestyle; changes that can feel hard to execute and even harder to sustain. A health coach can’t do the work for you but as a catalyst for change, they can certainly lighten the load.


With love, in health,

Jenny


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