Mary Virginia Coffman is an integrative/functional nutritionist at Coffman Integrative Nutrition. She is dedicated to uncovering and addressing the root causes of ‘dis-ease.’ With a focus on supporting the body’s innate healing abilities, Mary Virginia implements a holistic approach to nutrition and wellness. Through food choices, therapeutic nutrition and supplements, and lifestyle recommendations, she assists clients in achieving optimal health. Recognizing the interconnectedness of the mind and body, Mary Virginia’s work is guided by the understanding of the mind-body relationship, allowing for a comprehensive and effective approach to well-being. MysticMag finds out more.
Can you tell us about your background and what led you to become an integrative/ functional nutritionist?
From my earliest days as a mom, I realized that food and nutrition were critical to my child’s growth and development. Many deep-dives into nutrition research nudged me to remove dairy and add probiotics for one of my kids who had chronic sinus infections. It was a really simple and successful intervention.
I found fascinating data on the effects of nutrition on both physical and mental health, and I engaged with the amazing, ever evolving research on the gut-brain axis. My research inspired me to pursue a Master of Science in Nutrition and Integrative Health so that I could open a practice as a mental health nutritionist. One of my favorite courses was on nutritional genomics, or the interaction of gene expression with food and nutrients, and I loved exploring lifestyle factors such as circadian rhythm and movement on biochemical and physiological pathways. This was a beautiful evolution from my Master of Social Work degree, where I majored in Interpersonal Relations with an intent to be a therapist.
Functional nutrition interweaves the body’s unique processes with the life experiences and external inputs that influence them. Picture a web: when you pull on one part of the web, it distorts other parts with it. When you restore a part of the web, other parts are also restored. I feel such joy working with the body’s own processes to bring it back into health and balance!
How do you approach identifying the root causes of ‘dis-ease’ in your clients, and how do you incorporate this information into your treatment plans?
Every client enters the nutrition care process with me by filling in detailed forms to capture their medical, symptom, and social history, current health status, and goals. Our intake appointment illuminates memories and connections not inspired by forms.. If I feel that more data is needed, I might also recommend that we perform certain functional tests, such as a stool panel, an organic acids test, or perhaps a DUTCH hormone test. I map all of this information so I can see which of the body’s systems are most affected and the root contributors to their symptoms.
My treatment plans are always highly personalized. Even if on paper clients’ symptoms and/or medical diagnoses look similar, their antecedents, triggers, and mediators are unique. What was happening in their lives leading up to the first symptoms? What set them off? What makes them worse or better? A supplement or food that works wonders for one person may be contraindicated for another based on their medications, allergies, or even preferences, access, or culture. All of the data I collect in the beginning allows me to define my recommendations not just by their symptoms, diagnoses, and labs, but also by where they struggle, what appeals to them, and how their own insights define what approaches will work best. My clients know their bodies better than I ever could! Trust and respect inform my client relationships.
Can you discuss the role of food choices and therapeutic nutrition/supplements in your treatment approach, and how they support the body’s natural healing mechanisms?
My clients’ preferences and how they engage with food reflect their individuality. Occasionally I use structured therapeutic food plans. More often we start slowly with increasing some foods and reducing others and then observe symptoms. We might pause some foods temporarily, heal the gut, and then reintroduce them slowly. My goal is always to support my client so they may eventually eat the widest range of foods possible.
We are living creatures, and we are best nourished by living foods that contain elements of sunshine, soil, and rain. Deeply colored vegetables and fruit, beans/legumes, nuts/seeds, whole grains, and nutrient rich oils and fats hold the soil and the sun’s light spectrum right in them. Animals raised on pasture or in their native waterways incorporate living food into their flesh. The immune systems of edible flora and fauna are made strong by their exposure to land and sun, and in turn they provide us with those immune boosting properties. Moreover, foods rich in prebiotic fibers and probiotic bacteria support the living gardens of our gut and organ microbiomes, which play critical roles in immune function, mood balance, brain health, and so much more.
Some foods have the life processed right out of them. When eaten as our primary sources of nutrition, these dead foods pull the intricate web of our bodies out of balance. These include seed oils, refined sugars, refined flours, grains stripped of their nutrient dense external layers, and artificial sweeteners.
Note though, that food can be infused with profound love regardless of its origin. Any food at all can mark warm, caring relationships and hold important, health promoting memories. Where our hearts are when we cook and eat truly makes a difference to how we absorb and metabolize our food.
The supplements I recommend are based on symptom reports, physical exam findings, and lab values. Individual or combinations of vitamins and minerals replenish depleted nutrients, support particular genetic or system pathways, or address enhanced nutrient needs. I select products that heal, nourish, and protect the digestive tract, mediate adrenal gland function, support brain health or mood, promote healthy metabolic processes, and reduce inflammation, all according to individual need.
In functional nutrition, the key to both food and supplement decisions is to choose according to what will work in synchronicity with the body’s own natural processes and my client’s personal circumstances. No two clients receive the exact same recommendations.
You mention that the mind-body relationship informs your work. Can you elaborate on how you address this relationship in your treatment plans?
The mind-body connection is most apparent as stress becomes a trigger for my clients’ symptoms. Nervous system regulation is a key part of the web. Our three main nervous systems (gut, heart, brain) communicate information from the body to the brain through the vagus nerve, and the brain directs our physical response largely based on this data.
When we mostly feel safe, the brain instructs our many systems to support our health and wellbeing. When we feel in danger, a.k.a. stressed, the brain shuts down whatever process isn’t immediately necessary and ramps up what’s needed to protect the body: fight, flight, or flop (‘play dead’). A temporary run of high stress causes very little damage to the body, and sometimes can even make us stronger (e.g. muscles, bone, immune system, knowledge, etc.). Persistent high stress, though, pulls the web out of balance by triggering persistently protective pathways. This redirection of energy undermines proper digestion and gut health, mood/brain health, blood sugar and other metabolic balance, organ function, cellular processes and division (e.g. cancer), circadian rhythms (hunger/satiety, sleep/wake cycles), etc.
Almost every client benefits from being trained in methods to align the nervous systems to create an internal sense of safety and clarity. I typically utilize breath work, meditation, vagus nerve stimulation techniques, time in sun and nature, and a technique I call Cultivate the Pause. One of my favorite modalities is HeartMath, a process that intertwines a focus on breath with
calling forth a regenerative emotion, like love or appreciation, to expand heart rate variability (HRV). Increased HRV improves mood regulation, decision making skills, focus/attention, positive self-perception/competence, and even smooths physiological processes.
Stress resilience is key to supporting my clients to come into full alignment with their body’s processes, their values, their preferences, and their goals.
Can you share the most memorable success story from a client who has benefited from treatment at Coffman Integrative Nutrition?
Though Western medicine has so much to offer, many of my clients come to me having worked with allopathic medical practitioners for years without success. One young woman reacted severely to foods with rashes, hives, difficult digestive issues, terrible fatigue, and worsened anxiety and ADHD. She felt really lost about what she could safely eat, and no medical intervention made her feel better. She admirably committed to my recommendations, which included a strict elimination/reintroduction food plan. During the extended elimination and slow reintroduction of foods we used supplements to heal her gut. In the end, foods that had been triggers no longer bothered her, and she knew how much and how often other foods would cause symptoms. The skin irritations, digestive issues, and fatigue were gone, and her focus and mood had improved.
I’m very pleased with helping some of my clients go into remission with diverticulitis or ulcerative colitis. Often clients feel betrayed by their bodies and by food, and it’s lovely to have them feel so well and confident!
A recent client came to me after years of working unsuccessfully with psychiatrists and doctors to relieve anxiety, irritability, ADHD, depression, and rapid mood swings. We are testing for hormone imbalances and addressing constipation and poor sleep quality. A combination of food recommendations (both choices and timing of meals), teas, breath work, movement, and very targeted supplement choices have balanced her mood, and for the first time in years she reports “I feel like myself!”
“I feel hopeful again,” is a common sentiment and music to my ears!
If you would like to find out more about Mary Virginia Coffman, visit https://www.coffmanintegrativenutrition.com/