What Is Integrative Medicine vs. What is Functional Medicine? The Definitions of Confusing Holistic Health Terms

integrative medicine and functional medicine terms
At WellBe, we talk a lot about different health philosophies. In most of our articles, you’ll see a reference to health and healthcare, whether it’s integrative medicine, functional medicine, conventional medicine, TCM, or something else. But some of you might be asking, what is integrative medicine? And what is functional medicine? How do they differ, and how do both differ from alternative health or holistic health?? Have no fear, we’re about to break it all down. Read on to learn the differences between and definitions of integrative medicine, functional medicine, and many more terms in the world of holistic health.
(By the way, if you’re wondering about the term “holistic health,” know that it encompasses several different approaches to treatment, but the main feature is that it focuses on treating the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease. Because it’s more of a mindset than a particular treatment approach, we’re not including it in this list.)
Before we begin, just note that there are TONS of different terms used in the wellness community and on this website. We’re not going to try to define them all here (that would be a really long article!). For the purposes of this piece, we’re just going to look at broad categories of approaches to health, or schools of thought when it comes to healing. If there’s a category of wellness terms that you’d like to see defined in another article, shoot us a note at hello@getwellbe.com and let us know!

What Is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative health takes the point of view that your health is influenced by all aspects of your well-being, including physical, mental, environmental, social, and spiritual factors (which seems pretty intuitive to us, but is unfortunately a rather groundbreaking position in our healthcare landscape). Integrative medicine uses this point of view to bring together conventional medicine when absolutely needed (see definition below) with evidence-based alternative and complementary medicines (see definitions of both of these terms below). 
The goal of integrative medicine is to get to the root cause of illness and find the least invasive intervention to address immediate health issues and needs as well as long-term health goals. This approach views health as a lifelong commitment, which involves equal care and attention from the patient and his or her healthcare providers.  Integrative medicine is sometimes referred to as holistic medicine, and definitely falls under the category of holistic health. 

What Is Alternative Medicine?

Just like alternative music refers to music outside of the mainstream, alternative medicine refers to approaches to health that fall outside of mainstream (aka conventional) medicine norms. In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) uses similar language in its definition of alternative medicine, using the term to refer to “non-mainstream practices used in place of conventional medicine.”
The forms that alternative medicine may take are varied and virtually limitless, encompassing any healing technique that’s not a standard medical treatment. This might mean eating a special diet to treat cancer rather than undergoing chemo or taking anticancer drugs (for a real-life example of this, check out the story of how Elissa Goodman refused chemo and beat lymphoma through a combination of yoga, diet, acupuncture, and more). At WellBe, we feel this term makes it seem like choosing to treat illness with evidence-based options that fall outside of conventional medicine is different and therefore looked down upon.

What Is Complementary Medicine?

Complementary medicine and alternative medicine are very closely related terms, with both of them referring to a broad set of health practices that are neither part of the conventional medicine protocol nor integrated into the healthcare system. Where they differ is in the relationship between the non-mainstream approaches and the conventional medicine approaches.
Put simply, alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine (ie, it’s used as an alternative), whereas complementary medicine is used along with conventional medicine (ie, the two different approaches complement one another). Using cancer as an example again, this might mean seeing an acupuncturist to lessen some of the side effects of cancer drugs or chemo. According to the NCCIH, the 10 most common complementary medicine approaches among adults are: natural products, deep breathing, yoga/tai chi/qigong, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, massage, special diets, homeopathy, progressive relaxation, and guided imagery.

What Is Conventional Medicine?

So now that we’ve defined what is not conventional medicine, what exactly is conventional medicine? Basically, it’s the type of medicine that started to emerge after the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, and is currently taught in mainstream medical schools and practiced in mainstream hospitals. It tends to take an approach that prioritizes treating diseases and symptoms, without spending much time thinking about disease prevention and healing the root cause of issues. However, it’s important to note that conventional medicine is incredibly important and can be life-saving when it comes to acute health issues and emergency medicine.
Treatments often prescribed in conventional medicine include pharmaceutical drugs, surgery, and radiation. Conventional medicine is practiced by health professionals who hold a medical or osteopathic doctor (see definition below) degree, as well as by registered nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists, and many other kinds of non-doctor healthcare providers. It’s important to note that some conventional medicine practitioners also practice complementary medicine.

What Is Western Medicine?

Another term you may see on our site is Western medicine. This definition is going to be short, because this means the same thing as conventional medicine! In fact, conventional medicine goes by a lot of different names, including: allopathic medicine, modern medicine, standard medicine, biomedicine, mainstream medicine, regular medicine, or orthodox medicine. Confusing, huh? To keep things simple, we refer to this approach to health as conventional medicine. 

What Is Functional Medicine?

Functional Medicine is a science-based system of medicine that focuses on finding the underlying cause of disease with a systems-oriented approach to address the whole person. Functional medicine doctors work in partnership with patients to tailor treatments based on their unique health history, physiology, and lifestyle. It is a form of holistic health. 
Functional medicine doctors use specific lab tests to identify issues and incorporate the latest research on how environment and lifestyle influence disease. Similar to integrative healthcare, functional medicine combines conventional treatments with complementary therapies. In order to become a functional medicine practitioner, doctors must undergo specialized training in addition to their years of medical school and residency. 
While functional medicine still isn’t the norm, health innovators are helping to push it into the mainstream through services like Parsley Health and Evolution of Medicine. Functional medicine is very closely related to integrative medicine, as it takes into account the whole person and uses a holistic approach to healing. The primary difference is that a defining characteristic of functional medicine is that it focuses on identifying and treating root causes of issues.

What Is Traditional Medicine?

While the term “traditional medicine” might remind you of the term “conventional medicine,” they’re actually on somewhat opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to approaches to health. Basically, traditional medicine refers to healing practices that come out of the traditions of indigenous peoples in various cultures. The World Health Organization defines traditional medicine as “the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.”
It’s understandable to get traditional medicine mixed up with our next term, traditional Chinese medicine, but each carries its own distinct definition. While traditional medicine encompasses any number of practices from any number of different indigenous cultures (like Ayurveda, traditional African medicine, ancient Iranian medicine, and more), traditional Chinese medicine carries a more specific definition. Speaking of that definition…

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a system of medicine that originated in China and is used to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease and various health conditions. All TCM originates from the idea of qi, the body’s vital energy, which practitioners believe is key to maintaining health and wellness. 
According to the TCM model, qi flows along channels, or meridians, throughout our body, and this flow balances the function of our mind, body, and spirit. When those channels are blocked, however, the flow becomes disrupted and disease arises. All TCM treatments aim to clear blockages, thus restoring flow and balance. Examples of TCM methods include acupuncture, herbs, qi gong, acupressure, and massage. Also referenced to as: TCM.

What Is Naturopathy/Natural Medicine?

Naturopathy, as the name suggests, is an approach that taps into nature. Specifically, it’s based on the human body’s inherent (aka natural) ability to heal itself, as well as the healing power of the natural world. Naturopathic physicians use a combination of modern, traditional, scientific, and evidence-based methods, and take into account a patient’s mind, body, and spiritual health in an effort to identify the underlying cause of issues. In addition to working with patients on lifestyle changes, they will also employ various other healing techniques, such as nutritional counseling, herbs, detoxification, and psychological counseling. 
Naturopathy is also sometimes referred to as natural medicine, and is a form of holistic health.

What Is A Naturopathic Physician?

A naturopathic physician, or licensed naturopathic doctor (ND/MD), is a primary care physician who is trained to diagnose and prescribe medications. This differs from a “traditional naturopath,” who is not licensed to do either. However, both ND/MD’s and traditional naturopaths aim to heal the body with the use of all-natural substances. 
Naturopathic physicians are specially trained in accredited four-year medical schools, but only 22 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands offer licensure or certification for naturopathic doctors. 

What Is Osteopathy?

Osteopathy, or osteopathic medicine, is a medical approach that uses physical manipulation of a person’s musculoskeletal system to treat health issues. This means using hands-on, manual treatments — like stretching, massaging, and spinal manipulation — to reduce pain, increase physical mobility, and improve circulation.
A practitioner of osteopathy is called a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). Like MDs, DO’s must complete an undergraduate degree followed by four years of medical school, and take a national licensure exam. There are currently 35 accredited colleges of osteopathy in the country, and all 50 states offer licensing. 
The main difference between an MD and a DO is that DOs may perform manual manipulation as part of their treatment, as well as the fact that osteopathy focuses on treating the person as a whole, as opposed to managing specific symptoms or ailments without addressing the root cause or causes. Additionally, DOs are generally trained to be primary care physicians, while most MDs choose specialties. As such, if you see a DO, it’s likely that you’ll periodically also see MD specialists, like a gynecologist or dermatologist.

Conclusion: What to Remember About the Definition of Integrative Medicine and Other Terms

We hope the definitions above helped make it easier to understand the world of health and wellness! To make it even easier, here’s an at-a-glance, one-sentence definition of each term:
  • Integrative medicine: an approach to health that takes into account the entirety of an individual and uses a combination of conventional and alternative treatments.
  • Alternative medicine: an approach to healing that falls outside of, and and is used instead of, conventional medicine. A somewhat derogatory term.
  • Complementary medicine: an approach to healing that falls outside of, and is used in combination with, conventional medicine.
  • Conventional medicine: the mainstream medical approach, which is taught in most medical schools and practiced in most hospitals and employs treatments such as surgery, pharmaceuticals, and radiation.
  • Western medicine: synonym for conventional medicine.
  • Functional medicine: a science-based system of medicine practiced by licensed physicians that focuses on treating a person as a whole, as opposed to treating symptoms. Most similar to Integrative Medicine.
  • Traditional medicine: healing practices that come out of the traditions of indigenous peoples.
  • Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM): a collection of healing practices that originated in China and are based on the belief that free-flowing qi, or life energy, is the key to health.
  • Naturopathy/Natural Medicine: an approach to health that taps into the innate healing power of our own bodies and the natural world.
  • Naturopathic physician: A licensed primary care physician who takes a naturopathic approach to treating patients.
  • Osteopathy: a medical approach that focuses on treating a person as a whole and uses physical manipulation of the body to promote healing.
To make things even simpler, let’s just return for a moment to the first question we posed here: what is integrative medicine? At its core, integrative medicine simply means approaching our bodies (and all our organs and systems), minds, and spirits as one interconnected system, not the sum of disconnected parts, and using that understanding to heal and prevent disease. 
Each of the approaches listed above offers a different kind of healthcare, and over the course of your life, you may turn to each one at a different time and for a different purpose. The important thing is to consider your body and lifestyle as a whole, not as symptoms in isolation, and to remember that, as we like to say at WellBe, the 100 choices you make each day are your true healthcare.
Which of the approaches listed above resonates most with you? Why? Tell us in the comments below!
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