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The Difference between Holistic, Functional and Integrative Medicine

The current paradigm of standard healthcare has seen several technological developments over the last several decades. There have been tremendous scientific advancements in diagnostic technology as well as drug therapies targeted at various diseases and conditions; however, despite these advancements, the prevalence of chronic health conditions continues to soar. While the current health care system has become great at addressing acute and emergency conditions, it continues to fail to adequately address the core imbalances that influence chronic disease. Whether these are lifestyle, diet, nutritional or environmental factors, the modern medical paradigm is simply not designed to implement solutions that target these critical areas simply because medical doctors are generally not trained in these areas nor are they afforded the time to interact with patients to determine where individual imbalances lie.

For these reasons, people are turning towards natural medicine for their care. By empowering patients to take charge of their health care journey, natural medicine puts the power of healthcare in the hands of the individual and addresses the core factors that lead to chronic disease, including diet, lifestyle, environment and nutritional status.

For those individuals seeking care in this area, however, the terminology is important to understand. There are several terms that are commonly used interchangeably that can have small, but important, distinctions. In order to fully empower individuals to seek out the care that’s right for them, it is crucial to understand what these terms mean. Some common misconceptions abound regarding the terms Functional Medicine, Holistic Medicine and Integrative Medicine and we will attempt to shed light on the differences here.

What is Functional Medicine?

The functional medicine approach to healthcare starts with the recognition that the current healthcare system is broken and cannot adequately address the underlying factors that are the causes of chronic disease. The current model is outdated in that it does not account for the interaction between genetics, lifestyle and the environment when treating chronic health conditions. Functional medicine recognizes that health status is driven by the core factors of food, lifestyle, environment, and genetics and addresses these by assessing the patient through a systems biology model. This results in the realization that dysfunction in an organ or system is related to dysfunctions in other organs and systems. Unlike conventional medicine, which focuses on single organs, functional medicine realizes that there are interconnections between systems of the human body and addressing your digestive issues, for example, can influence your mood.

The functional medicine doctor seeks to determine how and why illness occurs and address the root causes of disease, realizing that a single health condition can be the result of many imbalances. Treatment often involves a broad range of therapies ranging from dietary modification, dietary supplements, and lifestyle changes to address the underlying factors. The goal is to restore balance and health, thus effectively managing the chronic disease process.

There are four main components making up the Functional Medicine approach: seeking the patient’s complete story; identifying modifiable lifestyle factors; organizing the patient’s clinical picture into a systems biology framework to assess the interconnections between organs; establishing an empowering partnership between practitioner and patient to effectively manage their health. In doing so, practitioners and patients work together to develop a treatment plan that addresses individual needs.

What is Holistic Medicine?

While in many ways, holistic medicine is similar to functional medicine, this really is an umbrella term that can encompass many different disciplines of practitioners. In this way, holistic medicine is less defined than functional medicine. The underlying goal of any holistic practitioner is to evaluate the body as a whole when looking at the underlying cause of illness. This includes looking at factors that affect the mind, body and spiritual aspects of health. From a treatment point of view, the plan will include dietary advice, lifestyle changes as well as practices that address the spirituality of an individual. By treating the whole person, practitioners comprising of various disciplines attempt to effectively address chronic health conditions. Holistic practitioners believe that prevention is the best cure; thus, treatment advice is not only geared towards addressing current symptoms but also preventing future illness.

Holistic practitioners can range from nutritionists, acupuncturists, herbalists, and physicians. Depending on the discipline a practitioner follows, treatment options can vary, so as an individual, it is important to understand what the practitioner’s background and experience is in before embarking on seeking advice for your health condition.

What is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine can also fall under the umbrella of a holistic medicine approach provided the physician looks at the body as a collection of interconnected symptoms. Often, integrative medicine refers to the use of multiple disciplines of healthcare in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic disease. While this includes natural and nutritional approaches to health such as dietary advice, lifestyle modification, and nutritional supplements, it can also include the use of conventional therapies and drugs where appropriate.

Why is Integrative Medicine Important?

A core principle of integrative medicine is that both the patient and practitioner are partners in the healing process and that natural and less invasive therapy options are always considered first, before other more invasive therapies are resorted to. In general, the integrative medicine doctor utilizes a highly science-based approach that relies on scientific research related to any recommended treatments to assess the best approach to therapy in a particular individual.

While the terms functional medicine, holistic medicine, and integrative medicine are often used interchangeably and incorporate some of the same fundamental approaches, there are key differences that are important to understand. As a person seeking healthcare through one of these paths, it is crucial to determine what approach is best for your health situation based on the types of therapies that are available to you under each of these health paradigms. While an approach that treats the whole person is best, there are certainly many options to consider for an individual based on their comfort level and needs.

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