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  • Writer's pictureKriste Babbitt, M.D.

What is the difference between alternative medicine, functional medicine, and integrative medicine?

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

With the pace and demands of modern life, it's no wonder that we are seeking relief from stress, toxicity, and disease burden. Many, frustrated by the limitations of modern conventional medicine, are looking toward alternative, functional, and integrative approaches to restoring health and wellness. But what do these buzz-words really mean? And how can we know where to begin on our own healing journey?

We are all familiar with traditional western or "conventional" medicine. When you see your in-network doctor, go to the lab to get your blood drawn, and pick up a prescription from the pharmacy you are working within the conventional system. Western medicine has its roots in scientific exploration and discovery, which is a real strength to this approach. We are able to isolate variables in controlled studies to discern exactly how they impact symptoms and disease states. It’s this level of data that the FDA and insurance companies require to validate diagnostic and treatment approaches in our current medical system. This level of scientific exploration has enabled us to make amazing advances in our approach to treatment and medical technology. We have specialties upon subspecialties--the Texas Medical Center is a wonderful example of this. Unfortunately, this amount of data and level of specialization has led to fragmentation within the conventional system. Specialists do not always communicate well with each other, and high demand for care has led to less and less face-to-face time between doctors and patients. Doctors rely more on medical technology than on human interaction, and it can be easy to lose sight of interconnected core processes.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a term created by the western medical system to describe any approach outside of itself. This includes Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Chiropractic medicine, and other modalities using energy healing, yoga, meditation, spiritual approaches, herbal and plant-based medicine, acupuncture, etc. Many of these traditions are ancient, long predating our conventional approaches. As time goes on, we have increasingly applied western-style studies to evaluate the effectiveness of these approaches. Often we see significant benefit in symptoms, although generally modern, conventional approaches are most effective for more advanced and severe disease states. A significant strength of CAM lies in its capacity to connect the individual with their own body, and with a healer who is similarly attuned to them and their process. Often these approaches are better than our western approach at preventing disease states and improving baseline wellness.

Functional medicine is grounded in the same scientific understanding of the body as traditional western medicine. It differs in that it focuses on the interconnectedness of the body and its systems, understanding how the body functions optimally in its preferred state of health, identifying the root cause that may be causing multiple different symptoms, and correcting that root cause. Some common root causes include poor nutrition, toxic exposures including mold, heavy metals, or food sensitivities, poor gut health, and psychological stress. Functional medicine is elegant in its direct, root-cause approach to restoring basic health and wellness and reducing prescription burden, but it does ask a lot of the patient. It can be difficult to make lifestyle changes like reducing stress levels and eliminating inflammatory foods from the diet. It can be a lot easier to take the prescription medication intended to alleviate the symptom, rather than address the upstream root cause.

Integrative medicine is really any practice that combines more than one of these approaches. The beauty of an integrative approach is that it acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses within all of these modalities, so that when we sit face-to-face with a patient who is seeking help, we can best meet that individual exactly where they are in their healing journey, using the tool that fits their needs and capacities. Here at YWP we provide conventional psychiatric medications, functional medicine, psychotherapy, education and training in mindfulness, plant-based and herbal medicinal approaches including prescription cannabis, and ketamine therapies. We have found that healing requires a balance of science and humanism, and begins with the patient, exactly as they are, and where they are, in that moment.

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