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What's the difference between Holistic, Naturopathic, Functional and Integrative Medicine?

By : Kristine Burke Date : Friday, March 16, 2018
What's the difference between Holistic, Naturopathic, Functional and Integrative Medicine?

While there is much overlap between these medical models, there are several important characteristics which distinguish these different approaches to healthcare.

To begin, let's clarify how all of the listed fields are different from the predominating medical model currently being practiced: Conventional Medicine or Western Medicine. Most patients who find an alternative medicine practice are typically aware of how ineffective Conventional Medicine can be when proper healthcare demands looking at the person as a whole instead of separating out each symptom as an individual problem. 

Conventional Medicine

This is a model of medicine in which a strong emphasis is placed on characterizing disorders by diagnosis which usually reflects a collection of symptoms or behaviors rather than the cause of the disorder. Treatment relies heavily on the use of synthetic medications, invasive procedures and surgery. 

The body is viewed as a series of organ systems which are typically segregated from one another. Assessment, treatment and even practitioners are conceptualized by the individual organ which the problem has been reduced to.

This model of medicine has made great advances over the past century in certain fields such as: emergency medicine, infectious disease, diagnostic radiology and surgical interventions. For some reason, though, it was decided that this model should then be applied to the whole spectrum of healthcare, including chronic disease management, nutrition and preventative medicine which has led to unsatisfactory results for those needing a more whole body look at their medical issues.

Perpetual symptom suppression and the lack of root cause resolution has resulted in a continued deterioration of these integral aspects of healthcare and widespread dissatisfaction among patients and practitioners alike.

Holistic Medicine

The methodology of Holistic Medicine is a treatment focused on mind, body, and spirit with an outlook that they are all interconnected. The ultimate goal is to bring mind, body and spirit into coherence. If this can be accomplished then the idea is the absence of disease and the presence of optimal health should usually follow.

Holistic medicine is a beautiful concept, but is too vague and broad to be considered a defined model or approach to healthcare. A good functional medicine doctor is holistic, a good integrative medicine doctor is holistic, a good naturopath is holistic, a good conventional medical doctor is holistic. All good practitioners are holistic and have to be able to see the big picture and connect the dots to understand the patient as a whole better.

Holistic has now become more of a description of the practitioner’s style rather than a distinct approach to healthcare.

Naturopathic Medicine

This medicine practice is best identified as the "healing power of nature." This model possesses a a broad spectrum of practice and a wide variety of therapeutic modalities. Some naturopaths will adhere to a strict practice of “nature cure” focusing only on diet, lifestyle modifications, detoxification and other natural interventions. Other naturopaths will offer additional non-conventional modalities such as acupuncture or homeopathy. At the other end of the spectrum are naturopathic physicians who extensively manipulate the body’s physiology and biochemistry by means of botanicals, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals. A majority of naturopathic practitioners incorporate pieces of all these elements in their practice and care for their patients. 

Integrative Medicine

This model of healthcare is an integration of conventional with non-conventional or alternative modalities (such as herbs, homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture etc.).

The approach and thought process of the integrative practitioner may still be reductionistic with a strong emphasis placed on characterizing disorders by diagnosis as in the conventional medicine model, albeit with a greatly enlarged toolbox for evaluations and treatments that are available through non-conventional modalities. 

The world’s leading proponent of integrative medicine, Dr. Andrew Weil packages it up nicely by saying, “Integrative medicine is a healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person (body, mind & spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and alternative.”

In short, Integrative Medicine is holistic because it uses a non-conventional medicine toolbox - including naturopathy - and it uses a conventional medicine toolbox. However, this enlarged Integrative toolbox may or may not be applied to identifying the root cause of the illness. All Integrative practitioners view the patient holistically and the most effective ones will seek out the root cause of the illness, but root cause resolution is not a prerequisite to practicing this model of healthcare.

Functional Medicine

Functional Medicine is a personalized and integrative approach to healthcare which involves understanding the prevention, management and root causes of complex chronic disease. Functional Medicine has taken the best aspects from all the models discussed above and offers the most comprehensive and effective approach to healthcare in the 21st century.

Licensed Functional Medicine practitioners usually come from a Conventional Medicine model background and integrate over to Functional once they come face to face with serious chronic diseases and are looking for long lasting effects to chronic, more complex diseases. While Conventional has made waves in acute illnesses, when dealing with chronic complex medical issues Functional Medicine employs a systems biology approach that views the person within a holistic framework and their problems within a biological network.

Functional Medicine utilizes the most current scientific knowledge regarding how our genetics, environment and lifestyle interact as a whole system to diagnose and treat diseases based on patterns of dysfunction and imbalance – without necessarily treating the specific disease. Functional Medicine treats the person who has the disease, not the disease the person has. 

Determining the root cause of the illness is an essential component of this model to the extent that a physician who does not practice in this manner is not practicing Functional Medicine. Symptom suppression is only used as a temporizing measure while seeking the root cause and when clinically necessary to optimize function of the patient.

A perfectly healthy human being is incredibly complex. Add to that an illness or imbalance and that complexity grows exponentially. All of the approaches discussed have their merits, but the obvious choice would be an approach encompassing all of them while seeking the root cause of the illness using Systems Biology to unravel the networks that make up who we are.

At True Health Center For Functional Medicine we encompass a holistic Functional Medicine approach and seek out the root cause for our patients.


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