• Megan Little

Complementary, Alternative, Integrative, Naturopathic, or Functional?

There are lots of buzz words that come up with talking about systems of health and medicine that do not conform to the norms of allopathic medicine. But first, what even is allopathic medicine?


“A system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (such as nurses, pharmacists, and therapists) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, or surgery. Also called biomedicine, conventional medicine, mainstream medicine, orthodox medicine, and Western medicine.”

NIH, National Cancer Institute

It is the system of medicine that you are probably most familiar with. Allopathic medicine is the standard or norm to which most other medical systems are compared. It is what is taught in (most) medical schools and paid for by insurance companies. It is the kind of medicine you want when you are in an accident and need emergency care.


So, now that we know what allopathic medicine is, we can begin to compare the alternate systems that people often seek out. Here are some more quick definitions for beginning the conversation.


Alternative Medicine: This is not a type of medicine but rather a group of activities that you seek out in place of allopathic medicine. Instead of using allopathic medicine (drugs, surgery, or radiation) to achieve results, an individual will seek out other means to treat symptoms and disease.


Complementary Medicine: When you combine aspects of allopathic and alternative medicine and use both for the management and treatment of symptoms and disease.


Integrative Medicine: When allopathic and complementary live under the same roof (facility) and providers are working together for the benefit of their patients.


Functional Medicine: A specific specialty of allopathic medicine that looks at identifying root causes of disease. In this practice, they look at one condition but recognize that it can have many causes (genetic, environment, lifestyle, etc.) and that only treatments that dress the root cause will have a lasting impact on the person’s ability to heal.


Naturopathic Medicine: A system of medicine in which doctors are trained in the “art and science” of both natural and allopathic medicine. This system combines traditional healing with science-based treatment. Doctors are trained in traditional (herbs, nutrition, and physical medicine) as well as modern (lab evaluation, pharmaceuticals, and minor surgery) and combine both for the management and care of their patients.


Many practices can fit into CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). Some of them have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years (homeopathy, acupuncture, and herbal medicine), while some are relatively new (light and sound therapy, electrical stimulation). The more common forms of CAM that people are engaging in regularly include nutritional therapies and mind-body practices.


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) breaks down CAM approaches into 3 categories - Physical, Nutritional, and Psychological.


As patients, we need to be able to understand what methods or treatments are available to us, and who to see for them. A regular MD is not likely to have the knowledge or experience to be able to recommend herbal treatments. Just like an ayurvedic practitioner will not be able to recommend or prescribe pharmaceuticals.


There is a lot of overlap between Functional Medicine and Naturopathic Medicine. It could be argued that Naturopathic Doctors were the original doctors, and functional medicine is a 'westernized' version of their medicine. But, what's different about our approach is probably the principles of Naturopathic medicine.


They guide our practice and how we approach the patient.

  1. First, do no harm

  2. The healing power of nature

  3. Treat the whole person

  4. Identify and treat the cause

  5. Doctor as teacher

  6. Prevention

Although we have different philosophies on how to get there, the desired outcome is the same. All providers desire to see patients healthy and thriving. The need for open-mindedness in medicine and the ability to ask questions is an important aspect that is frequently overlooked. As providers, we need to listen to our patients and ask them their desired approach not just tell them what is best for them.


Do you have a provider who is open to discussions around CAM? Next week we'll talk about some strategies on how to research, find qualified providers, and discuss with your doctor about CAM.



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