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Integrative medicine and functional medicine have grown in popularity recently. This is due to increasing interest in a scientific and personalized approach to health, which treats the individual rather than just managing the symptoms.

But what are integrative medicine and functional medicine? How do they differ from each other, and how can we benefit from them? Let’s find answers to these questions in this article.

Rethinking Medicine in a Modern World

Conventional medicine and allied practices have dominated healthcare for decades, and their influence on human life has been undeniable. This is evident by comparing the life expectancy at birth metrics during the 1900s to more recent times.

Recently, our perspective on health and well-being has evolved, and we have started questioning this approach. We have become increasingly concerned about the overall impact of our healthcare system.

We are now looking for a more holistic approach to health, emphasizing disease prevention, longevity and achieving a balance between the mind, body, and soul.

Further, we’re becoming more aware of the overuse of medications and invasive treatments, their side effects, and how they can affect our overall health. 

Conventional medicine focuses mainly on treating symptoms and is generally effective at that. However, it tends to be less focused on the underlying causes of disease and its long-term consequences.

Sometimes, we are prescribed several medications for a prolonged period to suppress the symptoms. This method doesn’t solve the underlying problem, doesn’t make you healthier, and can lead to medication dependence and side effects.

This problem has been highlighted by the rise of health issues linked to lifestyle and environmental factors. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes mellitus, obesity, chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease have become increasingly prevalent.

The Rise of Holistic Healthcare Approaches

The prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) has been attributed to a variety of factors, including an improper diet, inadequate sleep, elevated stress levels, and inactivity. When environmental pollution, tobacco use, and alcohol consumption are added to the equation, it’s no surprise that human health risks are on the rise.

The sheer inability of conventional medicine to tackle these underlying behavioral problems is one of the primary reasons people are looking for alternatives.

Over the past few years, there’s been a gradual change in the way doctors treat diseases, and you’ll see this reflected in the growth of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). In recent years, the medical community has begun to embrace a more holistic view of patient care.

In essence, healthcare professionals are now considering CAM procedures. There have been instances where CAM therapies have been combined with more conventional medicine. This approach can sometimes help patients with physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. 

Pioneering a Holistic Healthcare Frontier

The new school of thought in the medical and healthcare sectors has led to innovative programs like integrative medicine and functional medicine. These innovations in the medical field have been a significant shift away from the archaic one-size-fits-all approach.

The main emphasis for medical professionals has been the need to adopt a collaborative approach. It means having a proper dialogue with the patients and making them understand the complete risks and benefits associated with these innovative practices. It ensures that the patients can make well-informed decisions related to their treatment and overall health.

It is essential to have a healthcare method that combines various approaches to understand complete wellness. In today’s scientific terms, this is called systems medicine. It looks at the person, their family, the community, and the environment as a whole. This kind of approach is essential to preventing future pandemics before they happen.

Understanding Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine is a holistic approach to health care that mainly combines conventional medical processes with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). However, this is not done at the doctor’s discretion alone, as one of the basic principles of integrative medicine is that it is a collaborative process between the patient and the doctor.

Medical professionals take special care to understand their patients and consider their preferences. These can be anything related to their lifestyle, culture, socioeconomic conditions, and overall goals. Additionally, a lot of emphasis is placed on the patient’s decision so they can actively partake in the healthcare journey.

The other defining factor of integrative medicine is that it is not just about disease treatment but focuses on overall health, healing, and prevention. It involves encouraging patients to incorporate healthy habits into their lifestyle, like staying active, having better control over sleeping patterns, eating a balanced diet, etc.

Additionally, based on their health complications, people are suggested therapies and procedures that have proven helpful.

Integrative Medicine Techniques

As mentioned above, integrative medicine is a combination of conventional medical practices and research-based alternative therapies, some of which have been mentioned below:

  • Yoga: Yoga is an ancient practice involving meditation and posture-based stretching. These have proven to help improve overall health, manage stress, and enhance fitness.
  • Meditation: In simple terms, meditation is the act of being mindful and aware of one’s surroundings. Some forms of mindful meditation involve breathing exercises and have been shown to reduce stress and counteract ailments like depression, anxiety, etc.
  • Herbal medicine: Herbal medicine originates from Ayurveda and aims to incorporate plants and herbs that possess medicinal properties to promote health and healing. Integrative medicine often combines herbal medicines and conventional treatments for the best results.
  • Diet: Healthcare professionals and dieticians collaborate and come up with a specific diet that can help people correct nutritional imbalances or promote better weight management, which can indirectly lead to overall well-being.
  • Physiotherapy:Physiotherapy involves the assessment, treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention of pain, injury, or any other physical dysfunction and health condition, through the use of education, exercise, and manual therapy. 
  • Massage Therapy: Massage therapy is often recommended for people with chronic pain, stress, and other similar ailments. A good massage session can help relieve pain and promote blood circulation and muscle recovery.
  • Naturopathy – Naturopathy, as a practice, shares certain core principles with integrative medicine techniques. In general, it puts a lot of emphasis on the body’s innate ability to heal itself. Hence, most naturopathic techniques do not focus on the immediate symptoms but on providing the patient with proper support and care. It is believed that by following naturopathy, the patient’s systems will automatically take care of the problem.

The practices mentioned above are ways to achieve holistic well-being where a person’s mind, body, and soul are collectively addressed.

Benefits of Integrative Medicine 

Let’s take a look at some of the pronounced benefits of integrative medicine:

  • It generally takes a more holistic approach to disease prevention and treatment.
  • In some cases, integrative medicine combines both conventional and Eastern medicinal approaches with the idea of taking the best of both worlds.
  • Its procedures are far less invasive and a good fit for people who are looking for alternatives to the traditional approach.
  • Since it is less invasive, patients experience fewer side effects compared to conventional medicine
  • It primarily functions on the principle of disease prevention, which is aimed at long-term better health.

Understanding Functional Medicine

Functional medicine has a unique approach to well-being and overall health. As a medical practice, it puts a lot of emphasis on the patient’s overall health and aims to focus on the root cause of the problem rather than the immediate symptom relief. It looks to evaluate a person’s different aspects, including genetics, lifestyle, environment, etc., which can then be addressed to achieve optimal health.

A functional medicine doctor examines micronutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, food sensitivities, gut microbiome, toxic overload, genetic predisposition, etc., to uncover the underlying cause of the disease. 

A recent study found that functional medicine may be an important adjunctive therapy to improve pain and physical and mental health in patients with inflammatory arthritis who did not experience improvement with conventional therapy alone. However, patients who received functional medicine in addition to standard care significantly reduced pain and improved physical health scores.

In another case, a 36-year-old woman with a range of symptoms found relief through functional medicine. Suffering from ulcerative colitis and various symptoms for over a decade, including abdominal discomfort, loose stools, allergies, headaches, and anxiety, the patient sought a holistic approach.

Functional medicine identified the root causes, such as increased intestinal permeability due to antibiotics and food sensitvities factors. A health coach guided nutritional and lifestyle changes, while a mindfulness practitioner helped manage stress and sleep. This approach not only relieved symptoms but also improved the patient’s quality of life, offering a holistic path to better health.

Benefits of Functional Medicine 

Let us take a look at some of the known benefits of functional medicine:

1. Personalized Approach

Functional medicine has a customized approach to disease treatment. It evaluates several individual and personal factors like genetics, environment, lifestyle, disease history, etc., and comes up with a unique plan to tackle the existing health problem.

2. Emphasis on Root Cause

The functional medicine concept focuses more on the root cause of the disease than symptom management. Once it’s identified, it is easier to cure and prevent further occurrences.

3. Long-Term Health

Functional medicine is based on preventing chronic disease and health complications through promoting a healthy lifestyle. Hence, it is more likely to lead to long-term good health than conventional medicine.

4. Chronic Disease Prevention

Functional medicine has been found to control and prevent most chronic diseases better than their conventional alternatives. This is because chronic diseases are caused due to underlying lifestyle imbalances, which can be rectified with functional medicine.

5. Better Quality of Life

Since functional medicine plans are based on having a healthy lifestyle, reduced stress, disease prevention, etc., following them can lead to a better quality of life.

Key Differences Between Integrative and Functional Medicine

Before we delve into the differences between integrative and functional medicine, it is important to point out the similarities these alternative medical procedures share. 

Similarities Between Integrative and Functional Medicine

  • For starters, integrative and functional medicine look at the patient as a whole, i.e., considering their emotional, mental, social, and spiritual factors.
  • Functional and integrative medicine put a lot of emphasis on what the patient wants when it comes to treatment plans and options.
  • As mentioned above, patient awareness is a big part of both approaches. It means patients are educated about diseases, preventive measures, etc.
  • Both of these procedures involve a lot of collaboration, be it between different doctors or even between the patient and the doctor.
  • Integrative and functional medicine in their approach is very flexible; hence, doctors can integrate natural therapies like nutrition, supplements, etc.
  • Finally, with functional and integrative medicine, doctors ultimately aim toward long-term health and disease prevention.

Besides the similarities between integrative and functional medicine, let us take a look at some of the key differences:

Integrative Medicine vs Functional Medicine – A Head-to-Head Comparison

Integrative MedicineFunctional Medicine
It is a combination of conventional medicine and complementary therapy.It is more focused on getting to the root cause of a health problem.
The diagnostic procedure is similar to traditional treatment. Diagnosis is more based on cutting-edge functional laboratory tests to identify genetic makeup, gut microbiome, vitamin and mineral insufficiencies, etc.
Healthcare professionals across different disciplines come together to develop a treatment plan.Doctors need to get to the root cause of the problem to develop a treatment plan. The focus is a lot on functional nutrition and nutritional biochemistry- helping to put nutrients that will help with the biochemical imbalances. Additionally, doctors will emphasize the 5 pillars of health, namely nutrition, sleep, stress/relaxation, movement/exercise, relationships/community, and look for discrepancies or imbalances.
Best used for managing chronic diseases. Best suited for chronic disease prevention and management. 
Involve the patient in getting their opinion about the course of the treatment.It empowers the patient to better understand their overall health for future disease prevention and management.

One of the most noticeable differences between integrative and functional medicine is related to their specific approaches.

In terms of disease diagnosis, integrative medicine often takes a conventional approach where symptoms are given more importance. The treatment process is a combination of traditional medicine and evidence-based complementary therapies. 

Integrative medicine takes a more holistic approach to healthcare, combining conventional medicine with complementary and alternative therapies (CAM therapies). CAM therapies can include acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage therapy, and meditation. Integrative medicine practitioners believe that CAM therapies can be used to complement and enhance conventional treatments and to improve overall health and well-being.

On the contrary, functional medicine is much more concerned with the underlying root cause of the health problem. The treatment process is also much more comprehensive and aimed at achieving better overall health so that the underlying causes of disease are removed.

Functional medicine practitioners use a variety of diagnostic tools, including Dutch hormone tests, stool tests, and genetic tests, to assess a patient’s overall health and identify any potential problems.

Integrative medicine is more targeted at the symptoms and eventually helpful in managing these symptoms and diseases. Functional medicine is more focused on long-term health and is based on the principle that a healthy body will finally fight off all diseases.

Doctors might suggest both conventional and unconventional therapies, offering personalized care, stress reduction, and nutritional guidance. Also, therapies like practices including Ayurveda, acupuncture, massage, meditation, etc. are recommended.

Integrative Medicine or Functional Medicine – Which One To Choose?

Now that we have looked at both integrative and functional medicine in detail, the question arises: Which is the best?

Both of these practices have significant advantages and challenges associated with them. Hence, it is better to consider individual preferences and health goals and then make an educated decision.

 Also, note that these practices have much in common. For example, one can use complementary therapy to support the functional medicine approach. Hence, there can be instances where people can incorporate both these approaches into their treatment.

If you are keen to work on the root cause of the disease and improve the biochemical imbalances in the body that cause the disease in the first place, then functional medicine might be the answer for you. 

Final Thoughts

Both integrative and functional medicine present a fresh approach to medical science. Gone are the days when people had to rely on the archaic one-size-fits-all healthcare methodology.

With these new approaches, medical professionals can take a more holistic approach to medicine. Although effective, the symptom-based conventional treatment system has some drawbacks and is particularly focused on a single problem. On the contrary, these modern medicine practices are more focused on the entire mind, body, and spirit-based well-being.

Another advantage of these procedures is that they encourage a collaborative effort between patients and doctors, which is vital for fostering a partnership and a good outcome.

People interested in integrative and functional medicine must approach it open-mindedly. Proper research and credible information about the positives and negatives should help people make informed health decisions.


1. Are integrative and functional medicine holistic? 

Yes, both integrative and functional medicine offer a holistic approach to healthcare. The goal of both integrative and functional medicine is to prioritize patient care by taking into account physical, psychological, and environmental factors. Integrative medicine is a combination of traditional medicine and holistic care, while functional medicine focuses on the underlying cause of the illness. 

2. What is the difference between alternative and complementary medicine? 

The difference between alternative and complementary medicine lies in their relationship to conventional treatments. Complementary medicine involves using non-traditional therapies alongside mainstream medical treatments to enhance their effects, while alternative medicine entails using these non-traditional therapies as substitutes for conventional treatments. The choice between the two depends on individual preferences and health needs.

Dr Menka Gupta


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