A Complete Guide and Comparison

Linda Rider

Integrative medicine combines conventional and complementary approaches to healthcare treatment to provide optimal health for the whole person. It coordinates conventional medicine with nutritional, psychological, and physical approaches to improve the overall health of the mind and body and address all effects of illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic disease affects around 6 in 10 people in the United States.

Disease can affect individuals beyond just the physiological effects it causes. However, conventional medicine may not always address all aspects of health during treatment.

Integrative medicine is gaining popularity as a method of treating acute and chronic health conditions. It seeks to improve all adverse effects of ill-health and treat the whole person comprehensively, beyond just the symptoms of their illness, using all appropriate methods.

Read on to learn more about integrative medicine, including its purpose, treatment types, benefits, and risks. This article also covers how to find a practitioner. 

Woman sits crossed-legged and with eyes closed in meditative pose in front of trees

Eyes On Asia/Stocksy United

Integrative medicine is a person-focused approach to the treatment of illness. It seeks to improve a person’s overall health and wellness physiologically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and environmentally.

To do this, integrative medicine combines conventional medicinal and complementary practices that are evidence-based to create a comprehensive treatment plan that the individual can take an active role in. These treatment plans aim to address the body and mind as a whole, improving health conditions and quality of life from the root cause. 

In addition to conventional medicine, integrative medicine may make use of approaches including nutritional, psychological, physical, and combined therapies.

Many different approaches to medicine exist. Integrative medicine intends to combine these different approaches holistically to provide optimal outcomes.

Common types of medicinal care include:

  • Conventional medicine: This is also known as biomedicine, mainstream medicine, or Western medicine. It refers to modern healthcare approaches in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals use drugs, surgery, and other treatments to address symptoms and disease. 
  • Complementary medicine: This refers to healthcare approaches that are not typically part of conventional medicine but form part of treatment alongside it. Complementary medicine can include nutritional, psychological, and physical therapies.
  • Alternative medicine: This is the use of complementary medicine instead of conventional medicine as opposed to alongside it.

Integrative medicine relies on a combination of these conventional and complementary approaches to improve conditions.
Further approaches of medicine can constitute either complementary or alternative medicine, depending on their use, and integrative medicine may make use of some of their principles. These include:

  • Holistic medicine: This focuses on treating both the physical presentation of a condition and the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects that may aggravate it. Holistic medicine can be similar to integrative medicine, but holistic medicine may not always consider various approaches to treat an individual at one time.
  • Functional medicine: This aims to identify and treat the cause of an illness by investigating the connections between a person’s environment and lifestyle factors and their internal physiological systems.
  • Naturopathic medicine: This relies on the healing power of nature and seeks to provide treatment through the use of natural methods, such as herbal medicine, homeopathy, and nutrition.

Integrative medicine can involve a group of trained clinicians working together. Some deliver conventional medical care, while others provide complementary therapies. 

An integrative medicine doctor will work with your primary doctor to recommend complementary therapies and develop a personalized plan that may aid your healing.

For example, for someone undergoing treatment for cancer, an integrative medicine doctor may work with an oncologist to recommend complementary therapies to help ease the symptoms and manage the side effects of treatment. In this case, they may recommend acupuncture to help with pain or nausea.

An integrative medicine doctor will make use of all therapeutic approaches appropriate for the person as informed by evidence of any potential benefits.

In a 2009 analysis, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health identified five main types of complementary treatments. These are as follows:

  • Mind-body therapies: This group of therapies focuses on the connections between thoughts and bodily functions. Examples can include meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis, breathwork, and expressive therapies such as art and music.
  • Biologically based therapies: This is the use of substances present in nature to promote health or reduce the risk of disease. Examples of substances used can include vitamins, minerals, herbal supplements, and probiotics, as well as whole diets and functional foods.
  • Manipulative and body-based methods: These methods focus on the structures and systems of the body, such as the bones, soft tissues, and systems such as the circulatory system. Examples of treatment according to this method can include massage therapy, chiropractic treatments, and physical therapy.
  • Energy therapies: Energy therapies focus on balancing an individual’s energy fields to promote healing and health using either biofield therapies or bioelectromagnetic-based therapies. Examples of energy therapies can include Reiki, therapeutic touch, and the use of magnetic fields.
  • Whole medical systems and alternative medical systems: This group of medicinal approaches includes systems of theory and practice that aim to treat the whole person. Examples can include traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, and homeopathy. 

Integrative medicine will combine one or more of these complementary therapies with conventional medical care to form a complete treatment plan that aims to improve your overall mental and physical health.
Your integrative medicine doctor can work with your primary doctor to determine which types of complementary therapies should be included in your treatment plan. 

Individuals with varying conditions use methods of integrative medicine.

Although people who use integrative medicine commonly experience chronic conditions, the approach can be useful in treating many different health conditions. This can include treating acute disease and managing its associated symptoms.

Integrative medicine may be an effective option for helping treat the following symptoms and conditions:

If you believe that you could benefit from integrative medicine, your doctor can help you decide if it may be an option for you. 

Researchers suggest that biomedicine alone may not fully address all aspects of healing or treatment necessary to improve conditions which can cause distress beyond the physical.

Integrative medicine that combines conventional biomedicine with complementary therapies may thus offer additional benefits, though specific benefits will depend on your medical diagnosis, treatment plan, and chosen complementary therapies. 

In a 2018 review of integrative medicine, researchers who looked at several studies observed improvements in:

  • fatigue
  • appetite
  • cognitive and emotional function
  • pain
  • sleep
  • anxiety
  • emotional and mental well-being
  • distress
  • overall health

It is worth noting that some of these studies were uncontrolled and not definitive.
Although complementary therapies are not a substitute for conventional medicine, their combination in integrative medicine may bring some benefits.

There can be risks with any medical treatment, including the conventional medicine and complementary treatments used in integrative medicine.

Potential risks of integrative medicine can include

  • adverse reactions to health products and practices
  • side effects from both conventional and complementary treatment methods
  • interference of complementary therapy with conventional treatments
  • interference of or negative interactions between dietary and herbal supplements with prescribed medications
    • Many supplements are available that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not evaluated or approved for safety or efficacy.
  • a lack of testing or research on complementary therapies to ensure safety or effectiveness
  • a lack of experience or training in practitioners of complementary therapies

However, there are steps that you can take to mitigate risk from integrative medicine practices, such as:

  • informing your primary doctor of any complementary therapies you may be considering and all health treatments you already use
  • avoiding treatments and therapies that have no proof of safety or effectiveness for your condition
  • selecting a practitioner who is licensed and has undergone training for the specific treatment
  • following the guidance and treatment plan of your doctor

Your doctor can help determine whether or not a particular complementary therapy will affect your medical care. 

The cost of your care will vary based on your diagnosis and individual treatment plan.

Insurance may not cover all complementary therapies, but some health insurance policies may cover some of the costs of integrative medicine. This can include conventional medical treatments and some more common complementary methods, such as acupuncture and chiropractic therapy. 

Contact your health insurance provider before starting treatments to find out which options it covers. It is important to understand which treatment costs you may be responsible for and what requirements your provider has so that you can plan accordingly.

The outlook for people undergoing integrative medicine treatments will vary based on their diagnosis and exposure to effective treatment options.

Integrative medicine can help improve symptoms and quality of life for people. It may also reduce some of the problems associated with their health condition.

For the best results, it is important to discuss all of your options with your doctor and follow your treatment plan.

Medical doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and other qualified medical professionals can provide conventional medicinal care and may also offer an integrative approach.

It is important to find conventional and complementary practitioners who will work together to ensure that you are getting the care you need and that it is appropriate and safe for you. 

A variety of experts — such as massage therapists, acupuncturists, and physical therapists —

will also provide complementary therapies. Requirements for licensing can vary according to location, but when considering integrative medicine, it is important to investigate the safety and efficacy of a treatment to prevent negative outcomes.

You should also verify that your practitioners are trained and qualified in the treatment they offer.

When considering possible options, inform your doctor of your desire to follow an approach that focuses on integrative medicine, including any treatments you already use.

Your health insurance provider or local hospital may have additional recommendations for potential integrative medicine practitioners.

Integrative medicine is a person-focused approach that relies on both conventional medicine and complementary therapies to achieve whole-person health.

An integrative medicine doctor will work with your primary doctor to recommend complementary therapies that may ease the symptoms of your condition or possibly help treat it.

There are risks associated with all medical treatments, including integrative medicine. For this reason, it is important to work with a trained and qualified doctor to identify the therapeutic approaches that are safe and effective for you.

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