CONVENTIONAL, INTEGRATIVE, FUNCTIONAL OR NATUROPATHIC - WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
Most people are familiar with “conventional medicine” since it is the predominant system of healthcare in society today, but as more and more people decide that they want to improve their health in a better way, there are now integrative, functional, and naturopathic practitioners. Here, we explore the differences among them to support your knowledge of when you may need to use each method.
Conventional medicine is also known as “allopathic medicine.” As the name, “allos” Greek for “other,” implies, the goal is to combat symptoms of disease with surgery, drugs, or radiation, to alleviate suffering, or “pathos.”
Below is a summary of conventional medical care:
- Necessary in emergency situations to stabilize
- Diagnosis is based on signs and symptoms
- Treatment is based on suppressing signs and symptoms of illness
- Everyone is considered the same and treated as such:
- Individuals are grouped into categories based on similarities and patterns in presentation
- Individualization and idiosyncrasies are downplayed, disregarded, or ignored
- Health management is reactive – after the fact
- Specialization is favored, with poor communication between countless specialists and rarely a lead physician with final oversight
- Lack of understanding for the inherent physiologic and energetic connections between body systems
- May never “cure” or help your body heal
In conventional medicine, there is no true treatment for disease, but rather symptom suppression, and the strong likelihood that one symptom of suffering, or original problem, is replaced with another. It’s equivalent to putting black tape over the “check engine” light in your car, allowing the problem to rage on, despite any signs or signals!
Integrative medicine is a practice of conventional medicine which aims to incorporate elements of complementary and alternative medicine but is still predominantly conventionally medical in its diagnosis and treatment. While there is more openness to holistic practices, such as meditation, yoga, acupuncture and massage, there is no fundamental shift in the mindset or orientation to a person and the approach to disease, with drug practices still suppressing symptoms.
According to The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), “Functional medicine is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. Each symptom or differential diagnosis may be one of many contributing to an individual’s illness.”
In recent years, functional medicine has exploded with naturopathic medicine remaining in relative obscurity. The history should be known: what is called “functional medicine” in the United States was born out of the meeting of ND’s and MD’s in the late 1980’s in the Pacific Northwest. A major contributor to one of the few accredited North American naturopathic schools, Bastyr University, Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., is credited with having coined the term “functional medicine” and went on to found The Institute for Functional Medicine, which has, unfortunately, largely written naturopathic medicine out of its origin story.
Still, functional medicine is an ever-evolving form of healthcare, with its more holistic approach and therapies that address the underlying causes of an individual’s illness.
Below is a summary of characteristics of Functional Medicine approach.
- Works to address the underlying cause of illness
- Tailors plan to the individual
- Works on prevention
Functional medicine can work really well for many people, but can have its limitations with the philosophy and tools of how to address a person’s health and help them heal. One major difference between functional medicine and naturopathic medicine is the orientation towards signs and symptoms of the body. Functional medicine views the symptoms of the body as needing to be suppressed or countered in order to treat the “disease.” For example, functional medical doctors will give a high concentration botanical extract or medication in order to kill Candida in the gut instead of understanding why this occurred in the first place. Suppressing overgrowth of fungus with a drug like Nystatin is still not resolving the fundamental drivers of the overgrowth, and in fact, burdening the patient’s body further with a drug that needs to be metabolized and detoxed. The differences seem minor, but can be critical in a patient’s healing experience.
It should also be noted that Functional Medicine has a counterpart across the pond of the same name. Born in Germany, this European form of “Functional Medicine” is strongly akin to the traditional practice of naturopathic medicine in the United States.
Naturopathic medicine arose in the late 1800’s, with ‘naturopathy’ coined in 1902. It centers on the philosophy that the body has the innate ability to heal itself when given the appropriate environment and stimulus. Trusting an inherent healing orientation of the body called The Vis, or Vital Force, naturopathic doctors choose from an array of therapies. No longer limited to botanical/herbal medicine, nutritional medicine, homeopathy,, physical medicine, hydrotherapy, counseling, IV therapy, and minor surgery, N.D.s may select from countless modalities to support their aim to stimulate this healing force.
Like functional medicine practitioners, naturopathy also keeps asking “Why?” to get at the root cause of illness. However, with naturopathic medicine, the nuances around therapeutic applications is what matters most, not just that they are “natural” or come from a “natural source.” Timing, suppression, emotional factors and historic context are key in the naturopathic doctors’ mind when making any intervention.
From the perspective of a true “Nature Cure” doctor, an allopathic (“pill for every ill”) practice of suppressing symptoms will either delay healing or drive disease deeper, making it a chronic condition. Countering and suppressing symptoms does not work in conjunction with the healing laws of nature and is detrimental…eventually contributing to premature degeneration and death. Naturopathy holds that chronic disease is a result of frequent insults and suppression of acute illness (i.e. cold or flu-like). Healing happens when the Vital Force is allowed to cleanse and repair the body and this can often manifest as signs and symptoms of “illness” like a cold, flu, earache, or diarrhea. This is why it is so important NOT to suppress the healing reactions of the body – you would be stopping and hindering your healing!
Naturopathy views every sign and symptom as our body’s “language” for communicating to us our health issues AND, most of the time, is the way the body is trying to heal itself. Our bodies are amazingly complex, yet simple works of art. Symptoms in one part of the body oftentimes means that another area of the body is not functioning optimally. Our job as naturopathic physicians is to assist the body’s innate healing powers through the use of the various aforementioned therapies.
This can only happen when we have gathered information from the patient across multiple levels, or as we call in naturopathy, the entire constitution, which includes: mental, emotional, and physical planes.
Most, if not all, disease and illness carry a mental/emotional component with it and it often starts as a disturbance on this bioenergetic level before it manifests as physical signs and/or symptoms. Some of our biggest tools such as homeopathy, including its modern counterpart ‘drainage’, cell salts, and flower essences, help address the underlying mental and emotional dysfunction that contributes to an individual’s illness and disease. This is where true healing takes place.
Given naturopathic medicine can dramatically enhance your healing and recovery even where conventional medicine is needed, our hope is that someday a system of true integrative medicine will arise.
Now you know the difference between the professions. See which one resonates with you to optimize your health! You know our choice 😉