Functional, Conventional, Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine: What’s the Difference?Published on Tuesday, October 10, 2023 by
Navigating the Healthcare Maze: Understanding Different Medical Approaches
Are you confused about which type of practitioner you’re searching for?
If you use Google to search for your health conditions, go on a social media platform, or hear others speak about the different types of medical providers they see. You’ve probably heard about several “new” terms: conventional, functional, integrative, and lifestyle are just a few, but sometimes these also have different names. Sometimes, these will say “health” instead of medicine, depending upon the practitioner, but the general meanings are the same – the goal is to help or assist the client/patient to feel their best.
“He who has health has hope; and he who has hope, has everything.”
– Thomas Carlyle
Exploring Traditional Medicine: A Closer Look at Conventional Approaches
Let’s start off with traditional medicine because it’s the one most people know. Traditional medicine has many names: conventional, allopathic, mainstream, or Western. (Bear with me, as I’ll use these terms interchangeably throughout this article). Traditional medicine is the system we likely grew up in which there are licensed health professionals --M.D. (medical doctor), D.O. (osteopathic doctor), or advanced practice providers (APPs) like an N.P. (nurse practitioner) or P.A. (physician’s assistant). They can be a generalist (family or internal medicine) or have a more specific specialty (gastroenterology, pediatrics, hepatology, colon and rectal surgery, etc.).
When someone feels ill, they see one of these professionals to diagnose and treat their illness. Sometimes, forming a diagnosis and treatment plan involves lab work or radiology tests (x-rays, ultrasound, CT, or MRI) in addition to the symptoms, history, and physical exam. Traditional treatments involve prescription medications and sometimes surgical interventions.
Let’s use gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) as an example of a diagnosis/complaint. Suppose Sally was to go to a conventional provider and complain about reflux and heartburn symptoms every time she eats. In that case, they typically will prescribe either an antacid (ex., Tums or Alka Seltzer (calcium carbonate)), a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) (ex., Prilosec (omeprazole), or Nexium (esomeprazole)), or a histamine 2 (H2) receptor blocker (ex. Pepcid (famotidine).
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM): Beyond Conventional Boundaries
Before we get into all the other types of medicine, let’s think about the history of medicine in the United States. Before all of the “relatively new” terms, many people would bundle other approaches (acupuncture, homeopathy, aromatherapy, meditation, etc.) under an umbrella term known as Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).
A CAM practitioner would typically use practices and products not typically regarded as “traditional” medical care. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, complementary and alternative mean different things, depending upon whether or not they are combined with traditional or mainstream approaches:
Complementary – non-traditional approach used in conjunction with traditional medicine approaches. These include massage, mindfulness, dietary supplements and herbs, tai chi, yoga, etc.
Alternative – non-traditional approaches used as an alternative to conventional medicine approaches.
Integrative Medicine: Bridging the Gap for Whole-Person Wellness
Integrative medicine bridges the gap by bringing together conventional and complementary practices together in a strategic manner. Most approaches involve multiple interventions. An integrative approach emphasizes whole-person care and coordination between practitioners of different disciplines rather than one specific body area concern.
For instance, an integrative approach might combine medication, psychotherapy, and physical therapy (conventional approaches) with supplements, hypnotherapy, reiki, and yoga (complementary approaches). In the case of Sally and her GERD, this may involve using traditional prescription medications with acupuncture, herbal remedies, and hypnotherapy.
Functional Medicine: Uncovering the Root Causes of Disease
Depending upon who you speak with, functional and lifestyle medicine may fall under the integrative health bucket. 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.”
In essence, it marries together the knowledge of medical science and clinical medicine using a full-body, patient-centered approach to address chronic issues that lead to disease. It seeks to understand why you have an illness or symptoms by looking at your genetics, environment, and lifestyle and attempts to correct it using nutrition, behavioral, and lifestyle interventions.
A functional medicine provider would evaluate Sally’s entire life history (including the current GERD symptoms) and lifestyle before possibly determining that the cause of Sally’s acid reflux was a magnesium deficiency, food sensitivities, medications that caused increased intestinal permeability, etc. The recommendations would be based on what is at play for this unique individual (Sally), so a one-size-fits-all approach does not work.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Lifestyle Medicine: A Holistic Approach to Reversing Chronic Conditions
As you can see, lifestyle interventions are woven into functional medicine practice, but lifestyle medicine is its own specialty. The American College of Lifestyle Medicine states it “uses therapeutic lifestyle interventions as a primary modality to treat chronic conditions, including but not limited to cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.”
They emphasize six (6) pillars of health – 1- nutrition, 2- physical activity, 3- stress management, 4- restorative sleep, 5- risky substance avoidance, and 6- social engagement/connectivity. If Sally came to a lifestyle medicine provider, they would use all of these pillars to determine how to reverse her GERD symptoms.
Precision Medicine: Tailoring Healthcare to Your Unique Profile
Another new field, precision or personalized medicine, involves some of the same lifestyle and functional medicine principles. According to the CDC, precision medicine considers “individual differences in patients’ genes, environments, and lifestyles.”
“Health is like money; we never have a true idea of its value until we lose it.”
– Josh Billings
As the world continues to evolve, it’s important for you to pick the practitioners who you feel will serve you best. Integrative, functional, and lifestyle providers focus on the whole person, whereas traditional medicine typically focuses on conditions in a silo. Your openness to explore new therapies should lead you to determine what will work best for you.
- Conventional = take pills for a diagnosis or specific organ system complaint.
- Integrative = centered around the whole person and incorporates allopathic and complementary therapies through well-coordinated care.
- Functional = views genetics, environment, and lifestyle to find the root causes of illness and, depending on the provider, uses CAM therapies to rebalance the body into a state of wellness.
- Lifestyle = prescriptive, evidence-based medical, holistic approach using six health pillars to reverse chronic conditions.
- American College of Lifestyle Medicine. (2023, September 22). https://lifestylemedicine.org/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, May 17). Precision health: Improving health for each of us and all of us. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/about/precision_med.htm
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, September 12). Complementary, alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s in a name? National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/complementary-alternative-or-integrative-health-whats-in-a-name
- What is functional medicine?: IFM. The Institute for Functional Medicine. (2022, October 3). https://www.ifm.org/functional-medicine/what-is-functional-medicine/
Khara' JeffersonDNP, APRN, FNP-C, CHC