Functional, Conventional, Integrative, Alternative, Holistic – What Do They All Mean And Why It Should Matter To You?

Functional, Conventional, Integrative, Alternative, Holistic – What Do They All Mean And Why It Should Matter To You?

Many are confused when it comes to the various terms used to refer to doctors and types of treatment. Even the newer terms (e.g, alternative, holistic) have been used for decades yet there is still much uncertainty by those who are not participating or practicing in those areas.

My goal is for you to be best informed when you are seeking a doctor or practitioner and what kind of treatment or therapy that is best for you. Before we get into the descriptions and explanations of practitioner and therapy types, the first question is why should you care?

Why does it matter who and what you choose?

Some seek a magic pill to rid them of their frustrating symptom(s). That deceptive magic pill usually comes in the form of a medication that masks the symptom or makes it feel better so all is good right? It may appear as if it magically fixes your problem yet it is very deceiving.

Many times this “medication magic pill” just delays other problems from showing up and even causes additional health issues. Now, we cannot just blame medications as the sole “magic pill” as some seek natural or alternative therapies to treat their symptoms. Rather than treat your symptoms and continue to do so as more pop up and you are possibly diagnosed with additional conditions, wouldn’t you rather seek to understand what is behind all the issues? Sure, managing symptoms, especially when they are very uncomfortable or debilitating, is important but should not be your final objective. While you are treating your symptoms, why not proceed to determine the underlying reasons your symptoms are occurring?   Unless you just care about getting rid of your symptom in the short term but don’t care about your quality of life and longevity, uncovering and addressing the root cause is truly what your final goal should be.

Next, let’s look at types of practitioners and treatments so you can make more informed choices

What Kind of Practitioner Should You see?

Depending on your symptoms or condition, you want to choose the practitioner that can treat you most appropriately. If you are dealing with a more acute situation such as one that is more sudden and severe, you would want to seek conventional treatment or possibly go to the hospital. These may include events such as a life threatening allergic reaction, a broken bone, you are suddenly having difficulty breathing, you are having an abrupt severe attack, etc.

If you have been dealing with symptoms that have been persistent and not suddenly life threatening, you may want to visit a functional or integrative medicine practitioner. This may include symptoms such as digestive problems, relentless fatigue, headaches, joint or muscle aches, skin conditions, arthritis, or diagnosis involving autoimmune conditions, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or other chronic conditions.

Keep in mind that a condition may start out as acute but the trigger may be based on a chronic issue. For instance, you may have a severe asthma attack that must be managed with acute, conventional care. However, you may develop persistent asthma. At that point, rather than just continuing to manage your symptoms, seeking and addressing the root cause(s) may keep you from having asthma symptoms in the future.

Let’s review of some prevalent types of doctors or medical providers.

  • Conventional
  • Functional
  • Integrative
Conventional Medicine

Conventional, also referred to as allopathic, western, and mainstream medicine, and the traditional medical model, is what many are most familiar. It is highly popular for diagnosing then treating using pharmaceuticals and surgery. The focus is on treating the symptom(s) and is based on a narrow perspective. What I mean by a narrow perspective is that symptom(s) are compartmentalized and that area is generally the target for therapy. For example, if someone has ongoing headaches they may see a neurologist and the objective may be to do testing on the brain, head, or spinal cord area. However, a person’s headaches may have nothing to do with those areas and may even be caused by gut problems. What neurologist is going to review your digestive tract or do gastrointestinal testing?

Conventional medicine is more based on disease management; seeking to diagnose and then follow a specific pharmaceutical or surgical protocol for a specific disease or condition. Now, this can be extremely important when we have an acute health problem such as a broken arm, a heart attack, appendicitis, have been in an accident, etc. Conventional medicine has its place and I am certainly glad we have doctors and hospitals available to treat acute health situations. When it comes to chronic health issues this practice, however, has not been nor ever will be the solution.


One in 2 Americans suffer from a chronic condition and 84% of US annual healthcare costs are spent on chronic illness. Unfortunately, most dealing with a chronic condition continue to seek conventional medical care and it is not working for them.

Functional Medicine

Functional medicine is nearly the opposite of conventional medicine. It is patient-centered whereby the patient and the practitioner work collaboratively in a therapeutic partnership. Functional medicine focuses on the whole person; body, mind, and soul.

A person’s wellness is not just about an array of independent segments that should be viewed in isolation. This is especially true when it comes to chronic illness. The human body is complex and wonderfully made and it along with external factors has a function in affecting our health. The functional medicine approach looks at dietary, lifestyle (e.g., sleep, exercise, social and spiritual elements, stress), genetics, and environmental factors that all play a role in health problem causes and treatments. Functional medicine practitioners investigate to find the underlying or root cause(s) of symptom(s) that are manifesting or a condition possibly already diagnosed.

Rather than just treat the symptom to mask or reduce it, the focus is to determine and treat the cause. By identifying and addressing the root cause, the symptom not only resolves, but other domino effect symptoms that occur due to the root cause not being treated are also avoided and/or resolved. “Functional medicine always strives to catch problems in their earliest phases when early intervention is possible and always includes significant lifestyle changes as part of treatment plans.”

As far as how functional medicine practitioners treat root causes, it is not always black and white. Many functional medicine practitioners will focus on natural, alternative therapies. However, there are times when even a functional medicine practitioner will recommend using a traditional medication with the goal to transition (when possible) to natural therapies or at least use them in combination with each other. This is when it becomes more integrative.

Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine is quite similar to functional medicine in its principles and activity in seeking the underlying causes to health problems and taking into account a person as a whole (body, mind, and soul), including all aspects of lifestyle. Integrative medicine combines mainstream, conventional medical therapies with alternative therapies.

With both functional and integrative medicine, treatment is very personalized. The approach is based on an individual’s unique conditions and circumstances and not a specific protocol attached to a specific disease or symptom.

Another potential confusion is the various titles of medical providers so here is some clarification.

Titles of Practitioners

You may have noticed that practitioners have varying titles. These are important to understand for 2 key reasons. The first is based on the type and amount of training and education they may have received. Ensure you are comfortable with their education credentials. The second is based on whether your health insurance provider would cover a claim from office visits with the doctor or cover any lab orders from those practitioners

Health insurance providers generally cover those that are medical (MD) and osteopathic (DO) doctors. Whether the doctor is listed in your provider’s network or would be out-of-network is a completely different issue. Some MDs and DOs have actually gone back to school to gain knowledge and train in functional medicine. This is great for those of you who require that their doctor be covered through their insurance provider. Some doctors, although they have gone through relevant medical school, are not covered through health insurance providers as it relates to functional medicine practice. These include naturopathic doctors (ND) and chiropractors (CD). Many NDs and CDs have obtained fabulous training and education in functional medicine in addition to their previously required medical education yet health insurance providers do not cover functional medicine visits with them. It is important to clarify that when a health insurance plan includes chiropractic care, your provider may cover your CD office visit when it is based on receiving chiropractic care.

Click here for a resource to help you find a doctor that practices functional medicine. Once you have determined the type of practitioner you want to see, next is determining the type of treatment you would want.

When you are dealing with an acute health problem, it is many times necessary to receive conventional treatment such as pharmaceutical medications or even surgery or radiation depending on the event. We already mentioned an acute problem is related to a sudden severe issue such as a heart attack, broken bone, terrible accident with uncertain internal damage, etc. There may be some situations when a condition starts out as acute and then becomes a chronic problem or a chronic condition becomes acute at some point. An example of this is asthma or even an autoimmune condition for which it turns more severe and you need immediate more invasive traditional treatment. It is important to clearly assess your symptoms/condition and be wise with your choice of practitioner treatment.   The following are prevalent treatment/therapy types:

  • Conventional/Traditional
  • Alternative
  • Complimentary
Conventional Treatment

Typical conventional treatment consists of pharmaceuticals and surgery (when applicable). Some doctors that discuss diet and stress but those discussions are generally very basic, vague, and not followed up with details on what and how. Most conventional care is based on prescribing medication(s) to manage symptom(s) or a condition and not based on addressing the underlying reasons. Though testing may be completed to determine a diagnosis, generally the condition that has been diagnTrosed is treated with medications to manage the symptoms that manifest due to the condition. The assessment and testing is typically not completed to determine the “why” behind the condition.

So many people just want a magic pill to make their symptom(s) disappear and do not want to make dietary, lifestyle, and other changes in their life that would enable them to avoid the symptom to begin with.

Unfortunately, eventually, the medication that at one time helped to keep the symptom at bay stops working or being as effective and many times even causes additional health problems. Though many pharmaceuticals help to tame down symptoms, they also have negative effects on our body, some causing long-term and permanent damage. In some cases, the benefit of the medication is needed regardless of the risk. However, that is necessary in fewer cases than the medical community would like you to think.

A final note regarding pharmaceuticals is that not all prescriptions are bad and just used to treat a symptom without addressing the root cause. An example of this is hormones. Sometimes no matter what you are doing to treat the root cause of autoimmune Hashimoto’s (a hypothyroid condition where the thyroid does not produce enough relevant hormones), a prescription for thyroid hormones is necessary and may be needed for life for some people. At the same time, however, it is important to use other therapies to manage the root cause of having an autoimmune condition to begin with.

Alternative Treatment

Alternative treatments are the opposite of conventional treatments. Some use a combination of alternative therapies, which in some circumstances may work best. The following are many types (not all) of alternative therapies that can be very helpful with varying conditions.

  • Aromatherapy and essential oils
  • Acupuncture
  • Herbal medicine
  • Homeopathic remedies
  • Nutritional and natural supplementation
  • Massage
  • Visualization
  • Meditation
  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
  • Colonics and coffee retention enemas
  • Infrared light and heat
  • Oxygen treatment (e.g., hyperbaric chamber)
  • Ozone therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Detoxification programs
  • Various types of IV therapies
  • Chelation
  • Reflexology
  • Dietary protocols
Complimentary Treatment

Complimentary treatment is based on using alternative therapies alongside conventional treatment. In this case, you may use alternative therapies (e.g., acupuncture and herbs) to cope with side effects of conventional treatment (e.g. chemotherapy) or alternative therapies alongside conventional treatment to support your treatment being more effective.

Another term, holistic, is sometimes referred to as a type of practitioner (e.g., Holistic Medicine Doctor) or as it relates to a type of therapy. Holistic is distinct from conventional or traditional medicine and is most used when it relates to functional and integrative medicine and alternative therapies.
“Treatment is focused on considering that the mind, spirit and body are all interconnected.” Rather than focus on an illness or specific parts of the body, holistic health considers the whole person and how they interact with their environment.

Regardless of your choice of practitioner and therapy, and whether you are treating an existing health problem or wanting to prevent one, a great goal is to take an active role in your health. We cannot rely on a doctor to do everything while we just wait for a diagnosis and prescription. To be blunt, that is unwise and leading you down a path of being at a much higher risk of having additional health problems. They may not happen immediately, but highly probable of occurring in the future. The key question to ask is “do I want to have the best chance at enjoying what I love to do for as long as I can or do I just want short term relief while awaiting the inevitable health decline and having regrets?”

Be someone that takes responsibility to be your healthiest you. Make changes now to prevent health problems and seek to address underlying causes to any existing conditions you may have. Be your best advocate or designate someone close to you to do that if you are not able. Be informed and take the reins.






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