Just as new words have entered our vocabulary recently through our food system (such as organic, free-range, hormone-free, biodynamic, and natural), new definitions of alternative medicine (like functional, complementary, and integrative medicine) have been created to distinguish varying approaches to natural health.
This article serves as a definitive introduction to alternative medicine, describing the distinct disciplines: holistic, integrative, complementary, and functional medicine. It outlines the origins of each to provide a comprehensive understanding of the landscape of alternative and conventional medicine available today.
First, to more clearly understand the context of alternative medicine, let’s take a look at the origins of conventional medicine.
The Origins of Conventional Medicine
The seeds for conventional, Western medicine typically practiced in the United States were first planted by Greek physician, Hippocrates, in approximately 500 BC.
Along with phrases like, “let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food”, Hippocrates became known for the Hippocratic Oath— a series of ethical standards that doctors swear by to this day–– including confidentiality, and the promise to “do no harm.”
From the Renaissance through the Age of Enlightenment, Western medicine advanced our understanding of anatomy, and through military medicine, emergency surgeries and trauma treatments became more precise. Eventually, through widespread disease, a heightened understanding of sanitation was incorporated into medical thought.
By the 1900s the rapid growth of cities necessitated the construction of centralized medical facilities, which soon led to the hospital industry. Major developments emerged throughout the 1900s that continue to influence health care including antibiotics, vaccines, organ transplants, industrialized medicine, medical technology, and managed health care.
To this day, conventional medicine continues to hold its position as the primary, scientifically proven modality in health care, while integrative therapies (covered below) are increasingly gaining popularity as accepted forms of complementary care.
The Origins of Alternative Medicine
Many of these traditional forms of healing have roots that date back thousands of years. They often include a “food as medicine” approach to health, while supporting the interconnectedness of the mind, body, and spirit through plant medicine and other natural remedies.
Training is commonly received in a formal education setting or passed down through traditional knowledge and oral history. While many of these medicines have not been thoroughly studied from a Western scientific framework, they have been the primary methods of healing for many populations around the world, and are being increasingly studied and acknowledged in mainstream medicine.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), has been popularized by acupuncture and practiced in the East for over 2,500 years. This system of healing includes herbalism, nutrition, massage and more, and is based on Five Elements Theory (the existence of earth, metal, water, wood, and fire energies throughout the universe), along with the understanding of yin and yang. Traditional Chinese Medicine works with energy in the body, combined with a keen understanding of the energy of the seasons, food, herbs, and trigger points to cultivate internal balance.
TCM is practiced across Asia and many countries in the world by both medical professionals in hospitals, as well as “barefoot doctors”–– practitioners in rural communities who have an advanced understanding of bioregional herbalism and healing.
Ayurveda, popularized by yoga, has origins dating back to 6,000 BCE. This system of medicine is rooted in the Indian subcontinent and has branches that cover everything from food and herbalism to yoga, massage, meditation, and spirituality.
In India and increasingly in the West, many communities rely on Ayurveda as a foundational and/or complementary medicine when it comes to health and wellness.
Indigenous and Folk Medicine
Many cultures throughout the world incorporate “folk” and/or indigenous traditions of herbalism, seasonal foods, connection with community and the earth to maintain vitality. Often, in rural communities, plant medicine is the only option available and commonly handed down from one generation to the next.
Let’s take a look at the differences and similarities between these approaches.
Alternative Medicine Definition
‘Alternative medicine’ is the most all-encompassing, historically used terminology to describe all forms of healing outside of conventional medicine.
This term became popularized in the 1970s and legitimized in the early 1990s when Congress established an Office of Alternative Medicine within the National Institutes of Health.
Alternative medicine includes everything that is not considered conventional medicine. Because of this, there is no universal scientific standard associated with the term “alternative medicine.” It can include traditionally studied technologies like Ayurveda, and also crystal healing, shamanism, and personal interpretations of healing.
To distinguish the growing field of healing modalities with demonstrated effectiveness in conjunction with conventional medicine (like Traditional Chinese Medicine, for instance), the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) removed “alternative” from its name and replaced it with the words “complementary” and “integrative” to become the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) in 2014.
“Alternative” is a vague term which simply implies otherness (not conventional), and also runs the risk of suggesting an “either-or” approach when it comes to medicine (either conventional medicine or alternative medicine), which is not recommended by contemporary medical thought. It is recommended that safe alternative medicine treatments should complement conventional protocol, rather than replace it. For this reason, “alternative medicine” can be an insufficient term in describing current forms of complementary, integrative care. However, it can be an appropriate term to describe the wide world of non-conventional medicine.
Complementary Medicine Definition
As a growing number of Americans accompany doctor and hospital visits with non-conventional therapies like chiropractic and acupuncture, “complementary medicine” has emerged as terminology to describe this hybridized system of health management.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH),
If a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary,” but if a non-mainstream practice is used in place of conventional medicine, it’s called ‘alternative.’
For this reason, therapies that are used in conjunction with or alongside conventional medicine are called “complementary medicine.”
Integrative Medicine Definition
“Integrative medicine” involves a holistic approach (mind, body, and spirit) to optimal wellness through a blend of conventional and alternative medicine.
Originally coined in 1958 by Evarts G. Loomis, a medical doctor who opened a holistic health center in California–– ”Integrative” became the preferred term in what eventually became the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine (ABIHM) in 1996.
“Integrative” signifies a holistic, patient-centered system of care that works with conventional and alternative medicine to support the mental, physical and emotional influences on overall health. Doctors can be trained as integrative medicine practitioners, which allows them to make use of all therapeutic approaches, health care providers and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.
Functional Medicine Definition
The term “Functional Medicine” was popularized through the creation of the Institute for Functional Medicine by Jeffrey and Susan Bland in 1991. The Blands sought to share a personalized approach to medicine that considered the interactions between genetics, lifestyle choices, and environmental exposures for each individual.
Over the past 25 years, many prominent physicians including Dr. Oz, Dr. Andrew Weil, and Dr. Mark Hyman became affiliated with the term “functional medicine.” Functional medicine doctors study the latest research in nutritional science, genomics (how genes affect organisms), and epigenetics (how to switch genes on and off), and they help patients create individualized plans of action for optimal health using both conventional and alternative medicine.
“Naturopathy” is a form of alternative medicine that uses various therapies to encourage the inherent self-healing processes of an individual. Evolved from a combination of traditional practices popular in Europe during the 19th century, naturopathic doctors diagnose, prevent, and treat acute and chronic illness to restore and establish optimal health. Rather than symptom suppression, naturopathic doctors uncover underlying causes of illness and develop personalized treatment plans to address them.
*Although naturopathic doctors must undergo formal training, they are not MD’s. With that said, some MD’s study to become naturopaths after becoming MD’s.
Holistic Medicine Definition
The term “Holistic” comes from the Greek word holos, which means whole. Holistic medicine signifies a comprehensive approach to health that includes consideration of the mind, body, and spirit in the quest for optimal wellness. Treating conditions through a “holistic” lens involves taking mental, emotional and physical health into account, and making decisions based on what works best and creates ease and balance for the whole.
Similar to alternative medicine, holistic medicine is a vague term and not associated with a particular set of scientific standards. Some doctors can continue their studies to become “holistic” doctors. Like complementary medicine, holistic medicine can include a wide range of treatments across conventional and alternative modalities.
As more and more people explore the potential healing benefits of alternative medicine, the term “complementary” aims to bridge the gap between conventional and alternative medicine – encouraging a hybridized system of care directed by conventional medicine.
Integrative, Functional and Naturopathic doctors are representatives of the medical community who take an integrated approach to patient care: relying on both conventional and alternative healing modalities to stimulate optimal wellness.
While the field of alternative medicine is vast, many traditional therapies such as acupuncture are being studied and supported for their effectiveness. As aspects of alternative medicine are studied and tested, they are becoming more widely accepted into conventional medicine.
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