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What is Integrative, Alternative, or Functional Medicine?

I am sure you have heard one of these terms: Integrative Medicine, Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or even Functional Medicine. Well, at this point you are probably confused, and I don’t blame you, as many of my patients, family or friends often ask me the same question: “What kind of medicine is this?” In the following lines, I will try to summarize what it is all this about, and most importantly, provide really interesting information that could help you get to a better state of health.

Defining Health:

Before I get started defining this kind of medical approach, let’s define what health is in the first place. You might be surprised to learn that the traditional definition of health by the World Health Organization (WHO) comes from 1948 and defines it as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

However, one of the most simple, and yet complete definitions I found was actually on Wikipedia: “health is the level of functional and metabolic efficiency of a living organism” (1). As simple as it sounds, there is so much truth behind this, considering that health is not just the absence of disease, but most importantly how we can make sure our human systems are working efficiently from the molecular/cellular level to the major organs and its relationship with the environment.

Researchers working on a new definition of health expanded a little more: “In humans it is the ability of individuals or communities to adapt and self-manage when facing physical, mental, psychological and social changes with the environment.” (2)

Medical Approaches to Improve Health 

Having the basic review of what health is about; let’s move to defining the different terms:

Alternative Medicine: When a “non-mainstream practice” is used in place of conventional medicine. This includes a wide variety of approaches, like Acupuncture, Massage Therapy, Mind-body technique (Meditation, yoga), Chiropractic, Naturopathy, Homeopathy, Reiki, or Aromatherapy, among the most common ones.

Complementary Medicine: When a “non-mainstream practice” is used together with conventional medicine. Just to clarify that “mainstream” or “conventional” practice refers to Western Medicine (use of drugs, pills and/or surgery) (3).

Integrative Medicine: Is the use of “conventional” medicine along with different evidence-based “Alternative Medicine” approaches, and considers the whole “mind-body-spirit” components of the individual. It may sound similar to Complementary Medicine, but Integrative Medicine focuses strongly on the Provider-patient healing relationship, and goes beyond just recommending Acupuncture and using medications to reduce pain.

Functional Medicine: Similar to Integrative Medicine, Functional medicine has a “holistic” approach, but goes deeper trying to find the “root cause” of the problems, and not just using different techniques or modalities to alleviate the patients’ symptoms. In fact, important functional medicine principles are the following:

  • Every patient is a unique individual, so their conditions should be addressed in the same way.
  • Science based goes deep dive into biochemistry dysfunction and genetic predisposition to certain conditions.
  • Embraces an approach that focuses on systems and how dysregulation within these systems (immune, gastrointestinal, cardiometabolic, etc) lead to chronic medical problems like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, even depression.
  • Look towards self-regulation of the body, i.e: our “self-healing potential”. Yes, as esoteric as this may sound to you we all have the ability to self-regulate if some metabolic dysfunction is corrected using a better diet, exercise, supplementing vitamin efficiencies, or just improving your sleep.

The following is a very good place to look for differences between integrative and functional medicine (4)

Putting all these into Perspective

To get the most sense and understand of all these types of holistic approaches, I invite you to think about a time where you visited your doctor and you had a great time there.

Your doctor probably listened to you, and not only your problems, but also went a mile ahead and asked you for other aspects of your life that were likely affecting your health.

Now, you also probably have been seen by another provider who did not even look at you and focused on the computer, or instead of trying to understand your condition, was just ready to hand you a prescription and let you go.

What makes the first doctor very special is the “Integrative” approach, or in simple terms what I like to call, the “good medicine” that was used.

In summary, we all are human beings with physical, emotional, spiritual and environmental factors affecting our health. In the same way, we should look at solutions to improve our well being that consider all these vital aspects, and look forward not only to feeling better but also to reach our maximal potential of happiness and vitality.

Read This Article in Spanish.




(3) The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH),


Written By: Oscar Cornelio-Flores, MD

Dr. Oscar Cornelio-Flores is a board certified Family Medicine physician who practices Integrative and Functional Medicine in Avance Care, Durham, NC. He graduated from an Academic Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at Boston Medical Center, and has spread his work using group medical visits, mind-body approaches, nutrition, and exercise. As an active sports enthusiast, he enjoys running, biking, swimming and playing soccer; and considers food, mind, and movement as the basis for healthy living. Along with his wife, a Zumba Instructor, he lives with his 3 beautiful daughters in Chapel Hill, NC.

Categories: Education,  Healthy Living
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