Over the years, there has been a growing demand for integrative family medicine in the United States. The data suggests that about one in four patients uses alternative treatments (alongside conventional medicine). As a total, Americans’ expenditures on conventional and alternative medicine are roughly $21.2–$32.7 billion. In comparison, traditional medical costs stand at $29.3 billion .
Individuals often try integrative and functional medicine when conventional medicine has failed to resolve and manage their chronic diseases. More and more, the general public has realized a combination of integrative and alternative treatments can be more effective in preventing disease and promoting good health in the long run.
In this article, we will explain integrative and functional medicine, the type of health problems these practices treat, and the differences between conventional and functional medicine. We’ll help you decide which treatment route is best for you.
What Is Integrative Family Medicine?
Integrative family medicine combines conventional medicine with alternative therapies to find and treat the underlying causes of chronic diseases.
Integrative medicine practitioners use a holistic approach — they view each patient as a whole person. To improve your overall health, the integrative health approach focuses on every aspect of well-being: physical, social, emotional, environmental, and mental health. Through this approach, integrative health care helps you be healthier and have a higher quality of life.
Integrative medicine physicians prescribe drugs and use lifestyle medicine (a combination of diet, exercise, and sleep) for improved health.
Other benefits of integrative family medicine include:
- A healing-oriented and disease prevention approach
- Finding and treating the root causes of chronic conditions
- A therapeutic doctor-patient relationship
- Personalized treatment protocols uniquely tailored to each patient’s health needs and environment
Examples of integrative medical services include acupuncture, massage therapy, detoxification, and bioidentical hormones. Integrative medicine ranges from traditional Chinese medicine to dietary supplements.
What Is Functional Medicine?
Functional medicine uses a science-based, patient-centered, integrative health approach to diagnose, treat, and prevent chronic illnesses. The functional medicine model aims to improve the quality of care in the current healthcare system.
Like integrative family medicine, functional medicine recognizes every patient’s unique genetic and biochemical makeup.
That’s why functional medicine practitioners use a systems-biology approach that involves lab testing to analyze how a patient’s different biological systems interact. As a result, functional medicine can get to the root of health problems better than conventional medicine.
Functional medicine also complements traditional Western medicine, as natural remedies and lifestyle medicine can combine with prescription drugs. As part of integrative medicine, functional medicine often includes acupuncture, chiropractic, and healthy lifestyle changes.
What Are Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctors?
Both integrative and functional medicine physicians use a holistic approach.
An integrative family medicine doctor is a licensed physician who uses an integrative health approach. Similarly, a functional medicine physician holds a medical degree and is trained in functional medical care.
According to The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), functional medicine practitioner candidates must hold an active license in at least one of the following healthcare fields:
- Medical Doctor (MD)
- Doctor of Natural Medicine or Naturopathic Doctor (DNM or ND respectively)
- Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)
- Doctor of Optometry (OD)
- Doctor of Osteopathy (DO)
- Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)
- Registered Dietitian (RD)
- Mental Health Professionals
For the full list, please visit the IFM website.
On top of that, candidates must also meet the minimum educational qualifications to be accepted into the IFM Functional Medicine program. Once candidates have completed all program requirements, they become certified functional medicine practitioners.
Health Issues Treated With Integrative and Functional Medicine
Both integrative and functional medicine physicians often treat complex, chronic conditions including:
- Autoimmune diseases like Celiac disease and Hashimoto’s disease.
- Gastrointestinal problems such as Crohn’s disease, leaky gut, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Women’s health issues such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
- Mood disorders including anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue.
Due to the complexities of these health problems, conventional medicine alone may not give patients enough resources.
This is where integrative medicine comes in — it uses functional testing and lifestyle medicine to accurately diagnose the root cause of illness and, as a result, an effective treatment protocol.
Here’s how a functional medicine physician may diagnose and treat your condition:
- In the initial exam, the physician reviews your health and medical history and asks detailed questions to gather information about the root causes of your health problem.
- Next, your physician will make a personalized treatment plan that may include potential laboratory testing, dietary changes (and, possibly, supplements), and other lifestyle modifications.
In some cases, other types of healthcare providers may be required to achieve desired patient outcomes. For instance, a functional medicine physician may refer you to a nutrition coach to assist you with weight loss or recommend a chiropractor to address chronic pain.
Types of functional medical treatments include:
- Therapeutic dietary protocols like the elemental diet or the Paleo diet to identify and eliminate possible food allergies and sensitivities that trigger your symptoms.
- Targeted supplementations such as probiotics and fish oil to speed up your healing process.
- Health coaching to help patients implement healthy lifestyle changes such as diet, sleep, exercise, and self-care.
Depending on your condition, your physician may suggest one or a combination of the above methods for your treatment protocol.
Functional Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine
While functional medicine and conventional medicine overlap and are practiced by licensed healthcare providers, they have significant differences.
1. Focus on the Root Cause
First, functional medicine physicians prioritize a supportive, therapeutic relationship with their patients. They view patients as partners in their goal to improve patient health and take the time to address their concerns.
With one practitioner in charge of your medical and health details, it’s easier to form a complete and systematic picture of your health. In fact, functional medicine doesn’t rely on different doctors to treat different symptoms — it treats the body as a system and recognizes that different kinds of symptoms may share a common root cause.
For instance, if you’re experiencing gastrointestinal and skin problems at the same time, you don’t have to visit a gastroenterologist and a dermatologist separately. A functional medicine physician can help you identify the root causes behind seemingly unrelated symptoms to treat your body as a whole. This not only saves you time and money but also ensures that the root cause of health issues is addressed.
In contrast, conventional medicine practitioners often neglect this aspect of their treatment protocol, even though research evidence suggests that intestinal health and skin health are closely linked [2, 3].
Separately visiting a gastroenterologist and dermatologist may mean both doctors focus on symptoms in their area of expertise while missing the whole picture. Topical steroids only provide temporary skin relief and your skin condition will continue to flare up without attention to improving gut health.
What’s more, when so many professionals are involved, miscommunications may also happen between healthcare professionals that may compromise the patient’s health .
2. Healing Solutions
Second, functional medicine physicians use lifestyle medicine to create sustainable treatments. Most chronic diseases such as diabetes and IBS can be better corrected and prevented through healthy lifestyle changes than long-term reliance on medications. Functional medicine reduces and eliminates symptoms through a holistic approach that targets a patient’s diet and lifestyle.
Conversely, the traditional medicine approach often has a “quick-fix” mentality — prescribing drugs to treat symptoms rather than addressing the root cause of disease. This often results in recurrent symptoms, as patients waste time, money, and effort on medications that only offer temporary relief. Prolonged medicinal use has also been linked to adverse side effects that further compound patients’ long-term health issues .
A New Integrative Family Medicine Clinic in Austin
Austin Functional Medicine uses conventional, integrative, and functional medicine to provide science-based, holistic medical care.
Our integrative family medicine clinic provides integrative and functional medicine services to the Austin, Texas area and telehealth medicine to patients in and outside the U.S.
Trained in traditional and functional medicine, our practitioners can act as part of your primary care or integrative care team. Using a therapeutic doctor-patient partnership, our physicians recommend preventive and proactive lifestyle interventions to help you achieve and maintain good health.
Here is our team of certified practitioners:
- Dr. Michael Ruscio, DNM, DC: Functional and integrative medicine doctor specializing in gut and thyroid disorders
- Dr. Robert Abbott, MD: Integrative and lifestyle functional medicine physician
- Dr. Joe Mather, MD, MPH, TM: Board-certified family practice functional medicine physician
- Morgan Molidor, MSc: Nutritionist and health coach specializing in functional medicine and therapeutic diets
Austin Functional Medicine’s Health Services
Our dedicated medical care team specializes in healing:
- Digestive health issues, including IBS, IBD, SIBO, leaky gut, Celiac disease, reflux, and heartburn.
- Thyroid health issues, including hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
- Hormone imbalances, including PCOS, menopause, and testosterone imbalance.
- Chronic conditions, like autoimmune diseases and mold illness.
If you experience other health issues such as chronic pain and weight loss, feel free to ask us for more information.
Start Your Journey To Good Health Today
In the meantime, here are some resources on how integrative and functional medicine may help you:
- Healthy Gut, Healthy You: Written by Dr. Ruscio, this book is a step-by-step guide to healing your digestive and overall health challenges through an integrative and functional health approach.
- How to find a good functional medicine doctor: In this blog post, Dr. Ruscio explains how to find the right functional medicine doctor for you.
- Integrative medicine and COVID-19: This podcast episode shares how integrative healthcare providers are supporting their patients during the pandemic.