Chronic disease affects half of Americans today and is a major driver of healthcare costs, not to mention a lower quality of life for those afflicted and their families . While some may find relief with conventional treatments alone, more and more patients are turning to an integrative health approach. This can help them address and treat the root cause of their chronic illness, not just masking symptoms but resolving the issue at its foundation.
But what is integrative healthcare exactly, and how can it help you? In this article, we’ll define integrative health, how it differs from conventional medicine, what practitioners work in integrative medicine, what to look for in an integrative health provider, and how we commit to providing a more effective and personalized approach to integrative health at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine.
A quick note: Throughout this article, we will refer to integrative health, integrative medicine, and functional medicine interchangeably.
An Overview of Integrative Health
When you first start exploring options outside of conventional medicine, you may find more options available than you expected.
Some of these different approaches include:
- Complementary and alternative medicine
- Traditional Chinese medicine
- Naturopathic medicine
- Herbal medicine
- And many more
So out of all the choices, why take an integrative medicine approach?
Integrative health combines the best of conventional and alternative medicine, using multiple therapies to address illness and promote wellness. It also focuses on the whole person, rather than trying to silo health problems into different body systems. Integrative medicine sees health as a combination of physical, behavioral, social, and environmental factors rather than just the physical body alone .
Integrative health prioritizes a natural approach to wellness, using diet, exercise, lifestyle modifications, and selective supplementation as the first line of treatment. However, integrative health practitioners also recognize when medication can be useful and necessary on an individual patient basis . They may also choose to combine natural and conventional treatments for a synergistic effect.
For example, research has shown that when probiotics are paired with antibiotics for conditions including SIBO and H. pylori infections, patients experience greater improvements and a reduced risk of GI complications [3, 4, 5].
There is no one-size-fits all approach to integrative health. Integrative health aims to create a personalized treatment plan for an individual’s unique situation.
At our clinic, we are working to take an even more balanced and methodical approach to integrative health treatment that prioritizes quick patient recovery, reduces the overwhelm of testing, and encourages lasting positive change in our patients’ health and well-being.
Integrative Medicine vs. Functional Medicine
What’s the difference between functional medicine and integrative medicine?
For our purposes, we use the two terms interchangeably, as many of the foundational principles are the same. However, some professionals distinguish functional medicine from integrative medicine. Functional medicine focuses on finding the root cause of illness and treating it [x] while integrative medicine refers more to finding the specific combination of therapies (diet, lifestyle, mindfulness, chiropractic care, acupuncture, etc.) that will help a unique individual.
When separating out the two terms this way, it’s possible that functional medicine can serve as one part of an integrative healthcare plan. Whether you end up working with a healthcare professional labelled “integrative” or “functional,” make sure to ask them how they define their approach to the diagnosis and treatment of your condition. Their answer will give you the best idea of whether their approach aligns with your needs.
How Is Integrative Health Different from Conventional Medicine?
It’s important to note that integrative health is not opposed to conventional medicine. Inherent in the practice of integrative medicine is the use of conventional treatment options when necessary. Many conventional medicine institutions and practitioners are also now adopting integrative medicine approaches in their treatment plans for complex chronically ill patients.
The main differences are:
- Conventional medicine typically prioritizes treatment with pharmaceuticals over a multiphase approach to diet, lifestyle, and supplementation as needed.
- Conventional medicine often addresses health only after something has gone wrong. Integrative health also treats patients with pre-existing conditions, but it promotes preventative health strategies for whole person well-being.
- Conventional medicine separates healthcare into the different systems of the body. That’s why we have GI doctors, neurology doctors, endocrinology doctors, and so on. In this healthcare system, each specialist focuses only on their area of the body and seeks to treat the condition within that area. Integrative doctors and professionals may also specialize in a certain area (like gut health or chronic pain) or type of patient, but they widen their perspective to the whole body, seeing how gut health and thyroid health intersect, for example.
Conventional medicine has a place in our society, and it has certainly saved many lives. But as complex chronic illnesses, gut imbalances, and a wide range of autoimmune diseases continue to evade conventional treatment, an integrative approach is needed to help these patients regain their health.
Gut Health as a Foundation for Whole Body Wellness
There isn’t a hard and fast rule that says integrative health practitioners always have to focus on gut health, but it tends to be one of the foundational pieces in integrative healthcare.
Not only does research show that an integrative approach is beneficial for treating gastrointestinal diseases , but we have learned so much about the importance of good gut health as a means of improving brain health, hormone balance, mental health, and more [7, 8, 9, 10, 11]. As our main pathway for absorbing nutrients, one of our primary avenues of detoxification, and home to trillions of bacteria and other microbes that influence virtually all of the body’s systems, the gut is integral to overall health.
Due to this, many integrative practitioners incorporate some gut investigation and treatment into a patient’s treatment plan, even if they have been previously diagnosed with a thyroid problem, for example. Finding the optimal diet is one cornerstone of addressing gut health, but probiotic therapy, chiropractic adjustment, massage therapy, and many other tools can work within an integrative approach.
What Kinds of Health Professionals Work in Integrative Health?
There are many kinds of health care professionals that may practice using an integrative approach. Ideally, you may find several such practitioners working in one clinic where patients can easily see multiple practitioners if needed.
Integrative health care professionals include:
- Functional medicine/integrative medical doctor (MD)
- Functional medicine/integrative psychiatrists/psychologists
- Naturopathic doctors (ND)
- Chiropractors (DC)
- Massage therapists
What to Look for in an Integrative Health Provider
If the philosophy of integrative health or functional medicine resonates with you, the next step is to look for a provider who follows this kind of approach. But as the field continues to grow, how do you go about choosing the right practitioner for you?
There are several factors to watch out for when searching for an integrative health doctor or other professional.
Firstly, whether you are looking for a diagnosis for your condition or a new treatment plan, it is essential to see a provider who has a science-based, methodical approach to diagnosis and treatment. An initial consultation should involve a detailed review of your health history and an in-depth conversation with you about your current symptoms and goals for treatment.
Second, once the provider is familiar with your history, current situation, and goals, they should be able to recommend treatment right away with diet, lifestyle changes, and minimal supplementation, testing only when necessary and reasonable. The treatment plan should be straightforward and make sense to you, not overly complicated and difficult to follow. You should feel confident in the plan going forward and like you are an equal part of the team working on improving your health.
Follow-up appointments should evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t and proceed step by step from there.
Red Flags in a Healthcare Provider
Knowing what you should look for in a service provider probably already gives you some idea of red flags to watch out for. But here is a quick list:
- Exorbitant initial appointment and testing costs (i.e. in the thousands of dollars)
- Does not take the time outside of your appointments to review your history, prepare a treatment plan, and ensure that their time spent with you is efficient, productive and helpful rather than just conversational
- Labels you with conditions without appropriate testing, or relies too heavily on functional medicine testing, causing unnecessary fear and stress
- Recommends an extremely restrictive diet without justification
- Overly opinionated, confident or dogmatic
Remember, a healthy amount of skepticism is important when searching for any new provider, integrative or otherwise. If you come across any of these red flags while researching or visiting a practitioner, you may want to continue your search elsewhere.
How We Approach Integrative Healthcare at our Clinic
This is what we prioritize in our patient experience at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine:
- We make the correct diagnosis.
- You feel better as soon as possible.
- We don’t waste your money on unnecessary testing.
- We take a precise, stepwise, algorithmic approach to treatment—identifying what works and what doesn’t before moving on to something else.
- We don’t make you feel broken, afraid of food, or dependent on supplements.
- You feel educated and empowered by your experience with us.
- We work together as a team.
Let’s take a deeper look at some of these values in our process.
A Whole Person Health Approach
So far, our clinic includes:
- Doctors trained in functional medicine and an integrative approach
- Functional/integrative health coaches
- Integrative nutritionists
Our practitioners specialize in gut health, thyroid health, and chronic disease, but we also work with patients to optimize their overall health and well-being, including diet, lifestyle, and supplementation when needed. We also have an ever-growing network of external specialists we trust and can refer patients for specialized treatments, such as chiropractic adjustment and massage therapy.
You can learn more about our practitioners, their areas of interest and qualifications here.
Accurate, Cost-Effective Diagnosis and Treatment
We often see patients who have previously worked with other integrative or functional practitioners and were either misdiagnosed or put on a treatment plan that wasn’t right for them. These are some of the main problems we see:
- Overdiagnosis of thyroid and underdiagnosis of gut problems
- Inaccurate testing/labs, not using the right testing, or relying too much on tests 
- A psychological toll taken on patients who now fear wasting their money and time on misleading testing and treatments
This is our promise to our patients: If it isn’t likely to lead to improved health, we won’t ask you to spend your money on it.
There are many functional lab tests that aren’t really necessary and cost patients both money and stress. For example, adrenal fatigue testing is popular today, but research shows that this testing, usually a salivary cortisol test, is not closely associated with fatigue symptoms 50-80% of the time .
Functional medicine tests (and other types of tests) can certainly be helpful when used and interpreted properly. But in most cases, we see functional medicine test results as being only about one quarter of the picture when it comes to a patient’s health.
We only recommend data-driven, high quality testing when necessary, after first addressing diet and lifestyle changes that often make significant improvements in patient health.
We prepare ahead of time for each patient visit by reviewing your health history. When we meet with you, we identify an individualized treatment plan that fits your unique story, symptoms, and tolerance to therapy. By taking this approach that values both your time and ours, we can make our integrative health services more accessible and affordable.
Helping You Feel Better as Soon as Possible
It’s our first priority to help you feel better so that you can get back to living your life and being with the people you love.
This means that we don’t wait to start treatment until after you’ve paid for expensive testing or supplements. We begin our first line of treatment with reasonable changes to your diet and lifestyle and then recommend supplementation if necessary. If issues that still persist, then we may recommend lab testing for further investigation.
See our patient success stories to learn more about why patients choose us.
Setting You Up for Long-Term Success
We don’t just want to help you get better; we want to help you live the best, healthiest life possible. So once we’ve treated your symptoms and you feel like you’ve reached a baseline of wellness, then we start to ask new questions. How can we help you have more energy every day? How can we help you perform better in your life, whether you are an athlete, a parent, or someone feeling the effects of aging?
How can we continue to support your health so that you not only feel good, but you also lower your risk of developing conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other common conditions that affect millions of Americans each year?
We believe that preventive medicine is the future of medicine, and it’s the key to helping you reach and sustain optimal health for years to come.
A Focus on High-Quality Research
Lastly, our clinic is committed to conducting scientific research so that we can validate and document our treatment methods and share them with as many people as possible. We want to be part of the solution for providing science-backed integrative medicine treatments that really work and don’t require you to spend thousands of dollars on testing.
Our doctors have also published research in valid scientific journals on topics like SIBO, the autoimmune protocol diet for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and the composition of the microbiome.
Find Your Personalized Integrative Health Approach at the Ruscio Institute
Integrative health is constantly growing and changing, but it is built on the core values of using both natural and conventional treatments to address whole person health and well-being. Integrative health at its best recognizes that treating chronic illness or optimizing health isn’t one size fits all, and the best integrative practitioners use science-backed research and testing to determine the ideal treatment plan for each individual patient.
If you are struggling with your health or want a second opinion on the right treatment plan for you, book a consultation with us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine.