What is Integrative Medicine?

Dr Wanda Tan


What is Integrative Medicine?

Both in the general public and among health care professionals, there is some uncertainty as to what exactly Integrative Medicine is. To some degree, this is because the specialty is considered 'new.' In addition, there is a variety of related disciplines, such as holistic medicine, lifestyle medicine and functional medicine, which can add to the confusion.

Let’s start by explaining what Integrative Medicine isn’t. Integrative Medicine is not alternative medicine. It is not about crystal healing or colonic irrigation. It is not about eating like a caveman. And it is not about finding natural herbs to replace all pharmaceutical drugs. Rather, it focuses on the two weak links in modern medicine: one, identifying and addressing the root cause of chronic disease. And two, the role of nutrition, movement and sleep in achieving optimal health. It will come to no surprise that these two are intimately related.

The Royal Australasian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) defines integrative medicine as follows:

'The practice of integrative medicine refers to the blending of conventional and evidence-based natural and complementary medicines and/or therapies with lifestyle interventions to deliver holistic, patient-centred care. The overarching aim of integrative medicine is to use the most appropriate, safe, ethical and evidence-based modality(ies) available, with a particular focus on prevention and lifestyle interventions. '

Closely related to Integrative Medicine is 'Functional Medicine' which is a term more commonly used in the US. Functional Medicine focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. We do this by looking at a persons past history in combination with specific laboratory testing. This way, we can assess the function of an organ or a system, which may be declining long before the onset of the actual disease.

Let me give you an example. Fatigue is one of the symptoms of hypothyroidism (under functioning thyroid). While regular testing of the thyroid may still be normal, functional testing of the thyroid gland can indicate a decline in thyroid function long before the formal diagnosis of 'hypothyroidism' is made. Earlier diagnosis allows for earlier treatment with higher chances of reversing the disease. In addition, both Functional Medicine and Integrative Medicine aim to identify the cause of disease by looking at other pieces of evidence, such as personal history, diet, and other laboratory tests. In the case of hypothyroidism, one common cause of hypothyroidism is autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disease, in turn, may be caused or triggered by a dysfunction of the gastrointestinal tract. The cause of gastrointestinal tract problems my lie in a person’s diet, medication, infections, environmental toxins, genetics, stress etc. etc. The list is long.