Integrative medicine is a field of medicine that is growing rapidly for a good reason. It combines conventional therapies or the things you are treated with at a regular medical office (i.e., prescription drugs) with natural treatments like nutrition, lifestyle, herbs, and supplements. As chronic disease rates rise rapidly in the U.S. and worldwide, there is increasing evidence that suggests that the foods we consume, environmental factors, and the busy, stressful lifestyles we live are contributing greatly to the rise. In fact, numerous data-backed theories say that one or all of these factors are the sole cause of chronic disease. This has caused a much-needed push to evaluate how we are treating disease. If these things are causing disease, why would we not look to them to reduce and eliminate disease? Integrative medicine does just that; it looks at the potential root cause of disease and all available treatment options, from natural to synthetic drugs, to form a treatment plan.
Integrative medicine is not used in every practice or even most practices. One is that nutrition and alternative treatments are not a significant part of the curriculum in medical school, nursing programs, or physician assistant programs. Although there may be some lessons on these things in school, it is certainly not an area that healthcare providers are competent in upon graduation if they don’t put their own effort into learning these treatment modalities themselves. There are only around 15 medical schools that have recently implemented an actual nutrition curriculum that emphasizes nutrition as treatment or prevention of disease, and this is up significantly from where it was ten years ago. Another reason you don’t see this as common practice is that it takes much more time. Our current healthcare system is set up so that healthcare providers must see a certain number of patients a day to maintain their expected income. This number continues to rise as reimbursement from insurance goes down. What this means for patients is that there is little time with your provider to discuss much other than what medication they will be prescribing. This is why the majority of clinics that practice integrative medicine do not take insurance. This allows them time with a patient to find out what’s going on in the patient’s life that may be contributing to the problem at hand and then discuss the numerous ways of treating it. It takes time to get an idea of what someone’s life really looks like and then talk about nutrition and lifestyle and come up with a comprehensive plan. It also takes patients willing to make changes in their lives to treat disease using integrative medicine effectively. Some patients do not want to do that work and would rather treat it with conventional medication. There are other factors that contribute to the lack of integrative medicine in common practice, but these are a few of the big players.
When I refer to natural treatments as “nutrition, lifestyle, herbs, and supplements,” lifestyle encompasses many treatment modalities. Stress relief is a major factor when it comes to treating chronic disease. Every integrative treatment plan should involve stress relief. Also, sleep is something that can’t be ignored when it comes to lifestyle. If we are not sleeping enough, our body is not functioning correctly. Exercise and movement are also important factors when it comes to lifestyle, but the list goes on and on. It includes things like time in nature, yoga, meditation, Ayurveda, mindfulness, etc. These treatments are very powerful and tend to improve the target disease and the quality of life that patients experience and prevent future diseases.
Entrenched in integrative medicine is the concept of treating the root cause of disease rather than treating symptoms of disease, as many conventional therapies do. There is a focus on looking at the patient as a whole and how they are living their life, then evaluating what may be happening in their body that could be contributing to the cause of the disease. In approaching a patient this way, we can treat the patient as a whole, rather than just treating the initial complaint or disease. This can often prevent other problems in the body. For example, when we treat psoriasis from an integrative dermatology approach, we reduce inflammation in the body that contributes to psoriasis flares, and in doing so, we also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and arthritis in the future. Using this example, you can see how treating a patient from this approach can greatly benefit their overall health.
Integrative medicine, although growing, is not yet mainstream medicine. Perhaps if it were, we would have much less disease to treat. By using a combination of conventional therapies and natural therapies, patients can more effectively treat the root cause of disease, prevent further disease and improve their quality of life. Who doesn’t want that?