Understanding Integrative and Naturopathic Medicine

Terms like alternative, integrative, naturopathic and holistic, are increasingly used in medical discussions, and it’s important to understand what they mean and how they differ.

It’s all in the language. The word “alternative” implies another option, indicating the relative ineffectiveness of one over the other. Herein lies the problem though when it comes to public perception of integrative, holistic medicinal practices.

Integrative medicine is a holistic approach. Those who practice it take into account an entire person when they develop a treatment and healing plan — the physical, mental, emotional, social and even spiritual components of the individual. To “integrate” means to fuse or combine two or more things. It’s important to understand integrative medicine is not a dismissal of conventional medicine; instead it’s traditional medicine, merely expanded upon to include different approaches to healing that focus more thoroughly on the patient as an individual, acknowledging each person is unique and requires different types of care.

This is different from naturopathy, which is an alternative form of medicine based on the theory that diseases can be successfully treated or prevented without the use of drugs.

These two types of medicine are often unfairly interchanged. For example, an M.D. who focuses on integrative medicine may prescribe a holistic treatment plan for a cancer patient that includes chemotherapy or radiation, followed by regular and beneficial lymphatic massages, acupuncture, yoga and/or specific diet plans. A naturopathic doctor would likely not look to chemotherapy or radiation at all. 

Several articles came out in late summer after research was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, sharing grim statistics about how patients with cancer who opt for entirely naturopathic treatments are more likely to die than those who go a more standard treatment route. This raised a lot of red flags for people when it comes to integrative medicine. The study however doesn't indicate natural, holistic practices are dangerous; it reports that oftentimes, cancer treatment requires more than herbal supplements and diet changes.

It’s a sensitive and difficult point of discussion, because the case for a more holistic and natural approach to healing and prevention is a good one. However, there are positive and negative ways to integrate naturopathic practices. 

The important takeaway: When choosing what type of doctor to see and what type of medical practice to subscribe to, always research thoroughly and speak to a certified medical professional. Don't gamble on your health. Think about what's important to you when it comes to your care, and work with doctors you feel understand your priorities, whatever they may be.