What is Integrative Medicine?

We at Integrative Alchemists are students and practitioners of integrative medicine, but what does that mean?  There are a lot of terms out there that can cause confusion about approaches beyond traditional (Western) medicine.  Below are some basic definitions. Some of these approaches can overlap in places. Once we’ve defined them, we can talk about what is unique about Integrative medicine, specifically, and why we think it’s such a transformative way to look at health and wellness.  Note that Western science has historically been skeptical or dismissive of many of these practices. But new research is demonstrating that some aspects of these approaches can stand up to rigorous scientific study and can help improve patient outcomes on health and disease.

Alternative Medicine: This is a broad catch-all term, but generally refers to medicine which is untested or not generally well accepted within Western scientific traditions. This is sometimes described as “pseudo-science.”

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM): This is similar to alternative medicine, but incorporates some aspects of Western Medicine as a complement to the alternate treatments.

Energy Medicine: This is a very broad category, which includes such practices as Reiki, Qi Gong, spiritual healing and healing touch. Even prayer could be considered an example of energy medicine.

5-Element Chinese Medicine: This ancient system is still prominent of in much of the world today, and is growing in recognition in the Western academy. It includes the practice of acupuncture and herbal remedies, as well as forms of massage and nutrition. This approach includes a conceptual framework of pathophysiology and treatment based on five elements (fire, earth, metal, water and wood). You may have heard of its cousin TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) – this is a version of traditional medicine which the Chinese government in the Mao era adapted and removed some of the more spiritual aspects.

Ayurveda: This is another ancient system which came out of India. Practices such as yoga and use of some herbs come out of this tradition. The concept of charkas (spinning wheels of energy in different parts of the body) comes from Ayurveda.

Holistic Medicine: This is an approach which focuses on looking at the “whole” person (in opposition to Western medicine, which often focuses on specific symptoms/organ systems).

Homeopathy: This approach is well outside of science which suggests that certain substances taken from diseased people can cure others. Of all the frameworks listed in this blog, homeopathy has the least in common with the western approach.

Functional Medicine: This framework is rooted in Western biology, but looks at a broader picture of health than just specific symptoms. It looks at systemic causes such as inflammation, genes, environment and lifestyle, and seeks to address disease through this lens.

Naturopathy: This approach believes the body can heal itself using energy. It often rejects Western medicine (e.g. opposition to the use of vaccines or chemotherapy).

Traditional Medicine is another broad term and can refer to healing traditions from many cultures outside of the West.

Integrative Medicine: combines approaches from other well-established frameworks such as Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda with existing Western medical approaches.

Why Integrative Medicine? In this alphabet-soup of conceptual frameworks, why are we so passionate about Integrative medicine specifically? Both of us have worked most of our professional lives in Western academic medicine. We have a full appreciation for the importance it has in maintaining people’s health and well being. But we have also had transformative personal experiences in witnessing how other traditions such as Chinese medicine can complement Western approaches. Increasingly, prominent Western institutions such as Mayo, Duke Healthcare and Georgetown University Medical Center are bringing Integrative Medicine into their overall programmatic offerings. Practices like acupuncture are being studied in the rigorous Western scientific tradition through double-blind trials and the like to demonstrate the validity of this framework.  

Even Medicare, the largest buyer of healthcare services in America is commissioning studies on the use of acupuncture, and covering it experimentally because preliminary evidence shows it can do better than opioids for some chronic pain conditions. We at Integrative Alchemists hope to use this platform to share the many compelling findings coming out of this growing literature as the Western world comes to appreciate and validate the many relevant insights Chinese Medicine and other traditional approaches can bring to bear on how to promote health and wellness.

In a nutshell, then…. our approach centers on:

Combining best of Western and Eastern Medicine

Cultivating mindfulness and spirituality

Daily grounding/embodying practices

Our regular blog topics help spread the word on many topics related to the growing body of integrative medicine. We hope to provide useful information not only to other integrative practitioners, but to the broader public who may be interested in discovering more about these topics.

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