Integrative medicine combines conventional and alternative, or complementary medicine, and is often framed as focusing on emotional and even spiritual aspects of health, as well as on physical well-being. In addition to standard medical treatment, integrative medicine practitioners and programs generally incorporate evidence-based dietary changes, supplements, alternative medical techniques, and or mind-body exercises, such as yoga and meditation, into their program.
A multi-disciplinary integrative healthcare team often includes physicians, nutritionists, massage therapists, acupuncturists, yoga instructors, and meditation instructors, among others. Integrative health practitioners partner with the patient to provide individualized treatment and prevention of disease and disorders; the patient is part of the decision-making process. Whenever feasible, less invasive, more natural interventions are used for healing and health promotion. Many alternative treatments have been researched and can be effective.
The food you eat affects your health and the development of illness and disease including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and many other conditions. If your diet contains too much fat and cholesterol, you may end up with atherosclerosis; too much sugar can lead to diabetes; add fish to your meal plan and your risk of heart disease decreases. And people who eat a lot of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains normally live longer and healthier lives. Nutrition is a foundation of integrative care.
While it is best to eat your nutrients in the form of food, supplements are indeed part of complementary care. Here is a short list of helpful supplements.
• Omega-3 fatty acids, high in cold-water fish, help prevent heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. It also reduces inflammation, which is important for immune response.
• Folate, high in leafy greens and other vegetables and fruits, also reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke.
• Flavonoids, high in blueberries and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, may help fight cancer.
• Calcium and Vitamin D, high in eggs and fish and dairy, regulates the calcium in your body, which is good for bones and muscles.
• Lutein, high in leafy greens like kale and spinach, may also reduce the risk of cancer as well as cataracts.
Some people regard mindfulness and meditation as mind-cleansing practices, and that mindfulness and meditation are important for overall well-being. These practices reduce stress, anxiety, inflammation, and pain; plus, they can boost mood and immunity. These practices also increase compassion, emotion-regulation, focus, productivity, and even perspective. People might think they have to sit lotus style and chant, but it’s more about being present with oneself and just breathing.
While any physical activity is good for your well-being, yoga, qigong, tai chi, or similar practices use the body and movement with mindful intent. When practicing these or other methods, the individual empties the chatter inside the head and focuses on the way the body moves and breathes. These practices help reduce stress, anxiety, and pain; they also boost mood and overall health.
Physical therapy is often used in recovery after an injury. Muscles, for example, need to be strengthened after a broken bone has healed. Patients see physical therapists after surgery, stroke, paralysis, among other reasons, and it can help recover range of motion, overall strength, and balance. Physical therapy is also used in pain management and age-related changes and problems.
This is a technique used in traditional Chinese medicine. Practitioners insert thin sterile needles into specific points through the skin and into the body. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the National Institute of Health, research shows that the practice can help patients manage pain in the back, neck, and knee. There is also evidence of effectiveness for migraines and general headache pain. And in one review of research, acupuncture may also help with certain symptoms in cancer patients.
There is research on the effectiveness of chiropractic care, also known as spinal manipulation. One review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, found that spinal manipulation helped reduce chronic lower back pain; such manipulation has also been found to increase overall movement and function. More and more chiropractors are found in mainstream health delivery systems.
Massage therapy can be found across the globe and is effective for anxiety, stress, muscle tension, and inflammation. It is also used for pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other conditions. Studies have shown that massage lowers the stress hormone cortisol and it bolsters the immune system as well. It is also helpful for menopausal symptoms, post-menopausal women fall into REM sleep more quickly after massage therapy.
This type of therapy can be effective for animal lovers; treatment can include cats, dogs, horses, birds, or any number of animals. Research suggested positive results of this therapy for those with autism, medical conditions, depression, anxiety, addiction, and other problems. Trained therapy pets are also popular in hospitals, rehab centers, nursing homes, and other facilities. Animal-assisted therapy is used alongside the treatment with a psychotherapist, social worker, counselor, or other providers.
These creative therapies have been used in the treatment of many conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, dementia, and brain damage due to stroke or traumatic brain injury, mood disorders, eating disorders, and many others. Research on the use of music in Alzheimer’s patients has proven effective, with patients able to make cognitive connections that appear to be totally lost. Talent is not required. These creative outlets are used to put patients in touch with their bodies, emotions, and memories.
Integrative medicine is increasingly sought as patient sophistication grows, and a more holistic approach to care is encouraged by health providers as well as consumers. Alternative therapies—like yoga, acupuncture, and music therapy—can make a difference when used alongside standard Western medications and treatment protocols. Integrative medicine shows promise in treating mood disorders and psychiatric conditions. It can also help people grieve the loss of a loved one in healthy ways.
Standard treatment for cancer patients includes invasive chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapies. These ministrations are hard on the body and the mind, and an integrative approach is often used to counter the adverse side effects of such traditional care. If animal-assisted therapy, for instance, works for a particular patient by reducing stress, then adding such a therapy to the treatment program would be useful.
When the proliferation of opioids led to addiction and overdose, integrative medicine came to the forefront in the management of pain. Drugs and medication are not always the right solution for pain. Conversely, complementary therapies, such as acupuncture and meditation, may well help a patient better cope with their suffering and even address their underlying and co-occurring problems.
Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia patients can suffer severe fatigue, swollen glands, aching muscles and joints, sleep difficulties, mental fog, low mood, among many other symptoms. Yet medical science has fallen short in helping these patients. People who suffer have turned to alternative therapies with positive results. One key component in addressing such conditions is paying attention to lifestyle and self-care, which includes proper nutrition, regular physical activity, and good sleep hygiene.
Integrative medicine looks at the patient as a whole and uses different forms of therapy to treat illness and disease. Conversely, functional medicine uses individualized therapies to treat the patient, and it focuses on identifying and addressing the actual cause of a disease. However, both integrative care and functional care are patient-focused and they zero in on a patient’s comprehensive medical history to gather a full picture of health.