What’s the Difference Between Alternative Medicine, Functional Medicine and Holistic Medicine?

I haven’t taken any medication since 2016. I am talking like not even one Advil or Tylenol. That’s not because I am against Western medicine and over the counter or prescription drugs. In fact, I believe there is a time and place for both, but I also believe that if you have the time and resources to explore alternative routes to healing, you should take advantage of those opportunities so you can get to the root cause of any health conditions.

With the surge of alternative forms of healing well beyond the traditional route of Western medicine, it can be challenging to tell the difference between all of the options available to you let alone what you can expect from each one. I connected with Dr. Alex Orton, Naturopathic Doctor, Founder and Owner of Haven Holistic Health, to help decipher the difference between alternative medicine, functional medicine and holistic health. Here’s what I learned.

What is alternative medicine?

Alternative medicine describes medical treatments that are used instead of traditional mainstream therapies. Also referred to as complementary or integrative medicine, alternative medicine can include any range of medical therapies that are not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession. Think things like acupuncture, Ayurvedic, chiropractic services, energy healing, herbalism, homeopathic remedies and therapeutic healing.

Although alternative medicine can be tried by anyone, Dr. Orton states alternative medicine is best suited for individuals who know that there must be another way to address their health concerns outside of simple managing or suppressing their symptoms with drugs and surgery.

Is alternative medicine for you? Although alternative medicine can be tried by anyone, Dr. Orton states alternative medicine is best suited for individuals who know that there must be another way to address their health concerns outside of simple managing or suppressing their symptoms with drugs and surgery.

What is functional medicine?

According to Dr. Orton, “Functional medicine is a form of medicine that optimizes the biochemical function of the body.” Translation: Functional Medicine determines how and why illness occurs and restores health by addressing the root causes of disease for each individual. The Functional Medicine approach empowers patients and practitioners to work together together as a team to address the underlying causes of disease and illnesses so the patient can return to a state of optimal wellness.

Dr. Orton goes on to explain that functional medicine doctors will go beyond conventional evaluation and diagnosis to find out what is functionally going wrong. Even when there is no obvious diagnosis. Unlike conventional medical doctors who typically diagnosis based on strict criteria like blood tests or imaging. Orton says that functional medicine doctors are able to optimize the function [of a particular ailment] with diet and supplements.

Is functional medicine for you? Many people are frustrated by conventional medicine because even if they exhibit obvious health issues, their conventional laboratory work can still come back as normal. If you are fed up with your doctors telling you you are perfectly fine, but feel your gut telling you otherwise, it may be time to look into functional medicine.

What is holistic medicine?

Holistic medicine is a form of healing that considers the whole person including the body, mind, spirit and emotions. Holistic medicine practitioners believe the whole person is made up of interdependent parts and if one part is not working properly, all of the other parts will be affected. Dr. Orton further explains, “Holistic medicine is based on the concept that a person is an interconnected whole. Any division of the person into parts to the exclusion of the rest of the person will be incomplete and inaccurate.”

In holistic medicine, all parts of the human body system are perceived to be completely dependent on one another, which makes total sense. How many times have you found yourself stressed about a particular situation in your life and the emotional or mental stress starts manifesting physically in the form of headaches and body pains.

Dr. Orton goes on to further explain that in this type of model, “a disease that appears in a certain location of the body is not a disease of just that body part, but is a disease of the whole body. When we look at the body holistically, we can see patterns throughout that suggest what the root cause is.” That tension headache you keep getting, maybe it’s not your pillow, but instead the financial stress you’re currently experiencing. 

A holistic doctor uses all forms of health care ranging from alternative therapies to conventional medicine. Similar to functional medicine, holistic medicine involves fixing the cause of the condition and not just alleviating the symptoms.

Is holistic medicine for you? Just like alternative medicine, Dr. Orton says holistic healing is best suited for individuals who are frustrated after going to other practitioners, conventional and functional medicine alike, and who have not been able to find the true root cause of their health concerns.

How to know what method is best for you

Everybody and every body is different. One form of healing may work well for one person, but that same method may not work well for another individual—and that’s okay! We are all different (it’s called bio-individuality). That’s why there are a variety of forms of healing to choose from.

Ultimately up to you to do your research and find a qualified and licensed professional who can assist you in your own unique healing journey so you can reach optimal health and wellness within your own life.

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About Ashley Martens

Ashley Martens is a Wellness Writer based in Chicago, Illinois. With a background in a digital marketing coupled with her knowledge of general nutrition and a lifelong passion for all things health, wellness, fitness and nutrition, Ashley offers a healthy alternative to traditional writing. You can learn more Ashley and her writing over at her blog, Three to Five a Day.