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Integrative medicine vs. traditional medicine: 13 differences to know before your visit

There are a lot of differences between the conventional medical approach to treating disease and the integrative approach. Here are eleven things to know before your first visit.

1. The integrative medicine visit will be longer than you’re used to having

When you come to see an integrative practitioner the first visit often goes over an hour. It is here that we do a very deep dive into your personal history, often asking questions that reflect how you felt years ago. We are attempting to determine if there was a triggering event such as an injury, infection, or personal trauma that may be the cause of symptoms you are experiencing today.

2. In integrative medicine, we ask about your goals

Most people are used to the standard question most physicians ask: tell me what brings you in today? In integrative medicine I will instead ask you what your goals are for your life, health, and wellbeing. Do you want to complete a marathon, hike the Appalachian Trail or simply lose 10 pounds and get your energy back? Eventually, we will tailor your treatment plan to these goals.

3. Integrative medicine deals a lot with nutrition

Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, said 25 centuries ago “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” — yet conventional medicine seems to have lost sight of that in the time since. Now, after decades of studies that attest to that early wisdom, it is clear there’s nothing that impacts our health more than the 2500 calories a day we place in our mouth. At Dignity Integrative, we will do a deep dive into your nutritional regimen and often start there before we go on to other treatments.

4. Your gut health drives your overall health

Tied to number three is the simple fact that many diseases begin in the gut (also noted by Hippocrates). Whether you have fatigue, heart issues or chronic immune conditions, the health of your gut dramatically impacts all of them. More than half of the total cells in your body are bacteria (39 trillion bacteria versus 30 trillion human), and how these interact with your body, including your immune system, is an area of active research. Chronic gastrointestinal symptoms are a sign of imbalance and my job is to determine why there is an imbalance and find the root cause.

5. Integrative medicine looks for root causes of your symptoms, rather than only treating the end result

When you go to a doctor it’s common that you may be diagnosed with an end condition like hypertension, diabetes, anxiety, low back pain or depression. The next step is typically a pharmaceutical prescription. The real question is, what has caused the above and resulting condition? Is it an imbalance in your microbiome, a micronutrient deficiency, a gluten sensitivity, or underlying chronic infection? Unless these issues are addressed, treating the resulting end condition is like plugging holes in a leaky dam while the pressure of the water continues to build behind it.

6. Testing in integrative medicine may look at functional metabolic profiles and possibly even stool testing

Metabolic testing — how your body is using and breaking down food through various chemical reactions — has opened up a whole new world in our understanding of imbalances in these processes and how they impact long-term health. Your stool is not only the repository of waste from your body, but it is a rich source of data such as good (and bad) bacteria, different breakdown products as well as necessary enzymes which helps your body function at peak performance. These secrets can be unlocked through specialized testing not usually ordered by conventional doctors.

7. Integrative medicine is interested in a holistic approach to mental health

We all need to pay attention to mental health. It involves so much more than asking whether you’re anxious or depressed. Structuring a holistic approach to mental health is about how you manage to stay mentally resilient at any age. It means incorporating ancient wisdom and tools like meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi, journaling and many others. To not only maintain your mental health but be able to thrive. We will ask about your social support system as well as your spiritual life and help you build a framework to address mental health in a holistic way.

Key differences between integrative medicine and traditional medicine:

Traditional Medicine

Integrative Medicine

Shorter consultation time

Longer consultation time

Focuses on symptoms

Focuses on root cause of symptoms

Medications as primary treatment

Holistic treatment approach

Limited dietary advice

Emphasizes the important of nutrition

Limited testing

Utilizes functional metabolic profiles and more comprehensive, deeper testing

Limited emphasis on mental resilience

Takes a holistic approach to mental health and resilience

No inquiry about environmental toxins

Inquires about environmental toxins

Limited inquiry about ACEs

Screens for adverse childhood events

Little emphasis on patient goals

Tailors treatment to patient goals

Focus on gut health limited to specialty care

Gut health integral to most treatment plans

8. Don’t be surprised when we ask about environmental toxins

There are 80,000 chemicals in our environment and most have not been tested specifically for their impact on humans. Chemicals like phthalates, triclosan, BPA, and parabens surround us. From the water we drink, to the makeup we wear, to the sunscreen we place on our children, we are surrounded by potential toxins which may impact our health. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors capable of impacting the expression of certain genes in our DNA. While many know about the dangers of bisphenol A (BPA), fewer know about the toxicity level of chemicals used on conventional agricultural products. The above will be reviewed, often in detail, during your integrative medicine evaluation.

9. Integrative medicine doctors often ask about ACEs

Sixty percent of adults have suffered an adverse childhood event (ACE) like witnessing violence against a family member or themselves experiencing violence, abuse or neglect. According to the Department of Justice, one out of every four women and one out of every six men have experience sexual assault or abuse. These events have a lifelong impact on your health and longevity through persistently increased stress states over many years. Many integrative practitioners will screen for ACEs as we know all too well that the body keeps the score from these experiences.

10. We often refer you to other integrative medicine practitioners

While medical doctors sometimes utilize integrative practitioners like chiropractors, physical therapists or acupuncturists, most do not. There are multiple ways to treat most conditions. Take the most common of all, low back pain. We may consider acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, medical massage therapy, therapeutic yoga, physical therapy, meditative training and many others to provide alternatives to pain medicine and muscle relaxers. Pills have caused enough damage in our society, begging for better ways to manage pain as well as many other chronic and acute conditions.

11. We use a balanced approach of lifestyle changes, nutrient supplementation, botanicals and pharmaceuticals in an escalating fashion

When integrative medicine doctors approach the treatment of disease, we focus on righting imbalance. That starts with a combination of proper nutrition, regular movement, adequate sleep and strengthening mental resiliency. We then look at nutritional nutrients imbalances such as Vitamin D and B complex amongst many others. From there, we may balance the gut with probiotics and botanicals used for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, like ashwagandha or licorice root. Pharmaceutical drugs are certainly used but often after other steps have been tried in order to follow the principle of primum non nocere — First, Do No Harm — to minimize possible adverse side effects from medications.

12. Integrative medicine may incorporate alternative therapies

In addition to conventional treatments, integrative medicine may incorporate alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, herbal remedies, or energy work. These therapies aim to promote healing by addressing the body's natural energy flow and can be used alone or in combination with conventional medicine.

13. Integrative medicine focuses on patient empowerment

Integrative medicine practitioners aim to empower patients by educating them about their health and treatment options. Patients are encouraged to take an active role in their care, and the practitioner serves as a guide in helping them make informed decisions about their health.

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