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What is integrative health?
Integrative health is what people turn to when conventional medicine has failed—and some prefer it to “traditional” care, preferring to look for health solutions outside of conventional approaches.
There are many definitions of integrative health and several overlapping concepts and terms to start wrapping your head around, including the difference between functional and integrative medicine, the overlap with what is called complementary medicine, and finally what Dignity Integrative calls the pursuit of healthspan.
Before we dive in, it’s important to understand that different people and institutions understand the above terms differently. The wider medical community is just now beginning to incorporate integrative principles into its own best practices. More and more physicians and medical practices are now taking for granted that diet, sleep, exercise, and mental resilience can have profound and transformative effects on one’s health and wellbeing.
That is good! Dignity Integrative does not aim to replace your primary care physician or the care recommended by other specialists. What we do aim for is to examine those root causes of chronic disease in a holistic way and based on current evidence, through coaching and in partnership with our patients. That is an approach the traditional health system has historically been very poor at.
So now that we have that out of the way, what is integrative health?
Integrative health definition
There are many definitions of integrative health or integrative medicine, but the best place to start is probably Dr. Andrew Weil. Widely credited with launching the modern practice of integrative health, in 1994 he founded the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, now part of the University of Arizona.
Here is their definition: Integrative Medicine (IM) is healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.
Our definition, which you can find in our glossary, is essentially a restating of this one, with the addition that Dignity Integrative emphasizes the partnership between doctor and patient, and focuses on what we consider the four pillars of integrative health: sleep, food, movement, and mental resilience.
When we say integrative health takes into account the “whole person,” we mean primarily those four pillars.
Integrative health vs. integrative medicine
Integrative health and integrative medicine can more or less be used interchangeably. It’s like the difference between saying health care and medical care. In other words: there really isn’t a difference.
But, broadly speaking, integrative health can be thought of as the umbrella term for the practice of treating the whole person as defined above. Integrative medicine can be thought of a little more narrowly as the tactics, strategies, and treatments for practicing integrative health.
There is also some confusion about the difference between functional medicine and integrative medicine. We don’t think the two are different enough to warrant separate definitions, although most articles on the subject describe a slightly different emphasis in approach: functional medicine focuses on root causes of symptoms and uses testing and various alternative approaches to address those; integrative medicine focus on the health and wellbeing of the whole person, and then brings in testing and alternative therapies to also address root causes.
Doesn’t sound like a big difference to you? We agree.
Integrative health approaches
Different integrative health physicians have different approaches, but most of them rely on some combination of testing, coaching, and physical examination.
At our integrative health practice in Maryland, we first take your personal and family history and gather any recent labs. Then new patients have a 90-minute, in-person meeting with Dr. Angelo Falcone to discuss health goals. Sometimes specific additional blood tests are recommended, as conventional medicine may not have considered or may have missed a potential root cause.
After the initial consultation, patients review their health plan and begin monthly coaching with one our integrative health coaches (see our full process here). This could include work on a range of physical or psychological issues. Perhaps one patient needs coaching on specific dietary changes to alleviate chronic symptoms. Another may work with an integrative health coach to incorporate practice in mental resiliency or specific movement into their daily and weekly routines.
Who can benefit from integrative health?
While of course anyone can benefit from focused integrative health coaching and a better understanding of their own physiology, in a practical sense those who can most benefit from integrative health are often those with chronic disease.
These could include:
Chronic digestive conditions
Heart disease or certain heart conditions
Sleep disorders such as insomnia
Symptoms related to long-COVID
In fact, Dr. Falcone chose to become an integrative medicine physician after a long career in emergency medicine in part because of the chronic fatigue and joint pain suffered by his wife, Amy, after the birth of their son. After seeing several specialists with a conventional approach, Amy saw a nutritionist who diagnosed the fatigue as associated with late onset celiac disease.
The evidence on integrative medicine
Evidence supporting the effectiveness of integrative medicine is piling up so fast that it’s no surprise many of integrative medicine’s core principles related to food, sleep, and movement are now being incorporated into and recognized by medical practices throughout the country. Doctors have even started to prescribe fruits and vegetables.
In 2014, the American Board of Physician Specialties officially recognized integrative medicine as a distinct specialty, something that only comes once there is a generally recognized body of scientific knowledge specific to that area of practice. Meanwhile, major healthcare institutions from the Mayo Clinic to Johns Hopkins have started centers for integrative medicine.
Studies related to food in particular now provide virtually incontrovertible evidence that diet impacts your health and wellness as much or more than many conventional medical interventions. In 2015, Dr. Michael Greger pulled this evidence together in a book with the catchy title How Not to Die. The book is 641 pages long—a hundred and seventy-six of those are references for the studies which back up his findings.
Google Scholar lists nearly 500,000 results for the term “integrative medicine” (and 22,500 for “integrative health.”). Many of the top results show positive results for common measures of health and wellbeing for a range of chronic and acute conditions.
Integrative health and healthspan
Ultimately, integrative health is about improving what we call your healthspan.
Most traditional approaches to medical care involve improving your lifespan. In other words, the goal is simply to extend your life regardless of quality of life. But the goal should really be to live both a long life and a healthy life. The combination of those two things is healthspan.
For more information on how integrative health and coaching may be able to help you, book a free, 15-minute consultation.