The Biggest Differences Between Functional Medicine vs. Integrative Medicine

Integrative Vs Functional Medicine

As a functional medicine expert, people always ask me “what is the difference between integrative and holistic medicine?” or better yet, “what is the difference between integrative and functional medicine?” Venturing out of the mainstream model of care can be intimidating, so it makes sense that for most people they want to be as informed as possible as to what they should expect.

Ultimately, they both have the same goal: to provide natural, alternative solutions to conventional medicine by addressing the root cause of symptoms and diseases. However, their approach to healing is what varies between these two types of medical viewpoints.

So, integrative vs functional medicine - how do you know what is best for you? Let’s dive into the differences:


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Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine takes a whole-body approach to care to understand your health in its entirety. Integrative medicine looks at a person’s mental, physical, and emotional health and all the areas that can influence these areas of a person’s health including stress, poor diet, and environmental triggers.

One of the biggest differences with integrative medicine is that it also utilizes conventional diagnostic and treatment methods including x-rays and medication alongside diet and exercise. Integrative medicine gets its name through the fact that it is “integrating” complementary (natural) therapies and conventional treatments together in a single treatment plan.

Some complementary therapies that integrative medicine utilizes include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy / essential oils
  • Breathwork
  • Chiropractic
  • Cryotherapy
  • Dietary changes
  • Dietary supplements
  • Exercise
  • Herbal remedies
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Reflexology
  • Reiki
  • Saunas

Therefore, a massage therapist for example by nature is practicing integrative medicine within their scope of practice and expertise and can work alongside your primary care doctor. There are many medical doctors (MDs) that are beginning to incorporate Integrative Medicine into their care plans and will often refer out to other practitioners like massage therapists and/or recommend some of the above complementary therapies in addition to prescribing medication.

Functional Medicine

While functional medicine also takes a whole-body approach to healing, it is a lot more specific in how it is practiced by focusing on identifying and treating the underlying cause of your health problem. 

Functional medicine operates under the premise that chronic illness is an outcome of imbalances in the key underlying physiological systems in your body. When inflammation, blood sugar imbalance, insulin resistance, oxidative stress, hormonal problems, and systemic upset occur - the body spirals out of balance.This in conjunction with and triggered by poor diet, lack of essential nutrients, emotional stress, environmental toxins, lack of exercise, and other lifestyle issues set the stage for chronic disease to develop.​

Functional medicine provides a method for re-balancing the body’s underlying physiological systems and addressing lifestyle issues that contribute to illness. When this is done your biology’s inherent healing forces are unleashed and chronic illness is resolved naturally and quickly, often without the need for costly pharmaceutical medications or invasive surgeries. In this way, functional medicine offers a unique approach to understanding the terrain of chronic illness and provides us a whole new way to address the epidemic of chronic disease we face in the 21st century.

Unlike some forms of integrative medicine, functional medicine always utilizes the most advanced diagnostic testing available to determine the best lifestyle changes, targeted food medicines, and herbal support for a person’s specific health case based on the latest research from peer-reviewed medical journals.

Also, functional medicine practitioners are often not qualified to diagnose or treat any condition with conventional medicine therapies like medication. In this way, it is completely different from integrative medicine doctors. While a functional medicine practitioner can also be an MD or work alongside your MD, the goal is to move away from conventional therapies as much as possible as your body heals.

Who can benefit from integrative and functional medicine?

Pretty much anyone can benefit from these two approaches, whether you are struggling with a chronic health condition or nagging symptoms. These are just some health problems that integrative and functional medicine can help address:

  • Anxiety
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Blood sugar problems
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Gut problems
  • Hormone imbalances (PCOS, infertility)
  • Insomnia and sleep disorders
  • Migraines
  • Skin problems (acne, rashes, eczema)
  • Weight problems

Benefits of integrative and functional medicine

Although these two approaches are different, integrative and functional medicine are similar in their main benefits.

1. It puts the patient first

Both functional and integrative medicine understand that there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to a person’s health. Your mental, emotional, and physical needs are going to vary from someone else’s and both of these approaches take this into consideration to develop individualized treatment plans to address your health problems.

2. It has fewer side effects

Complementary therapies by nature are going to have little to no side effects. While mainstream medicine focuses solely on medication that comes with a long list of side effects, functional medicine eliminates that entirely and integrative medicine may recommend that option less depending on your health case and practitioner.

3. It empowers you

Both approaches encourage you to take an active role in your health by engaging with your practitioner to determine the best course of action for your health case. Since both understand the importance of bio individuality, your practitioner is more likely to educate you in the process of why they are recommending certain treatments and therefore, empowers you to take ownership of your health and healing journey.

4. It is holistic

Integrative and functional medicine treats the body as an interconnected whole and recognizes the importance of these connections in how your body develops and overcomes disease. 

How Dr. Cole can help you

At our telehealth clinic, we are a functional medicine center first and foremost. But that’s not to say that we don’t appreciate conventional medicine for what it is. While we do not prescribe any sort of medication, we understand that medication is sometimes necessary for a time being. Our ultimate goal is to provide the best care with the least amount of side effects. Most of the time functional medicine fits that criteria, but other times medication can be life-saving. Therefore, we do our best to work alongside your primary care doctor if necessary if you choose to still have one while at our clinic.

If you’re ready to learn more about how functional medicine can help you in your health journey, contact us for a telehealth consultation today.

As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.


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The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.

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Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.

Gut Feelings Dr. Will Cole 6

Gut Feelings

Healing The Shame-Fueled Relationship
Between What You Eat And How You Feel