Chronic Disease Health Focus at the Root or the Fruit?

Savannah Helm

Navigating the Intricacies between Integrative, Complementary, Functional, & Alternative Medicine

By Alicia Jerome, MS, RDN

Newer medical therapies recognize that chronic diseases usually have many years of development and offer better laboratory testing to identify contributing factors for disease, which includes interventions centered on lifestyle choices (better nutrition, fitness, stress management, relationships, etc.) and latent nutrient deficiencies that may contribute to cellular dysfunction. The goal is to reverse or delay the disease process.

Some of the therapies for chronic diseases fall within the categories of complementary, alternative, integrative, or functional. The terms can erroneously be interchanged or meld into one another. Consider their distinctions:

Complementary and alternative medicine – The Cleveland Clinic defines complementary and alternative medicine separately. “Complementary medicine or therapies are additional methods that are used along with traditional medical approaches.” Whereas “alternative medicine is an approach used in place of traditional medicine.” (CC)

Some examples of complementary and alternative medicine would include acupuncture, aromatherapy, biofeedback, chiropractic manipulation, cupping, hypnotherapy, journal writing, magnets, massage, meditation, music therapy, reflexology, reiki, tai chi, yoga, and much more. Whether these are categorized as complementary or alternative depends on whether it is used along with or in place of traditional medicine.

Integrative medicine – The National Institute of Health defines integrative medicine as “practicing medicine in a way that selectively incorporates elements of complementary and alternative medicine into comprehensive treatment plans alongside solidly orthodox methods of diagnosis and treatment.” (Rees, 2001)

Integrated medicine is not simply a synonym for complementary medicine. Complementary medicine refers to treatments that may be used as adjuncts to conventional treatment and are not usually taught in medical schools. Integrated medicine has a larger meaning and mission, its focus being on health and healing rather than disease and treatment. (Rees, 2001)

Functional medicine – According to the Institute of Functional Medicine, “functional medicine is a systems biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root causes of disease.” (IFM)

This might mean that integrative treatment includes not only medication and physical therapy (conventional medicine) but also many others like acupuncture and yoga (complementary medicine). The focus is on the whole person and not just one organ system or symptom of disease. So mental, emotional, functional, spiritual, social, and community health are all considered in treatment.

To compare the different types of medicines, consider the functional medicine tree (below). The branches and leaves would be specific signs and symptoms, both overt and covert, of the disease or condition. The roots and soil, however, represent all that lies underneath: genetic predisposition, personal and environmental influences, relationships, etc.

Conventional medicine – In conventional medicine, the focus is on treating the diseased branch at a later stage, typically with medication or surgery. In integrative and functional medicine, the primary focus is on the soil and roots, and how different interventions can change the root and subsequently trunk and branches. By focusing on the soil and root, all the branches are affected.


Interest in complementary, alternative, integrative, and functional medicine continues to rise. According to Seetharaman (2021), 42% of the U.S. population has used some form of these non-traditional medicine therapies and the interest continues to grow among developed countries. What a fortuitous time to be living where medicine and research provides early insight and intervention into health and healing.

 Functional Medicine Tree (IFM)

The Functional Medicine Tree (IFM)

*The above image was downloaded on December 5, 2022, from the Institute of Functional Medicine website (



Complementary medicine: What is it, Types & Health Benefits. Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2022, from

Rees, L., & Weil, A. (2001, January 20). Integrated medicine. BMJ (Clinical research ed.). Retrieved December 6, 2022, from,methods%20of%20diagnosis%20and%20treatment

Seetharaman, M., Krishnan, G., & Schneider, R. H. (2021, November 28). The Future of Medicine: Frontiers in Integrative Health and Medicine. Medicine (Kaunas, Lithuania). Retrieved December 6, 2022, from

What is functional medicine? The Institute for Functional Medicine. (2022, October 3). Retrieved December 6, 2022, from

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