What is Functional or Integrated Health?

Functional Health is a scientific discipline that is different from alternative medicine. Let’s master some basic terms.

Using synthetic drugs and surgery to treat health conditions was known just a few decades ago as, simply, “medicine.” Today, this system is increasingly being termed “conventional medicine.” This is the kind of medicine most South Africans still encounter in hospitals and clinics. Often both expensive and invasive, it is also good at some things; for example, handling emergency conditions such as massive injury or a life-threatening stroke. Integrative Health Practitioners are unstinting in their appreciation for conventional medicine’s strengths. “If I were hit by a bus,” they say, “I’d want to be taken immediately to a high-tech emergency room.” Some conventional medicine is scientifically validated, some is not.

Any therapy that is typically excluded by conventional medicine, and that patients use instead of conventional medicine, is known as “alternative medicine.” It is a catch-all term that includes hundreds of old and new practices ranging from acupuncture to homeopathy to iridology. Generally alternative therapies are closer to nature, cheaper and less invasive than conventional therapies, although there are exceptions. Some alternative therapies are scientifically validated, some are not. An alternative medicine practice that is used in conjunction with a conventional one is known as a “complementary” medicine. Example: using ginger syrup to prevent nausea during chemotherapy. Together, complementary, and alternative medicines are often referred to by the acronym CAM.

Enter integrative health. It is defined as an approach that “accepts the contribution of mainstream medical therapies as well as non-pharmacological therapies for which there is high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness.”

We are overloaded with advise for living a fulfilled life and much of this “socalled advice” is obtained via social media. Functional health practitioners would want to see well executed scientific evidence before accepting an intervention that claims to alleviate dis-ease; irrespctive of whether it is lifestyle, diet, a supplement, or mental and relationship advice.

This is a basic definition of integrative health. What follows is the complete one, which serves to guide integrative/functional health practitioners and teachers around the world:

Integrative medicine is healing-oriented that takes account of the whole person (body, mind, and spirit), and all aspects of their lifestyle. It supports use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and new quality studies such as our interdependence with bacteria.

The Principles of Functional or Integrative Health

  • Medicine has chopped up the body into specialties, neurology, gastroenterology, cardiology, endocrinology. There has been a zooming in on each speciality. Who minds the whole person? Rather than looking at the body as a collection of separate organ systems, functional health is the practical interface of applying knowledge to look at how our cells, behaviors, beliefs, and physiology gets into trouble and how to get all aspects of the body to flourish.
  • A partnership between patient and practitioner in the healing process
  • Appropriate use of conventional and alternative methods to facilitate the body’s innate healing response
  • Consideration of all factors that influence health, wellness, and disease, including mind, spirit body and community.
  • A philosophy that rejects conventional medicine’s focus on seeking a single cause for dis-ease and treating symptoms, rather than addressing causes.
  • Recognition that good healthcare  should be based on good science, be inquiry driven, and be open to new paradigms
  • Use of natural, effective, less-invasive interventions whenever possible
  • Use of the broader concepts of promotion of health and the prevention of illness as well as enabling the body to do the healing. 
  • Training of practitioners to be models of health and healing, committed to the process of self-exploration and self-development