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How Do Functional Medicine, Lifestyle Medicine, and Integrative Medicine Differ?

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

This is question I am asked often! They have more in common than differences, to be honest! I think its important to know the similarities and differences between each of these titles.

Allopathic medicine (AKA Western medicine) is the model that most healthcare providers have been trained in and includes a primary focus on mitigating symptoms. Often the treatment plan includes prescriptive medications or surgery. I was trained in this model in my initial nursing training and in my nurse practitioner training. Allopathic medicine is the go-to for acute care and life saving measures, but it fails to look for the root of someone's health concerns.

This is where functional medicine comes in. It shares many common themes with our foundational nursing practice including addressing the person holistically, and functional medicine largely considers our biochemistry and lifestyle. Nutrients and cellular demand are big topics in this type of practice. It takes a close look at WHY someone is experiencing a health concern and seeks to address that disruption. As a result, patients are able to experiencing significant improvement or often a complete reversal of their symptoms when working with a functional medicine practitioner. At times, functional medicine providers will use more novel testing than is considered mainstream, and supplements may be used to help the body heal. For me, I find when you address root cause there are not too many supplements someone would need long term. There are a few nutrients that I think have great, proven health benefits long term and are lacking in our food supply, so watch for an upcoming post on that topic!

Integrative medicine bridges the gap between allopathic and functional medicine, and this is what I feel I was primarily practicing in my primary care clinic the last years of practice. I was taking what I learned about functional medicine and offering it to those patients that seemed interested in more holistic treatment options. My suggestions didn't always go over well lol! Not everyone that comes to a corporate primary care clinic wants to look for root cause. I learned to ask if they were interested in discussing the root cause. In our current healthcare system, many patients have gotten in the habit of receiving a prescription for each complaint, and that is their expectation. For them, allopathic medicine is the best route to keep them safe and mitigate worsening outcomes. By offering both the mainstream, expected standard of care and more holistic, functionally minded options, I was practicing integrative medicine at that time. Many of my functional medicine RN and NP students that work in the allopathic medical system choose to call themselves integrative nurses.

What about lifestyle medicine? As its name implies, it addresses health concerns from a lifestyle perspective. This is highly focused on healthy behaviors including an active lifestyle and healthy food choices. Lifestyle medicine has six pillars it addresses- 1) physical activity, 2) quality sleep, 3) stress reduction, 4) avoiding risky substances, 5) healthy, positive social connections, and 6) it specifically advocates for a plant based, whole foods diet. Lifestyle medicine is becoming more familiar in the healthcare system. As a result, some of my students choose to use the term lifestyle nurse or lifestyle medicine nurse. This is particularly true for those who want to implement the healing

practices they learn in the Functional Medicine for Nurses TM course, but do not want to offer testing or discuss supplements in their practice.

Depending on their current role in the healthcare system and hopes for their career moving forward, each of my students makes their own unique decision on what they will offer AND what they will call themselves.

For patients that are hoping to identify the root cause of their health concern and heal, functional medicine digs deep! That is why I love it so much, and that is why I feel strongly that all nurses should have training in functional medicine. Although I feel that lifestyle medicine and integrative medicine have so many commonalities with functional medicine, I personally feel that the digging deep is the best and most important part.

It is easy to tell someone to eat a plant-based diet, reduce their stress, or exercise more, for example. Is that practical for that person, and will they take your advise? Was it too idealized given their current circumstances? Is that connected to the root of their health concern that they have come to you desperate to address? Although I do think addressing lifestyle and using food as medicine is best practice, I feel that looking for the root cause and addressing it is the best way to ensure patients are truly healed.

Here's a quick example. Let's say I see someone who smokes cigarettes daily and is suffering from debilitating migraines, and they come to me desperate for relief from the migraines so they can get back to living fully. If I don't help them identify food reactions, a nutrient deficiency, etc. that is causing their migraines, and I instead state the obvious "You should quit smoking" at their intake visit, they may not experience any relief from their symptoms, and they probably won't come back to see me again. If instead I first help them identify the root cause of their migraines and help them get relief, they are much more likely to hear me on other topics that may not be their top priority at the moment.

This is also a great example of why nurse coaching skills pair so well with functional medicine. In nurse coaching, we are taught to identify the patients goals, and to focus on those rather than our own agendas. Partnering with patients on their chosen goals is so crucial in establishing a therapeutic, effective relationship.

As you can see, these types of holistic practice have quite a bit of overlap, and you could call yourself any version of nurse or nurse practitioner- an integrative nurse, lifestyle nurse, or functional nurse. Some of my students simply call themselves a holistic nurse, or they feel more comfortable with the term lifestyle or integrative medicine (or nursing) depending on their offerings, and I think that is 100% wonderful! Our patients need us, and when we share what we learn from functional medicine, patients can experience true healing and health which is the whole point!


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