July 16, 2024

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What is integrative medicine (IM)?

5 min read
What is integrative medicine (IM)?

Integrative medicine (IM) is an approach that combines conventional medicine with complementary treatments. The aim of IM is to treat the whole person, not just a health problem.

Because IM is holistic, it can target the behavioral, social, and environmental aspects of a person’s life as well as help treat the underlying health issue.

Many people are requesting more complementary therapies as part of their treatment plans, especially in certain health areas, such as cancer. That said, it is important to note that people should not replace their prescribed clinical treatments with complementary approaches alone, as this could lead to worse health outcomes.

Instead, people should discuss their current therapies with a doctor who can advise on the best course of treatment.

Read on to learn more about IM, including the risks, the benefits, and some of the conditions it may be useful for.

IM is a whole-person treatment plan that aims to treat the body, mind, and spirit. It specifically includes and coordinates the use of complementary therapies alongside conventional medicine.

Usually, a complementary therapy practitioner will suggest a combination of treatments to improve a person’s well-being. For example, they may suggest that a person practices yoga to reduce stress but also recommend that they get in touch with an acupuncturist.

Practitioners tend to group complementary therapies into three key areas: nutritional, psychological, and physical.

Nutritional approaches

Nutritional complementary therapies include products such as herbs, vitamin and mineral supplements, and probiotics. Supplements come in many forms, such as capsules, liquids, and powders. A person may also receive a specific diet plan.

A person should always speak with a doctor before taking any supplements in addition to their prescribed treatment. Doing so can cause certain interactions. For example, vitamin K can reduce the effectiveness of warfarin, which is a blood-thinning medication.

Psychological approaches

Psychological forms of complementary therapy aim to settle the mind and reduce stress. These therapies include:

There is a lot of overlap between mind and body practices. For example, although yoga and tai chi are physical practices, they also promote psychological well-being.

Learn more about types of meditation here.

Physical approaches

Physical approaches to complementary health may include some form of muscle manipulation, such as massage. People may also receive treatment from a chiropractor, who can manipulate the spine to reduce pain or alleviate other health problems.

Alternatively, acupuncture is a physical treatment during which a practitioner inserts fine needles through the skin to stimulate specific pressure points.

Physical therapies that a person can try on their own or as part of a class include yoga and tai chi.

The use of integrative care is growing, especially in specialist cancer centers, where more people are requesting complementary approaches in addition to clinical treatments, such as chemotherapy.

In fact, one 2017 systemic review found that 45 National Cancer Institute treatment centers had increased the number of complementary treatments they offered on their websites over the course of 7 years, from 2009 to 2016. The most popular therapies included acupuncture, meditation, and yoga.

When a healthcare professional introduces complementary therapies as part of a person’s treatment plan, the goal is usually to alleviate some side effects of conventional medicine.

For example, the authors of a 2018 meta-analysis note that acupuncture seems particularly effective at reducing fatigue in people with breast cancer who receive anticancer treatment.

However, an additional 2019 systematic review of studies that investigated the relationship between complementary therapies and cancer states that more robust study designs are necessary to fully understand the effectiveness of complementary therapies in an oncology environment.

Another area that may benefit from complementary therapy is fertility. One 2018 review suggests that females who practice Hatha yoga alongside other mind and body therapies may feel less stressed and anxious during in vitro fertilization treatment. Their psychosocial health may also improve.

Introducing IM may have some benefits. For example, a 2018 review notes that, overall, IM helps people deal with difficult illnesses and reduces their distress.

Furthermore, in some instances, IM may actually improve health outcomes. For example, a 2018 study based in South Korea found that when people received IM after experiencing a stroke, they had stronger survival rates at 3 and 12 months than those who received conventional medicine alone.

Although integrative care was more expensive, it prevented future hospital admissions, which can help hospitals save money in the long run.

People should be aware of the risks associated with some complementary approaches when including them in their treatment regimen.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves all conventional medications before manufacturers can sell them, but manufacturers of supplements do not need FDA approval to put their products on the market.

Additionally, some supplements can interact with some medications. This can increase the risk of complications if a person is also taking another medication.

It is also important that people do not view supplements and other herbal remedies as a cure or a replacement for conventional medication. If a manufacturer promotes its supplement as a “cure,” the product is likely unsafe.

Study design is also an important point that people should think about when researching the health benefits of some complementary therapies. Complementary health studies do not usually have robust study designs that other researchers can replicate, which means that the findings and conclusions could be inaccurate.

That said, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is funding more studies to further investigate the health benefits of complementary therapies and how healthcare professionals can use them in addition to conventional medicine.

IM and alternative medicine are two terms that describe treatment that sits outside of conventional medical care.

If a person uses a nonconventional treatment option in a coordinated manner alongside conventional medicine, the practice is IM.

If a person uses a nonconventional treatment option instead of conventional medicine, the practice is alternative medicine.

Integrative medicine (IM) includes both complementary and conventional treatment approaches and specifically coordinates the use of the two as part of a holistic treatment plan.

Some benefits of IM include reducing distress and helping people process living with a difficult illness. Some healthcare professionals are expanding the use of IM, especially in the treatment of cancer.

Although researchers are taking a proactive attitude toward investigating the possible benefits of IM, studies that support complementary approaches often have design flaws, which means that their conclusions could be inaccurate.


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