How to Find an Integrative or Functional Medicine Doctor
Tired of mainstream medicine with all the prescriptions and band-aids for your symptoms? It’s time to look into alternative medicine and more natural solutions! In this post we break down the difference between integrative, holistic, naturopathic and functional medicine modalities, what qualities and certifications to look for in a doctor or practitioner, what tests to run and how to go about finding someone who is right for you.
When I first started feeling like utter crap a number of years ago–I’m talking chronic constipation, unexplained nausea, fatigue, irregular periods, acne, PMS, weight gain, irregular blood sugar and panic attacks–I felt like my body was failing me and my world turned upside down.
I was afraid to enjoy certain things I once loved, be it specific foods, cocktails out with friends and, sadly, even the happiest of occasions like my wedding day, vacations, special celebrations and parties, which counterintuitively seemed to heighten my anxiety.
Despite going to many, many doctors and specialists, nobody knew what was wrong with me.
In fact, most doctors just chalked my concerns up to “aging” or “being a woman” (keep in mind, I was in my mid-twenties!) and either dismissed me entirely or just threw expensive prescription medication at my symptoms that I’d have to be on for the rest of my life, rather than working to heal the root cause. Medications which, by the way, had really extreme and scary side effects, and ultimately didn’t even work… and often made me feel even worse!
After getting fed up, I eventually was blessed enough to find an integrative medicine doctor who really listened to me, discovered the root cause of my symptoms and put me on a path to healing. One year later, I had reversed my PCOS, Leaky Gut, hypothyroid and insulin resistance. And I did it all NATURALLY! (Read all about how I did it in this post.)
That means no prescription medication. I know, I was skeptical at first, too. After all, Western medicine is all most of us know living in the U.S., and it’s done amazing things for many people.
But it turns out that food is medicine, along with natural supplements and simple lifestyle adjustments. I am living proof that healing IS possible through unconventional methods!
These days, alternative approaches to conventional medicine like functional, integrative, holistic and naturopathic medicines are becoming more and more popular as mainstream medicine is failing many patients, just like it did me.
With a sharp increase over recent years in things like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental illness, and autoimmune disorders, it’s becoming apparent that conventional medicine rarely gets to the root of these issues and can act more like a band-aid (a band-aid that can even make you sicker over time) than it does a sustainable solution.
I believe more natural and holistic approaches are redefining health and wellness, and are really the next evolution in the practice of medicine that better addresses the healthcare needs of the 21st century.
One of the most common questions I get asked by readers is: How can I find a doctor or practitioner who will actually listen to me and use natural methods to help me heal?
Well today, dear reader, we’re breaking this down for you step by step! We’ll share exactly what these types of alternative medicines are, how you can find a practitioner and what you should get tested for optimal health.
First, a disclaimer: I talk A LOT (a lot, a lot, a lot) about holistic health and natural remedies and why my first line of defense is never prescription medication. It’s not that I’m against medicine–in many cases, it can be the only option, a life-saving miracle, and a necessary and helpful solution.
But I do believe that Americans are overprescribed, given a slip for a pill before trying anything else, including simple diet and lifestyle changes. I like to leave prescription medication as a last resort, one I rely on once I’ve exhausted all of my other natural resources, tried everything else and still find that I need that extra help.
So what is alternative medicine anyway? Essentially, it’s a catch-all phrase for hundreds of therapies that are typically excluded by conventional medicine, ranging from ancient modalities to new pioneering methods.
Let’s start off by talking about the big buckets these modalities fall into.
What’s the Difference? Functional, Integrative, Holistic + Naturopathic medicine
Alright, first, we’ve got to talk about what exactly these alternative medicines are. Here goes!
What is functional medicine?
Functional medicine views the body as one integrated, whole system, not a collection of independent organs divided up by medical specialties. Functional medicine doctors aim to identify and address the root causes of disease, not just the symptoms.
Functional medicine really shifts the traditional disease-centered focus of conventional medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, where the doctor/practitioner spends time with their patients, listens to their history, and looks at the complex web of interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and chronic diseases.
It’s quite revolutionary compared to the mainstream medicine practiced by most physicians–the one we’re most familiar with that’s more oriented toward acute care, where the doctor usually applies prescribed treatments such as drugs or surgery to treat the immediate problem or symptom.
What’s wrong with that approach? Like we talked about above, if you have a broken arm and need surgery–then absolutely nothing, and hallelujah for orthopedic surgeons! Or if you have a life-threatening emergency, like a heart attack or stroke. Conventional medicine definitely has its place, purpose and validity.
But in my opinion, this acute-care approach to medicine lacks the proper methodology and tools for preventing and treating our modern day epidemic of complex, chronic diseases. By contrast, functional medicine really is personalized medical care; it supports the unique expression of health and vitality for each individual with tailored treatments.
Functional medicine focuses on finding the underlying cause of a patient’s health problems, as well as disease prevention, through a variety of ways:
- nutrition, diet, and exercise
- use of the latest laboratory testing and other diagnostic techniques
- prescribed combinations of drugs and/or botanical medicines, herbs, supplements, therapeutic diets, detoxification programs, sleep analysis or stress-management techniques like meditation.
What is integrative medicine?
While some integrative and functional practitioners would debate about the differences between the modalities, they are often very similar to us average joes. In a nutshell, integrative medicine doctors and functional medicine doctors are all working to achieve the same goals, but they just might have different paths to get there.
Integrative medicine uses a combination of modern healthcare practices to diagnose and treat a patient. Treatments may include things like acupuncture, yoga, or massage and largely focus on the nutritional and exercise habits of the patient. Integrative medicine physicians believe poor lifestyle choices are the root cause of many modern chronic diseases.
Generally speaking, it seems like ‘integrative medicine’ is a term that is used more broadly than functional medicine. Often, but not always, integrative clinics “integrate” more conventional medicine into their protocols, so they’ll often have medical doctors on staff who can help people stop or start medications and offer more conventional medical services.
Doctors in an integrative setting can typically offer a wider range of services, whereas doctors in a functional medicine-only clinic are more focused on functional testing and lifestyle coaching. However, a large number of functional medicine clinics also integrate other treatments, and so are in essence both functional medicine and integrative medicine clinics at the same time.
Confused yet? Since the definitions seem to vary by clinic, it’s important you check out their website or call to ask questions so you know what to expect and can ask if you’re looking for anything in particular.
What is holistic medicine?
Similarly, holistic medicine is the art and science of healing that addresses the whole person–body, mind, and spirit. The practice of holistic medicine integrates conventional and alternative therapies to prevent and treat disease, and most importantly, to promote optimal health.
While a holistic doctor can use a variety of western and integrative/functional practices, they also largely focus on the emotional and spiritual aspects. Think about how stress can make you sick, tired and fat. A holistic practitioner is likely to focus on that stress A LOT.
According to the holistic medicine philosophy, one can achieve optimal health–the primary goal of holistic medicine practice–by gaining proper balance in life. Optimal health is defined as the unlimited and unimpeded free flow of life force energy through body, mind, and spirit. Chakras and reiki and acupuncture, chiropractic, and ayurveda are all part of holistic medicine.
Holistic medicine is also based on the belief that unconditional love is life’s most powerful medicine, so to some this may feel more esoteric or woo-woo, but it’s a legit modality. (source) Whatever floats your boat, right?!
What is naturopathic medicine?
Naturopathic medicine is very similar to all of the terms above, focusing on personalized health through tending to the body’s whole system. The biggest distinction here is that naturopathic medicine uses treatments found exclusively in nature. Therefore modalities that incorporate any degree of pharmacology, such as the use of antibiotics, are specifically excluded.
Which is best?
So, what’s the best ‘alternative medicine’ out there? It really just depends on each individual doctor’s and patients’ preferences and needs. You need to take the time to do your own research and explore your options. How? Keep reading!
What qualities + certifications to look for
If you’re looking for a more hybrid, best-of-both-worlds approach between Western and alternative medicines, you need to look at the qualifications and experience of your practitioner and their clinic.
There are way too many certifications to list here, as each specific modality has different degrees; for example, an acupuncturist, an ayurvedic practitioner and an herbologist will all have different accreditations. Outside of specialized fields, here are some general degrees you can look for:
- Medical Doctor (M.D.): A doctor who first went through traditional medical school. If they now have an integrative or functional medicine practice, then they added training and education in this area. They will have the most flexibility in ordering tests and prescribing medications. A great example of an integrative MD is Dr. Taz (the doctor who first helped me reverse my PCOS).
- Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.): This is a doctor who, like an M.D. has a wide range of services they are able to offer and are even able to become surgeons. They take a “whole person” approach to medicine, so while they can prescribe medication, they generally take a holistic approach to healing.
- Nurse Practitioner (N.P.): Many people don’t realize that nurse practitioners in many ways have similar abilities as doctors. They are able to own and operate their own practices and can also prescribe medications. However, they’re often more open to alternative therapies than traditional MDs.
- Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.): While chiropractors are generally thought of those who primarily treat spinal alignment, they are also able to practice functional medicine. They cannot prescribe medications and usually have a medical doctor they work with or recommend if you need a traditional treatment.
- Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (N.D.): These doctors use a system of treatments that avoid drugs and surgery, emphasizing more natural means (prescription and licensing privileges vary by state). I personally see a ND and she explained to me that she still went to four years of medical school, but instead of taking pharmacology classes, she focused on natural remedies.
While certifications are a great first step, there are other qualities that you want to look for when it comes to finding the right practitioner. Here are some tips:
- They put a large focus on nutrition as part of your healing plan
- Specialization in what you need help with: for example, a women’s health practitioner if you’re struggling with infertility or hormonal issues
- A partnership between patient and practitioner: someone who spends at least 30-60 minutes with you per visit, really getting to know you and your unique needs
- Use of natural, effective, less-invasive interventions whenever possible: this means, in turn, they use prescription medication as a last resort rather than the first line of defense
- Balanced use of testing: someone who is open to complete, thorough lab testing but doesn’t constantly try to upsell you expensive tests
- Availability: ideally the practitioner is available via email between appointments for quick follow up questions
What Tests Should You Run?
Functional medicine clinics all share a few common characteristics, one of which being that they all order “functional” lab testing. These lab tests are specific to functional medicine and look for “functional” problems, i.e. a problem with organ function that would appear prior to the onset of a disease process.
For example, a functional test for heart health might detect low levels of antioxidants whereas a conventional test for heart health might detect a blocked artery. Functional medicine always strives to catch problems in their earliest phases when early intervention is possible and always includes lifestyle changes as part of treatment plans.
So what should you get tested? Ideally–even for a seemingly healthy individual–you’d do comprehensive testing so you can catch anything that’s out of balance early on, before it gets worse. If you have to prioritize due to financial constraints, of course you should start with whatever is most relevant given your symptoms or primarily health concerns. Your doctor or practitioner will make personalized recommendations.
Here’s what I’d recommend:
- Complete thyroid panel
- Complete hormone panel
- Complete vitamin/nutrient panel
- Inflammation / GI Panel
- Fasting glucose, insulin, leptin, C-peptide, homocysteine
- Food allergies, food sensitivities and Celiac testing
- Heavy metals testing
Not only will your integrative/functional medicine doctor typically do more extensive testing than a conventional doctor, but conventional docs often use different (outdated) ranges to determine what’s ‘normal’. For example, many mainstream doctors, when doing thyroid testing, will say you’re within ‘normal’ range if they check your TSH and it’s under 5.0; whereas functional medicine practitioners know that an ideal TSH is actually between 1-2, so that same person would be diagnosed with hypothyroidism and given a treatment plan to get their thyroid operating optimally.
For an easy cheatsheet, download our Guide to Functional Medicine Lab Tests here! You’ll get a handy printable outlining the ideal ranges for the most common panels like thyroid, hormones, glucose, and more so that you know just what to look for and how to understand the results.
If you want to do some of these tests from the comfort of your own home, I highly recommend EverlyWell. They’re a reputable company with over 30 different tests like food sensitivities, heavy metals, thyroid, women’s health (hormones) and more. Simply mail in the test and get your results back in a couple weeks that you can share with your doctor!
Other tests that are super helpful for personalized health:
- Genes: + DNA Testing: 23andme (read all about my results and what you can expect from this test here!)
- Gut Health/Microbiome: Viome (read all about my results and what you can expect from this test here!)
How to find an integrative or functional medicine doctor
Now that you know what you’re looking for, you can actually start researching!
An important note: many of these doctors and practitioners are unfortunately not covered by insurance.
Hopefully that will change over the years to come, but for now, it’s definitely a consideration in your search. I wholeheartedly believe it’s worth paying out of pocket for this type of care because a) you’re prioritizing your health and wellness so you can live a long, enjoyable life, and b) other medical bills (prescriptions, surgeries, follow up care) can accrue to be HUGE expenses if you don’t address issues in the early stages.
Thus in the long run, not only are you likely to feel better when focusing on preventative, holistic care (the best win of all!), but you could likely also save money over the years instead of waiting for something to get out of hand and undergoing expensive, invasive treatments.
STEP 1: Start by googling “your city” + functional medicine (for example: Atlanta functional medicine)
STEP 2: Try googling “your city” + your condition (for example: Atlanta PCOS)
STEP 3: Read reviews, call and get their price list and understand how appointments work, the costs, available testing, etc.
Don’t live in a city with options? Consider telemedicine! Many people now offer virtual sessions that offer much of the same benefits as in person, like personalized one-on-one time, diagnosing, holistic recommendations and can even order testing that you would get done at a local blood draw clinic.
Here are other helpful resources of networks and directories you can search:
- The Institute for Functional Medicine
- Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges
- American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
- American College for Advancement of Medicine
- Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine
- Dr. Josh Axe, a functional chiropractor in Nashville, TN who is best known for his website of extensive content, compiled a list of the Top 50 Functional and Integrative Medicine Doctors. This list could help you find a doctor who specializes in your particular illness, though it doesn’t say where each doctor is located so it takes extra detective work. However, this could be a good option for telemedicine.
That’s a wrap! I truly hope you found this guide helpful.
Please share any additional tips you have on finding and working with an integrative or functional medicine doctor below!
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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