To really understand the difference, we first need to define conventional Western medicine, which is the most widely accepted form of healthcare in the United States. Conventional Western medicine focuses on the treatment of a problem and the easing of symptoms; however, it often overlooks discovering the root cause of the issue. The Western approach also sees the body as a band of independent systems, with doctors focusing their treatments on a single area, like the cardiovascular system or the reproductive system.
Consultations in conventional Western medicine are usually fast and impersonal, spending as little as 5 to10 minutes with patients. This rushed and often detached form of healthcare makes it easy to understand why people are looking for more holistic and integrative approaches.
I taught at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) School of Nursing in the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Department for years, and, as an herbalist, teacher, and author, I have spent decades helping my students understand–and navigate–natural healthcare options.
While phrases like “holistic” and “alternative” may sound similar, they have nuances that are helpful to understand. These differences are especially important to know if you’re in the process of assembling a natural healthcare team, which we can all benefit from having in place to build our everyday vitality and help prevent illness.
What is “Holistic” Care?
“Holistic” is an umbrella term used to describe an approach to medicine that seeks to treat the root cause of an issue, rather than simply addressing the symptoms. Holistic healers believe that the body is interconnected, and that to identify the root cause of an issue they must address the mind, body, and spirit while also keeping in mind a person’s unique constitution, lifestyle, and spiritual and emotional practices.
Holistic medicine considers a patient’s entire being and all their choices. This doesn’t just include the physical body, but also the mind, spirit, emotions, and lifestyle. Holistic practitioners seek to truly develop a partnership with their patients by taking the time to listen and learn about the factors in their patients’ lives that may be poorly affecting their health. This holistic approach examines diet, sleeping patterns, thought processes, stress, trauma, relationships, career requirements, and more.
Let’s say, for example, that a patient was experiencing digestive discomfort. A Western primary care provider may conduct a 10-to-15-minute session before recommending a medication or referring them to a specialist for additional testing. Holistic practitioners, on the other hand, are known for conducting 1 to 2 hour-long intake sessions that probe much deeper into the many factors that may be affecting their patient’s digestive health–from medication history, to diet, stress, lifestyle choices, and more.
Holistic medicine often incorporates a wide variety of treatment methods from around the world. For example, after the initial intake session, a holistically minded practitioner may recommend that a patient with digestive discomfort meet with a massage therapist or acupuncturist or begin practicing soothing lifestyle practices, like yoga or meditation, to ease the anxiety that is oftentimes at the root of digestive upset. The holistic practitioner will not just look at what is happening right now but will take the person’s lifelong digestive history into account, including the assessment of any medication history that may have disrupted their digestive health over time.
What is “Integrative” Medicine?
Integrative medicine refers to a specialized practice combining holistic and complementary treatments with conventional Western care. An integrative care team will integrate holistic practices and viewpoints alongside a more mainstream medical view.
For example, patients with digestive concerns may need to take digestive enzymes and have blood work drawn (which are the typical standard of care), but they could also benefit from removing gluten from their diet, taking bitter tonics before meals, eating probiotic foods to help regenerate the digestive flora, or learning relaxation strategies (which are all more holistically minded recommendations.)
Many people see integrative care as the best of both worlds. An integrative care team will help their patients identify lifestyle and dietary practices that can make a huge difference over time, and they will combine that information with the most up-to-date, mainstream medical knowledge. All the members of an integrative care team will ideally communicate openly with each other to make sure each practitioner is kept in the loop about their patients’ health.
For example, a doctor on an integrative care team can prescribe pharmaceuticals while also offering tips to help their patient cope with symptoms, complications, or side effects naturally. Another example would be to combine methods of surgery with alternative medicines, like herbs and massage.
Finding a wonderful naturopathic primary care provider is a great first step in assembling a holistically minded, integrative healthcare team. Naturopathic doctors (NDs) attend medical school just like medical doctors (MDs) and are also able to diagnose, treat, and cure both acute and chronic conditions (AANP, n.d.). The main difference is that they’re more holistically minded. Look for a local, well-reviewed naturopathic clinic with multiple NDs who specialize in different fields, from primary care to pediatrics, gastroenterology, oncology, and more, so that they’re able to help with a variety of concerns that may surface over time.
What is “Alternative” Care?
Alternative medicine is different from integrative medicine because it focuses on holistic forms of healthcare instead of conventional mainstream practices, rather than alongside it (WebMD, 2021). It’s not uncommon for people to seek alternative care because they have grown to mistrust the modern, Western medical system. and they may even actively reject mainstream medical treatments altogether.
For example, people with an alternative approach to their health may reject antibiotics in favor of elderberry syrup, oregano supplements, Vitamin D, rest, and other natural approaches.
There are many degrees on this spectrum. Some people may seek alternative approaches, like herbal support or massage therapy, before turning to a mainstream practitioner if their symptoms do not ease. Others may choose to never turn to a mainstream practitioner, forgoing Western medical intervention altogether.
For those who mistrust conventional medical wisdom, it is still wise to establish a team of well-trained holistic, alternative medicine practitioners–like clinical herbalists, acupuncturists–who will be able to help weed through the massive amount of misinformation on the internet.
Insurance and Affordability
Insurance coverage, and, as a result, affordability, is one of the main obstacles when it comes to seeking holistic care in the United States. I sincerely hope that this changes with time, but in the meantime don’t hesitate to ask service providers whether they offer a sliding scale option, or if there are medical students or apprentices that can offer a more affordable rate as part of their training.
It may also be helpful to look at insurance a bit differently, seeing standard health insurance as a wonderful tool for emergency situations, and holistic support as a helpful preventative measure that’s worth budgeting for each month. In the long run, having the support of preventive, holistic care can save money because patients are less likely to suffer from chronic, life-long, (and expensive!), diseases if they’ve been taking preventative measures.
The beauty of living in the 21st century is that there is a wealth of choices and options. With a holistic mindset, folks can choose to have as much–or as little–input from mainstream providers as they wish. Just remember to make phone calls, ask questions, verify sources, and don’t settle for anything less than optimum health and vitality.
Kami’s work is focused on sustainable wellness practices and revitalizing our relationship with the plant world. She empowers people to use herbal medicine in their daily lives for home wellness care. Kami has also helped thousands of women to love their menstrual cycle with her menstrual health classes.
I went on my first official herb walk when I was 8 years old as part of a nature camp that was held on the creek that I grew up on.
It is now my pleasure to help pass on what has been given to me to help revive the civic art of home herbal care.
When people ask, what is your background in herbal medicine? The answer is a long one and a lifetime journey. Herbal medicine is more than the study of plant constituents. It is a study of the medicine of the earth and how we interact with the elements. Everything that we do to improve our awareness about the natural world helps us to better understand the process of how to live in more health and balance on the earth.
American Association of Naturopathic Physicians – AANP (n.d.). What is a naturopathic doctor? Retrieved from https://naturopathic.org/page/WhatisaNaturopathicDoctor
WebMD (March 2021). What exactly is alternative medicine? Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/what-is-alternative-medicine