Chinese, Integrative, Functional, Naturopathic, And Holistic Medicine — What’s The Difference?

by | Oct 5, 2021 | Blog Posts, Chinese Medicine

The creation, restoration, and maintenance of your health begin with understanding the existing landscape of healthcare options out there. But there are so many terms that it can be difficult to assess which one(s) are right for you.


Allopathic (allopathy), alternative, Ayurvedic, chiropractic, Chinese, conventional, functional, holistic, homeopathic (homeopathy), integrative, naturopathic (naturopathy), osteopathic and Western medicine…

Is one better than the other?

Do you have to choose just one?

How will your care differ and what should you be aware of beforehand?

If you search online, there are many interpretations of each of these terms, making it difficult to sort them all out and truly understand their meaning.

Even the updated online dictionaries (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam Webster) are curiously lacking most of these terms. Sadly, Chinese medicine (referring to a medical model that is around 5000 years old) is missing between the terms “Chinese lantern” and “Chinese parsley.”

Ayurvedic medicine, Western medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy, and holistic medicine were listed as of 2021.

The digital age gives us more knowledge than any other time in history, but the risk of disinformation grows if we are not connected with our own self-awareness of specific health needs.

Be careful using these terms until you know them better. Otherwise, you may receive care that’s not right for you or a treatment that does not reflect what’s being advertised.

There are countless articles on healthcare provider and institution websites luring us in with Shangri-La promises or adopting terms to convince us they are actually doing more than what we see at these medical groups, hospitals, or institutions.

Don’t be fooled by these words and promises! The larger organizations offer more affordable but less individualized care. On the flip side, many private practices and small group practices are offering a variety of care that can dive deeper into your health needs but may be rather expensive.

In the end, you need to know what these terms mean in order to know what you’re getting, whether you are receiving what they claim and whether that care is right for you.


Below is a sample glossary of the terms, in alphabetical order.

These definitions are meant to provide a starting point in your quest for knowledge, not as the final verdict.

Allopathic Medicine (allopathy)

  • See Conventional Medicine
  • an outdated definition of mainstream medicine as “method of treating disease with remedies that produce effects different from those caused by the disease itself” (American Heritage dictionary online)
  • The term was coined by the founder of homeopathic medicine and used as a derogatory description by homeopathic practitioners in the nineteenth century when orthodox medical practices included procedures such as bloodletting.

Alternative Medicine 

  • Medical approaches that are used in place of traditional (mainstream) therapies.
  • Some previously labeled alternative approaches are now known as complementary or mainstream medicine after being validated by Western scientific methods.  (acupuncture, for example). “Magic [makes] possible today what science will make a reality tomorrow.” Marco Tempest (creative technologist and magician)

Ayurvedic Medicine

  • One of the world’s oldest medical systems from India.
  • Combines products (mainly derived from plants, but may also include animal, metal, and mineral), diet, exercise, and lifestyle.
  • How much does the scientific community know about ayurvedic medicine? According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health (NCCIH), “Although Ayurvedic medicine and its components have been described in many scholarly articles, only a small number of clinical trials using these approaches have been published in Western medical journals.”
  • Some preparations may contain toxic substances, such as lead, mercury and arsenic. Caution should be taken to make sure the practitioner is properly trained, and more beneficial if used as an integrative approach with other medical systems.

Chinese Medicine

  • A comprehensive ancient medical model that derives from key theoretical and foundational principles that are different from yet complementary to the Western medical model.  Theories include yin yang theory, channel theory, organ theory, and five phases. The goal is to treat the root cause of illness rather than just the symptoms. 
  • The model is more focused on functional energetic aspects of the body rather than anatomical. Extensive mapping of energetic systems are known as meridians, or channels where 
  • What distinguishes Chinese medicine from Western medicine the most are the concepts of duality and interdependence rather than the Western philosophy of cause and effect. A person’s list of symptoms at a Western clinic may be more easily viewed as connected parts of a pattern of illness. Identifying those patterns is vital to making the Chinese medical diagnosis. The languages of Chinese and Western medicine are quite different, which can lead to a loss in translation.
  • Most Americans are familiar with acupuncture, which is practiced by Licensed Acupuncturists or Medical Doctors with additional training in acupuncture (called Medical Acupuncture). However, Chinese medicine is more than acupuncture and includes multiple branches that include: acupuncture, herbal medicine, diet, movement, and manual therapy (bodywork).
  • To add just one more layer of complexity, acupuncture has evolved in many countries, which has resulted in different subtypes and techniques across the globe. Countries such as France, Germany, England, Korea, and Japan have their own advances in this system. Generally, the underlying principles remain the same.

Chiropractic Medicine

  • A medical model that emphasizes the body’s ability to heal itself. Treatment typically involves manual therapy, often including spinal manipulation.
  • May also include stretches, exercise, and nutritional counseling. 
  • Treatable conditions include neck, back, and joint pain as well as mobility issues.
  • Chiropractors are educated through nationally recognized 4-year programs, licensed by the state, and certified by a national board.

Conventional Medicine 

  • Also called allopathic medicine, modern medicine, biomedicine, mainstream medicine, orthodox medicine, and Western medicine. 
  • Refers to a system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (nurses, physician assistants) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, surgery, and other mainstream therapies.
  • Conventional doctors are trained in a four-year medical school with further hands-on clinical training in residencies for specialties that last three or more years. 

Functional Medicine 

  • Introduced by biochemist Jeffrey Bland and is a more recent medical approach.
  • According to the Institute for Functional Medicine, functional medicine is defined as “a systems biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. Each symptom or differential diagnosis may be one of many contributing to an individual’s illness. The precise manifestation of each cause depends on the individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyle, and only treatments that address the right cause will have lasting benefit beyond symptom suppression.”
  • Most certified functional medicine practitioners are physicians trained in conventional medicine who obtain additional training in functional medicine.

Holistic Medicine

  • A very broad term that can incorporate more than one medical model: Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, and naturopathy. (Therefore can include multiple types of practitioners).
  • A holistic approach to medicine incorporates many levels of a person’s health, including physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual, and environmental states.
  • Is a whole-person approach to medical care from a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual perspective.
  • Dates back to ancient cultures from Greece (Hippocrates to China (Classical Chinese and Taoist medicine) and to India (Ayurvedic medicine).
  • The American Holistic Health Association was established in 1989.
  • The guiding principles of holistic medicine include:
    • The belief that all people have inborn healing abilities.
    • The belief that a patient and doctor work together as a team to address all areas of life that affect health and wellness.
    • The philosophy of treating a patient as a person, not the disease.
    • The focus is on fixing the cause of the ailment, not just relieving symptoms.
    • Focusing on the mind-body connection to treat the whole person.

Homeopathic Medicine (homeopathy)

  • A medical system that was developed in Germany more than 200 years ago based on two theories proposed how the body self-regulates and enhances healing:
  • “Like cures like”—the notion that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people.
  • “Law of minimum dose”—the notion that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. Many homeopathic products are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain. (Source, NCCIH)
  • There is a history of resistance by the Western medical community that would make a compelling Netflix documentary! In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, homeopathy was very prominent in the United States with over twenty homeopathic schools circa 1900.  It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the effectiveness. I would first encourage you to review the history of homeopathy, its influence, and interaction with the conventional medical societies in the twentieth century.
  • Homeopathic products have been available over the counter. There are also practitioners trained in homeopathy, most commonly licensed under a different medical system (for example, naturopathic education includes training in homeopathy as a part of the curriculum). Homeopathy is practiced by a variety of people, including: lay persons, naturopaths and medical doctors.

Integrative Medicine 

  • An approach to healthcare that brings together conventional, lifestyle, and complementary therapies in a strategic way to address the whole person rather than one organ or system.
  • One example of an integrated physician is one who is licensed in both Western and Chinese medicine (i.e. an MD and Medical Acupuncturist).
  • An example of an integrative clinic or center includes practitioners from a variety of medical models. One caveat to the use of this term: the variety of care under one roof does not guarantee a coordinated plan for you. It may just imply that you can have different approaches to medical care from separate providers under one roof.
  • In order to fully understand integrative medicine as a whole, you must examine the parts involved. They may vary with each practitioner and institution.

Naturopathic Medicine (naturopathy)

  • Naturopathic medicine is based on the belief that the human body has an innate healing ability. Naturopathic doctors (NDs) teach their patients to use diet, exercise, lifestyle changes, and cutting-edge natural therapies to enhance their bodies’ ability to ward off and combat disease.
  • Naturopathic physicians craft comprehensive treatment plans that blend the best of modern medical science and traditional natural medical approaches to not only treat disease but also restore health.
  • Originates from Germany and has become more westernized and prescriptive, now prescribing, doing minor surgery, doing a residency, IVs, etc.
  • Naturopaths are trained, licensed, and nationally certified. Some practitioners hold dual licenses of LAc (acupuncture) and ND (doctorate in Naturopathic medicine).

Osteopathic Medicine 

  • Founded in the late 1800s as a reaction to the harmful effects of orthodox medicine during the time
  • Osteopathic training includes all treatments of conventional medicine, including prescription drugs, surgery, and the use of technology to diagnose and treat disease and injury. It also offers the added hands-on diagnosis and treatment through a system of treatment known as osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMT). 
  • Not all DOs go on to practice osteopathic manipulation therapies just as not all family physicians continue to practice low-risk obstetrics. DOs and MDs are trained in a variety of skills, but most physicians go on to specialize in a specific set of skills with residencies and fellowships.
  • are licensed in all 50 states to practice full-scope conventional medicine as are MDs (medical doctors)
  • attend a 4-year medical school with a DO degree (Doctor of osteopathic medicine), and are eligible to attend the same residency programs as MDs

Western Medicine 

  • See also Conventional medicine.
  • Biomedicine that is focused on the material structure of the body (anatomy) and organ systems (physiology).
  • Focuses on a universal diagnosis, organ systems, and disease-specific treatment.


Which should you choose?

Because some of these approaches and models overlap, and some approaches can work well together, the best way to sort out your health concerns is to determine your health strategy.

Questions to Ask Your Practitioner

What is their education, training, licensing, certification, and experience for the type of medical care they practice?

Depending on the state, these practitioners are licensed and certified. But in some states, this is not the case. Not every state provides licensing oversight. Without this, there is a risk of seeing someone with only mail-order degrees or online degrees without clinical experience.

Look for someone who has completed a degree-focused program that is legal within the state and is also certified in their respective field.


  • Naturopathic doctors who are licensed by the state board and certified nationally.
  • Licensed acupuncturists who graduated from a sanctioned degree program and are licensed.
  • A medical doctor licensed to practice acupuncture in the state with proof of acupuncture/Chinese medical training and certification. In some cases, the medical doctor is also board certified in Medical Acupuncture (in addition to their primary conventional medical specialty), but this is not required in all states since they are already board-certified under a conventional medical specialty and it can fall under the scope of their medical degree depending on the state.

How much testing and how many procedures or drugs/supplements/herbs are involved? What are the estimated costs?

Beware of hidden costs of healthcare. It’s everywhere. This can vary from the a la carte fees from conventional mainstream healthcare clinics to functional medicine practices with expensive testing costs beyond the clinical visits. Know what you are committing to financially. Know what is covered by insurance and not, and plan accordingly.

What is the expected number of visits to address your health concern(s)?

This is a tricky question since you can’t always predict the number of rounds like Muhammed Ali could claim before a boxing match. But, you should have a general idea even if it’s a general range of visits expected. This holds true for additive treatments like acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic care. The general rule of thumb is that more frequent visits are needed in the beginning until you respond with more sustained changes that allow for a maintenance schedule or stopping after resolution.

How willing are they to educate you (or direct you to resources) on what type of care they offer?

The greatest mistake is to allow your provider to assume all responsibility for knowing about how your treatments work. All practitioners should be willing to either educate you or direct you to learn about what type of care you are receiving and why. Otherwise, look elsewhere. With primary care providers, however, this is less of an issue because of their current role and limitations in the current conventional healthcare system.

How does the practitioner respond to you accessing other medical models?

It is customary for healthcare providers from various specialties to be involved in your care within ONE medical model. However, many people are hesitant to tell a doctor that they are seeing a practitioner outside their respective model. If you choose to use more than one medical model, tell your doctor that you are doing so. It could be your primary doctor or your acupuncturist or your naturopath. Everybody needs to play nice and be respectful of your approach. Can they disagree, ask you questions or even challenge you on your current choices? Yes. But how they respond to you is very important. It should be respectful, and they should be listening. We can all learn from each other, including doctors! 

How well does the practitioner communicate with other members of your healthcare team?

This is important for all team members, but not all practitioners are skilled at or want to communicate with the other clinicians. The reality is that you may not have the option to go elsewhere. Keeping track of who communicates best is a key part of your strategy because the real central hub of this team is you.


American Academy of Medical Acupuncture —
American Association fo Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine —
American Association of Naturopathic Physicians —
American Heritage Dictionary —
National Board of Chiropractic Examiners
National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health —
National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine —
The Institute for Functional Medicine —
Ullman, Dana. Excerpted from ebook: Discovering Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century.

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