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Exploring the Types of Medicine — and Which Approach Is Best For You

Sometimes it can feel like we are living in a Dickensian world when it comes to getting medical care — it is both the best of times and the worst of times. Western medicine offers more advances and cures than ever before, but trying to access that care can feel like you’re stuck in an impossible game. Doctors are rushed for time by the insurance system, patients — especially women and patients of color — often feel gaslighted by medical professionals who don’t take their concerns seriously, and Western medicine isn’t set up to view your health holistically.

On the flip side of the problem, we are also living through a time of abundance. Today, patients have access to many different traditions of medicine beyond just that of the Western medical system and an integrative approach can blend these practices to address issues with more resources than ever before. Understanding what these approaches are and the philosophies behind them can empower you to make informed decisions when it comes to optimizing your health.

Allopathic (or Western) Medicine:

This is the approach to health that you’re probably the most familiar with. Allopathic medicine — or at least its official name — dates back to the 1800s. It was coined to describe the treatments that more cutting-edge doctors were beginning to use, things like drawing blood and inventing drugs to cure disease. While not all of these early treatments were the best idea, this type of care would become the foundation of modern Western medicine.

Today, allopathic medicine is one of the most common approaches to medicine around the world. It relies on the scientific method and focuses on diagnosing and treating symptoms using pharmaceutical interventions and surgical procedures. Its approach is symptom-centered which means it can treat specific diseases, but it’s not always good at taking a broader approach to your health. For example, if you have a sore throat or cancer, western medicine can diagnose and treat you. But it’s less adept at identifying how a problem with mental health or skin might actually be originating in your gut.

When to use: It’s a great choice if you have specific symptoms or a well-known illness, but it may not be the best approach for preventative health or overall wellness.

Functional Medicine:

Functional medicine takes a holistic approach to health that sees the body as one connected whole rather than a collection of isolated systems and symptoms. Starting in the 1950s, a group of doctors began looking for alternative approaches to medicine outside of the allopathic tradition. In the early 1990s, functional medicine was established as its own type of medicine.

Functional medicine’s overarching purpose is to get to the root cause of disease by partnering with the patient to examine every aspect of their health. If you see a functional medicine doctor, your first visit will probably be a long one as your doctor grills you about your history with various illnesses, treatments, exposures, and lifestyle decisions starting in childhood. The goal is to consider the connections between every system in your body and every unique aspect of your health history to figure out the best approach to restoring balance and functionality. Functional medicine doctors may order tests that are similar or different to those of your allopathic doctor, and they may recommend treatments ranging from lifestyle modifications and nutrition changes to supplements and targeted therapies.

When to use: This is the best approach if you are trying to optimize your overall wellness or if you have health issues that Western medicine has failed to resolve.

Naturopathic Medicine:

While naturopathic medicine was established as a separate discipline in the U.S. around 1900, its practice goes back centuries and grew out of many global traditions. This type of medicine looks to nature for healing and guidance while still being rooted in modern science. Like functional medicine, naturopathic doctors are concerned with the whole being of their patient and with examining the full picture of their life and health to get to the root cause of illness. Treatments can range from lifestyle changes and stress management to herbal medicine, acupuncture, and massage, all in an effort to aid the body’s inner wisdom to balance and heal itself.

When to use: This approach is good for preventative care, overall balance, and offering another approach to treating health issues in tandem with allopathic medicine.  

Ayurvedic Medicine:

Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient Indian system that was developed thousands of years ago and is still practiced to this day…and for good reason. This tradition is focused on balance and living in harmony with natural systems like the seasons and your circadian rhythm. One of the main principles of this approach is the three doshas, or energy types, that every person possesses: vata (all about air, movement, flexibility, breath, and winter), pitta (known for fire, digestion, hormones, metabolism, and summer), and kapha (think earth, water, endurance, spring, and fall). Ayurvedic medicine believes that if the doshas get out of balance illness and other problems can occur. Ayurvedic treatments might include herbal remedies, yoga, meditation, the Ayurvedic diet, and an Ayurvedic cleanse.

When to use: Ayurvedic medicine is great for enhancing overall wellness and balance.

Homeopathic Medicine:

Originating over 200 years ago, homeopathic medicine is based on the belief that the body can heal itself and that “like cures like.” The idea is that something that causes similar symptoms in the body can also help stimulate the body’s natural healing powers in a much smaller and less powerful dose to treat conditions that cause those same symptoms. For example, red onions cause watery eyes and are used in a much weaker concentration in homeopathic medicine to treat allergies. Or arnica is toxic if eaten but is used topically as an anti-inflammatory to treat bruises, arthritis, and muscle pain.

When to use: Research is still out on whether homeopathic remedies work, so it’s best to seek out a homeopathic doctor for more minor illnesses like allergies, headaches, or bruises.

Eastern Medicine:

Eastern medicine is an umbrella term that embodies a variety of traditions that all share a few things in common: they originated from Asia, take a holistic view of health and wellness, and have been around for a long time, even thousands of years in some cases. 

Eastern medicine can refer to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture, reiki, herbal medicine, practices like tai chi and qigong, and more. At root of all of these practices is an emphasis on prevention, energy, and restoring balance and harmony to the body. 

When to use: Eastern medicine can be a great compliment to Western medicine treatments, or used in cases where allopathic treatments don’t seem to be working. They are also a good resource for maintaining overall health and wellness. 

Knowledge is power when it comes to managing your health. It’s not just important to be informed before you go to the doctor, but it’s also crucial to have enough information to be able to choose the type of medicine that is best suited for your health concerns.

Each of these approaches has its own benefits, though the greatest benefit of all might be in taking an integrative approach to your health — or combining the best of allopathic medicine with that of one or more of the other practices. That could look like treating your anxiety with medication as well as acupuncture and a diet that balances your gut microbiome. In the end, there is no one right answer, there is only the approach that is best for you and your body.

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