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What is the Difference Between Naturopathic, Functional, and Chinese Medicine?

by Dr. Reecha Patel, ND

This is a common question most patients have when transitioning towards alternative medicine. Although there are many similarities between the practices, there are several important characteristics which distinguish the approaches to healthcare. However, it is important to note that all three forms of medicine could be practiced interchangeably. There are plenty of Naturopaths who practice functional medicine, while a vast majority of functional medicine doctors who are not Naturopaths use naturopathic medicine to treat patients. There are also many practitioners who are qualified in Chinese medicine who are also Naturopaths or functional medicine doctors.

Let’s dive deeper into what each can offer and how they differ.

What is Naturopathic Medicine?

Naturopathic medicine, also called naturopathy, is a form of medicine that uses the healing power of nature. This type of medicine believes in treating the root cause of the problem rather than suppressing symptoms. Treatments aimed at treating the root cause would include dietary and lifestyle modifications, detoxification, supplementation, hydrotherapy, and other natural interventions, which can also include things like acupuncture and homeopathy. Normally when treating an individual using other medicine types, there are standards of care where one condition receives a generalized treatment. However, patients of naturopathic medicine with the same condition may receive different treatments, all based off individual symptoms and presentation. A naturopathic doctor (commonly referred to as an ND) can utilize various resources when necessary, including pharmaceuticals, supplementation, and minor surgical procedures depending on which state they are practicing in.

Naturopathic medicine is guided by six basic principles:

1. First Do No Harm

· Utilize methods which will minimize the risk of harmful side effects and avoid suppression of symptoms.

2. The Healing Power of Nature

· Naturopathic doctors recognize and harness the body’s inherent wisdom to heal itself in order to guide patients to wellness and total health.

3. Identify and Treat the Causes

· Identify the underlying causes of illness and remove obstacles to cure.

4. Doctor as Teacher

· NDs and patients work as a team to achieve and maintain health. This is achieved by the doctor educating patients and encouraging self-responsibility for health.

5. Treat the Whole Person

· Naturopathic physicians treat each individual by considering physical, mental, emotional, genetic, environmental and social factors. It is only through this whole-person-based approach that NDs seek to restore balance and health.

6. Prevention

· Naturopathic physicians emphasize disease prevention, assessment of risk factors and hereditary susceptibility to disease and making appropriate interventions to prevent illness. NDs combine all six principles to identify potential areas of imbalance and teach patients how to get well and stay well.

What is Functional Medicine?

Similarly to naturopathic medicine, functional medicine also focuses on finding and addressing the root cause of the disease. Most functional medicine doctors are conventional doctors such as MDs and DOs who have chosen to practice in a more holistic manner. Functional medicine doctors take a more holistic approach to treatment, and view patient’s symptoms as a sign of underlying conditions which could be treated. Many functional medicine physicians utilize the most current scientific knowledge regarding how our genetics, environment and lifestyle interact as a whole system. They also use that to diagnose and treat diseases based on patterns of dysfunction and imbalance. Functional medicine treats the person who has the disease, not specifically the disease the person has.

Functional medicine is built on the foundation of conventional medicine; while including the core concepts of naturopathic medicine within its system. The practice is holistic in how it views patients and the problems they present with. Functional medicine incorporates the open-mindedness of integrative medicine when determining the most effective modality needed to treat the patient.