An Introduction to Integrated Medicine

older woman receiving a medical checkup

Your doctor may not be giving you the right tests to find the true cause of your symptoms.

If you get into a severe car accident or believe you are having a heart attack, the place you want to go – ASAP, please! – is an emergency room. Western medicine is phenomenal at saving lives, stitching broken bodies back together, and pulling people back from the brink of death.

But there are many conditions that conventional medicine is not good at treating. In this short blog post, I want to introduce you to a whole new way of perceiving health through the lens of integrated medicine. First, let’s look at why your doctor may mean well but be unequipped to actually help you become well.

It all comes down to perspective. The perspective of many conventional medical professionals, like most doctors, hospitals, and clinics, is addressing the symptoms of illness. If you go into your doctor for a checkup and he doesn’t see any red flags signifying illness, he will compliment you on how healthy you are. If you come in complaining of back pain, he will likely write you a prescription for a strong pain reliever.

To an integrative medicine practitioner, this response is woefully inadequate. Integrative medicine is not about waiting for illness and then just treating symptoms; it focuses on promoting optimal health and managing the causes of illnesses rather than just the symptoms. Integrative medicine is healing-oriented.

The Integrative Approach – Are You Well?

Conventional medicine looks for sickness. Integrative medicine looks for health. These are very different perspectives. Your health exists on a continuum. You aren’t healthy one day and then sick the next. Every choice you make (ex. whether to eat fresh eggs and fruit in the morning or a donut) will move you closer to health or sickness. Conventional medicine doesn’t consider you to be sick unless your test results show that you are far out of the average. For instance, if a doctor looks at your level of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), he will consider your test normal if your TSH is between .35 – 5.0. This is a HUGE margin. You could be at a 4.5 and feel absolutely lousy, but your doctor would still consider you healthy.

Personally, I believe that an optimal level of TSH is 1.8 – 3.0. If my client isn’t optimal, then we need to start taking action BEFORE symptoms start appearing or worsen. Integrative medicine doesn’t wait for sickness.

The Cause of the Problem

The second big difference between conventional medicine and integrative medicine is how illness is treated. Doctors often work to treat symptoms without searching for or trying to treat the underlying conditions. If you come to a doctor with low back pain you might get a prescription for a painkiller but that’s like taking the batteries out of a fire alarm. Pain killers won’t treat whatever is causing your back pain.

Likewise, doctors often prescribe synthetic thyroid hormones to patients with hypothyroidism, which may treat the symptoms of low thyroid but won’t fix the problem. The majority of women suffering from hypothyroidism have an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (see my previous post on Hashimoto’s), but most doctors won’t even test for Hashimoto’s, because their treatment would be the same. It IS important to know if your immune system is attacking your thyroid, because taking synthetic thyroid hormones won’t stop your immune system from damaging your thyroid. In fact, the longer the autoimmune condition goes untreated, the more damage it will do to the thyroid. Your doctor will have to keep writing prescriptions for higher and higher dosages of synthetic thyroid hormone as your poor little thyroid keeps getting pummeled.

There is a way to treat your autoimmune condition by identifying the causes of immune flair-ups and then preventing them. (This usually requires you to give up gluten.)

An Integrative Approach

There is room in the treatment of human health for both conventional and integrative medicine. Conventional medicine excels in emergency situations and integrative medicine is best used for protecting long-term health and treating many lifestyle diseases. More and more doctors trained in conventional medicine are inching closer to an integrative approach, but we still have a long way to go! As a patient you need to educate yourself about integrative medicine and be aware that your doctor may only be searching for illness rather than promoting wellness. If you have the symptoms of hypothyroidism, then consider working with an integrative medicine practitioner to get thoroughly tested.