The Alchemy of Integrative Medicine

Robert Graham MD, MPH, Chef explains how integrative medicine provides a roadmap to holistic wellbeing—and why it’s different from other medicinal approaches.

By Lisette Cheresson

Learn from Robert Graham MD and other healthcare disrupters at Wellspring! For tickets and more information, click here. 

It’s a brave new world when it comes to medicine and the healthcare industry. There’s traditional medicine, alternative medicine, holistic treatments, and pharmaceutical treatments—and this doesn’t even scratch the surface of fringe modalities. In the yoga community, there’s emphasis on the science of movement and pranayama, of course, and the wisdom of Ayurveda. Ayurveda teaches us to look at the body as one holistic machine—an approach that is finding modern revival in integrative medicine. But with so many new buzzwords, it can be confusing to understand the differences between the approaches. Just what is the difference between integrative, functional, and traditional medicine? What makes them similar?

We sat down with Robert Graham MD, MPH, Chef—a celebrated integrative medicine doctor—to learn more about just what integrative medicine is, and how it’s different from other modalities. Want to deepen your understanding of the current healthcare landscape and how it’s being disrupted by these new ideas? Dr. Robert is a Wanderlust presenter, appearing at Wellspringthis weekend. For more information or to attend a Wanderlust event, click here.

Wanderlust (WL): Right off the bat—if you were going to describe what integrative medicine is to someone who’s never heard of it before, how would you introduce that idea?

Dr. Robert Graham (RG): Every time I describe it I pay homage to the fathers of this. One of the fathers of integrative medicine is Dr. Andrew Weil. The way he describes it is that integrative medicine cherry-picks the best of both conventional medicine and complementary therapies, providing there is an evidence base for its utility. That’s a really important part of it all: That this is established science.

What I mean by evidence-based medicine is that there has to be a body of study in the scientific literature that proves that it is both safe and effective. Because if there’s not then you’re going into the ground of alternative medicine, which integrative medicine isn’t. So that’s where I think it leads into a nice differentiation between alternative medicine, integrative medicine, and then the other word I used was complementary therapies.

I used to like to describe it as an analogy: Say someone has breast cancer. Integrative medicine would incorporate the science of, let’s say, the standard conventional medical treatment, like chemotherapy, and radiation, but also nutrition, spirituality, physical activity, massage, and herbs where there is evidence for its use, so it integrates it with conventional medicine. Alternative medicine would have someone forego conventional medical treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, and choose just to use herbs, where the science for its utility isn’t as strong.

WL: Can you give us some ideas of complementary therapies?

RG: Yeah, everything from acupuncture to yoga. So, you can go down the list, right? Acupuncture, biofeedback, chiropractic medicine, energy medicine, homeopathy, massage therapy, naturopathy, pilates, nutrition, yoga—all the other modalities that complement conventional medicine. These all, however, are very provider-dependent. Yoga is a good example. You know when you go to a yoga teacher whether they’ve been doing it for years, or a newbie.

WL: OK. So what’s the deal with functional medicine as opposed to integrative medicine?

RG: I think it goes back to education. You can look for letters like American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABOIM), etc. People that are, like myself, who are board certified in integrative medicine, have formal training which extends beyond a certificate course like functional medicine offers. I completed a three year medical fellowship akin to a cardiologist. That’s why I’m a specialist in integrative medicine. And I love my functional medicine training piece but it’s a certificate program, not a fellowship. I went to Harvard Medical School to study integrative medicine and believe in a functional medicine approach as well.

What might be akin to this is the person went through undergrad to become an RD, and can call themselves either a Registered Dietician or a clinical nutritionist. Right? That’s a formal training in nutrition science. What you’re seeing a lot now, opposed to this, are some health coaches that have taken online certificate programs in integrative wellness or nutrition. They call themselves nutritionists but they’re not really nutritionists. They’re really a health coach from the integrative nutritional schooling. Be aware of the word “practitioner,” look for their education.

WL: What’s the legality of that? How can we as a consumer determine who’s actually the best fit for us when there are all these different… What are the things that we should look for?

RG: Well, for me I always say, in my world—and this is something I struggle with all the time—is that we don’t look for Insta fame or followers. We look for credibility and education. I think that’s where the noise is so loud nowadays that you can’t tease out the authentic healers.

One of the things about integrative medicine, I think the beauty of it, really, is that the patient is at the center of it all. It’s just not about the sophisticated testing and herbs and vitamins and supplements that many functional medicine doctors provide. We in integrative medicine address the full range of nutritional, physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and environmental influences that affect the person’s health. In our practice, we have formulated a unique approach called FRESH, an acronym for the five ingredients to health, Food, Relaxation, Exercise, Sleep and Happiness. We put food first in our approach! That’s what I love about it. It goes beyond just the medicinal part. It looks at all other factors.

We love that, too, Dr. Robert. To learn more about integrative medicine, check out FRESH Medicine—or catch him at a Wanderlust event. Stay tuned to wanderlust.com for more information.

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