A Guide to Choosing the Best Holistic Doctor for Your Needs

When you feel unwell, you probably make an appointment with your primary care provider—usually an MD. They will often look and listen to your symptoms and, in some cases, prescribe a pill to help you get better. But, as medical care evolves, there's a roster of other doctors who are taking alternative approaches. These practitioners are more holistic—treating the patient in a way that considers diseases along with other factors. Instead of medication, holistic doctors often recommend treatments with herbs, meditation, acupuncture, and other non-conventional treatments.

Conventional vs. Holistic Medicine

"Conventional medicine has taught doctors how to put out the fire," says Alka Gupta, MD, a co-director of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing Program at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. "But they often don't get to the bottom of why that fire started in the first place. Holistic approaches try to find the root cause of symptoms by looking at the whole person."

Choosing a holistic-minded provider isn't always simple, however. The terminology used can be, well, muddy. Some can serve as your primary physician, while others practice a more complementary brand of medicine—and should be seen in addition to your MD. The options get confusing, which is why we put together this list of holistic practitioners. Read on to learn what they do and how to ensure you get the best care.

Doctor of Osteopathy

Medical Doctors (MDs) complete four years of an undergraduate degree. They then go into a medical school residency program for several additional years. Doctors of Osteopathy (DOs) get the same schooling as MDs, plus learn additional skills to provide comprehensive care. Some of the additional training includes an extra 200 hours of training in osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM). OMM is a hands-on technique that releases tension in the muscles, joints, and nerves to promote healing.

Osteopaths can treat all the same ailments as traditional doctors (coughs, UTIs, you name it), but DOs are especially helpful for treating migraines, back and neck pain, period aches, arthritis, and digestive woes. And there's good evidence to support OMM training.

In one study published in the Journal of Pain Research, people who saw a DO for migraines had less frequent attacks than people who only took standard medications. In another study, low-back pain sufferers who were treated with OMM were able to take fewer painkillers, as published in the journal Practical Pain Management.

Integrative Physician

Integrative Physicians are doctors—who usually have an MD or DO—who practice a blend of mainstream and holistic medicine. They might prescribe an SSRI for anxiety or an antispasmodic for IBS, but they also recommend science-backed complementary therapies, such as meditation and massage. And you can expect in-depth conversations with your integrative medicine doctor. They will take their time getting to know you so that they can suggest meaningful changes to your routine.

"Most conventional medicine visits are about 15 minutes, but we usually spend around an hour with each patient," says Wendy Luo, MD, an integrative medicine fellow-in-training at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Holistic Practitioner

The Holistic Practioner term describes providers who take into account how your lifestyle affects your well-being. But the title says nothing specific about a person's qualifications.

"There's no formal training or certification that you need to say you're holistic," says Ronald Glick, MD, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. A holistic practitioner could have gone to medical school, for example, or completed a six-month coaching program. So if you're looking for a holistic primary doctor, choose one with an MD or DO.

Ayurvedic Doctor

Ayurvedic doctors are all about restoring balance. According to the ancient Indian tradition of Ayurveda, your body's processes are governed by three life energies or doshas:

  1. Vata—space and air
  2. Pitta—fire and water
  3. Kapha—water and earth

One of your doshas is naturally stronger than the others—but if your doshas slip too far out of balance, health issues can follow. For example, if vata is your main dosha, you're likely full of vitality and creativity. When your vata gets too powerful, though, you may suffer from anxiety and insomnia, among other ailments.

An Ayurvedic doctor will help you restore equilibrium using many remedies that are supported by research. For example, preliminary studies published in the BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine journal have found that active compounds in turmeric—an Ayurvedic mainstay—are just as effective as ibuprofen for knee pain from osteoarthritis. Other research published in the International Journal of Physiology has shown that breath work called pranayama can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep.

Most Ayurvedic practitioners in the U.S. don't work as primary care physicians. But they work alongside your general practitioner. They can help you manage persistent health problems like eczema, chronic pain, or digestive distress. Narrow your search to MDs or PhDs who completed training at a school recognized by the National Ayurvedic Medical Association.

Naturopathic Doctor

The guiding principle of naturopathy is to encourage the body's self-healing abilities. Like an MD, a naturopathic doctor (ND) can order blood work, MRIs, and other tests, but they will recommend less-invasive treatments before drugs and surgery. Note that some naturopathic methods, like nutrient IV infusions and homeopathic remedies, are controversial.

There are 23 states that offer NDs a license to practice if they've graduated from an accredited four-year naturopathic medical school. But not all of those states allow NDs to write prescriptions. So if you require a prescription medication—say, for an inhaler or a steroid—you may also need to see an MD or DO.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner

In a nutshell, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is about balancing two opposing but interdependent forces—yin and yang—and helping your vital energy, or qi, flow freely. Practitioners use many herbal and mind-body remedies, but the most well-known practice is acupuncture. During acupuncture, super-fine needles are thought to remove blockages along the pathways that qi travels.

While a TCM practitioner shouldn't be your main doctor—they're not trained to do breast exams, for example—acupuncture can be a potent therapy. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) reviewed research and found that it helps reduce hot flashes and the frequency of migraines and alleviates lower back pain and osteoarthritis. A practitioner with an L.Ac degree is licensed to do acupuncture and has a master's degree in acupuncture and Oriental medicine.

The Medical Detectives

All holistic-minded providers search for the original cause of a patient's symptoms, but certified functional-medicine doctors dig deeper than most. These physicians are MDs or DOs who specialize in solving complex health mysteries. If you are struggling with an undiagnosed problem or a collection of overlapping conditions, consider one of these doctors. Many of the illnesses they treat are "invisible"—like GI disorders, autoimmune diseases, and migraines.

Your doctor will likely work with you to create a timeline of your life in order to ID any factors that may have contributed to your condition. "Everything my patients do impacts their health," says Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. "It's up to me to ask investigative questions."

You'll probably have lab work done, too, to assess hormone and vitamin levels and to test for things like food allergies, heavy metal overload, and genetic mutations in your DNA. Based on all the information your physician gathers, they'll formulate a plan that will almost certainly involve dietary tweaks—as nutrition plays a central role in the functional approach.

"Functional medicine is the future of conventional medicine," says Dr. Hyman. "But it's available now."

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