Image of an apple and stethescope, which illustrates natural medicine

Debunking Myths of Integrative Medicine

Gez AgolliMaybe you’ve heard about integrative medicine, but aren’t sure exactly what it entails. In this article, based on an interview conducted with Dr. Gez Agolli, ND, PhD, DrPH, founder and managing director of Progressive Medical Center, we’ll discuss important topics, such as:

  • What is integrative medicine?
  • What are the misconceptions and myths surrounding integrative medicine?
  • What does the future look like for integrative medicine?

Let’s jump right in…

What is integrative medicine?

Integrative medicine is a healing-oriented medicine that takes the whole person into account— the body, mind, and spirit. This includes all aspects of lifestyle.

It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and natural therapies, to get to the root cause.

What about the doctors?

An integrative doctor has additional training above and beyond the traditional allopathic training. Additional training includes: nutrition, naturopathy, osteopathy, detoxification, IV therapy, etc.

We’ve spent hundreds and thousands of additional hours seeking integrative therapies and treatments. We are open minded, caring, and we are great listeners.

Furthermore, an integrative physician is a traditional doctor who has been trained in traditional allopathic medicine, whether it is a family practice, internist, ER, OB-GYN, surgeon, etc. However, an integrative doctor has realized that the medical system is broken.

Why do I say “broken?” Because not everything can be fixed and patched up with pharmaceutical medications or surgery. We’ve realized that it’s not enough to only treat the symptoms. In integrative medicine we treat the root cause of the disease.

We believe in the Hippocratic Oath—First do no harm.

I’m not saying that doctors want to do harm, but it’s a reality. Iatrogenic disease is the #3 killer in America. I am not making this up. “Iatrogenic” is doctor-induced medication error. Yes, you read that correctly.

  • Now some factions of our medical community are actually saying that over 800,000 Americans died in 2011 (based on studies completed by Gary Null, PhD and Carolyn Dean, MD).
  • Furthermore, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have reported over 100,000 deaths due to “practicing medicine by the book.” What does that mean? As an example, a patient walks into a hospital. They are getting treated for pneumonia, and they are either given the wrong medication, or a combination of drug interactions, and they lose their life— not to the pneumonia, but die prematurely because of the drug interactions. This is evidenced in the literature.

Now that we know there is an element of risk (that’s why it’s called the “practice” of medicine), I find it ironic and sort of a contradiction that some experts who criticize integrative medicine are actually ending American’s lives prematurely by practicing medicine by the book.

This is why integrative doctors are taking a chance on making the healthcare system better. The system is not perfect—absolutely not. Are we striving for the best? Yes, we are. Is it 100% effective? Absolutely not.

However, I will say that integrative medicine makes sense because we are using the best of the East and the best of the West—combine both and you get integrative medicine, which gets at the root cause of the disease with fewer side effects.

This leads us into discussing 4 important principles of integrative medicine.


Principles of Integrative Medicine

Principle #1: Integrative medicine gets to the root cause.

diagnostic testingIntegrative medicine is a partnership between the patient and the practitioner in the healing process appropriately using conventional and natural therapies to facilitate the body’s natural healing response.

Our philosophy at Progressive Medical Center is very similar to this, and also similar to the philosophies of Hippocrates (the father of medicine). Hippocrates talked about specific tenants of healing.

One tenant is that the body has an innate ability to heal. To illustrate, if you cut your finger, the nurse/doctor/tech will clean the wound (or stitch it) to keep the infection away—how is it possible that the body can heal itself? Quite simply, the body can heal itself from the inside out through an inflammatory process involving white blood cells. No one made that wound heal; the doctors just facilitated the healing process. This is one of the philosophies that helps us get to the root cause of health conditions.

Integrative medicine does not replace traditional medicine; it actually enhances it to allow the body to heal.

Principle #2: Good medicine should be based on good science.

Good medicine should be inquiry-driven and be open to new paradigms. The use of natural, less invasive, interventions are used whenever possible, unless it is an acute infection. This includes the use of broader concepts or promotion of health, and the prevention of illness, as well as the treatment of disease.
integrative medicine
For instance, if we are dealing with a patient who has an infection, we have to ascertain if it’s a bacteria, a virus, a fungus, etc. Then we use the least invasive treatment option, which can be an anti-viral to build up the immune system. It wouldn’t make sense to prescribe an antibiotic if we are dealing with a virus. Furthermore, we aren’t going to use an aggressive treatment method like chemotherapy if we are dealing with a virus. Unfortunately, some physicians are taking this approach because they do not practice integrative medicine.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure. If you prevent a disease, you’ll be able to handle more acute situations more effectively.

We train our practitioners to be models of health and healing who are committed to the process of self-exploration and self-development. In integrative medicine, most practitioners practice what they preach.

From my 25 years of experience, I believe that the best practitioners have either been ill themselves, or had a family member who was ill, or they were frustrated that the patients they were treating with only traditional therapies were not getting better— so they started thinking outside of the box. We believe that when an integrative doctor starts practicing integrative medicine, they are more passionate because they’ve seen the results themselves and through their family members.

Principle #3: Integrative medicine is a team oriented approach.

health concept - cloud of related words and topics
Integrative medicine uses a team approach. We have medical doctors, osteopathic doctors, naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, and dietitians who work together. Each practitioner is uniquely trained. Some may have a different approach, but our main goal is to get to the root cause of disease using functional diagnostics. That is what makes Progressive Medical Center unique.

When you become a doctor, you have the ability to prescribe over 8,000 different medications. Now how’s it possible that any human being (unless you are a robot or a computer—which we are not) could know the mechanism and interactions of over 8,000 medications? Every year we are developing more medications, too.

In that regard, I have a very simple rule of thumb: unless you have an emergency situation, if it is a brand new medication, don’t use it. Why? Because it takes several years to see the nuances of the side effects and how it will impact the human body. If side effects are not managed properly, side effects will lead to iatrogenic disease.

In integrative medicine, we talk about these drug interactions. We talk about how it affects the body’s minerals (co-factors which are the spark plugs of life). We talk about how it effects the biochemistry of the human body (the body’s oxygen, water, carbon, and hydrogen).

  • Our body consists of over 37 trillion cells, 80-100 miles of blood vessels, the turnover of immune cells every 4-6 months, total body replacement of 6-8 years, and 3,000 enzyme systems— we truly have an amazing body that can heal itself.
  • Two-thirds of our bodies are made up of oxygen. So what do we do? We live in a hypoxic state and we end up slowly causing oxidation, and we’re not looking at therapies that really address this appropriately.

That’s why we believe that lifestyle, wellness, exercising, and nutrition can make an impact on stress. This approach treats the body the way Hippocrates truly intended.

Principle #4: Integrative medicine is here to complement traditional medicine and to make it better— with better outcomes and a healthy society that takes responsibility.

We are not here to dumb-down our society or to produce ignorant people who sit there and become victims of government control.

Our country was based on freedom—freedom that comes with a price. We have freedom to speak our minds. But what’s happening right now? We have members of society who are afraid to speak because of potential consequences. We are constantly being told what to say and what not to say.

I believe that one of the greatest physicians of all time, besides Hippocrates, was Benjamin Rush, MD. He was a progressive, forward-thinking physician for George Washington. He was one of only three doctors who signed the Declaration of Independence and helped craft the Constitution.

Why was that so great? Because Benjamin Rush, MD wrote in his memoirs that “a day will come when a group of men and women will create an undercover medical dictatorship to restrict the art of healing to one class of men and deny equal privilege to others as the bastille (French for ‘prison’) of medical science. All such laws are un-American and despotic in our society, and therefore we must include medical freedom into the Constitution, such as religious freedom.”

Why are these words important? Because we don’t have freedom anymore. It’s not in the Constitution. We have religious freedom, but we don’t have medical freedom. So we must educate our population to take care of themselves.

I am all for traditional medicine for urgent care and trauma.

chronic painHowever, 57% of office visits last year in the United States were for chronic diseases. Not acute care. Not urgent care. Well over one billion dollars on office visits was spent on chronic diseases. Furthermore, 2.5 trillion dollars was spent last year on healthcare—that is 18.7% of our country’s gross national product spent on our society.

We must take responsibility for our health. We must educate society regarding the myths and criticisms of integrative medicine.

Myths and criticisms of integrative medicine

Myth #1: Many traditional physicians and other members of society think that integrative medicine is not compatible with conventional medicine.

This is absolutely false. Most conventional treatment methods can be improved when simultaneously attending to all aspects of nutrition, emotional health, and other aspects of health assessed by the alternative treatment model.
science of integrative medicine
For instance, suppose you were going through a traditional therapy, such as chemotherapy (a traditional oncology treatment for cancer patients). If all you did was chemotherapy and you did not address your nutritional, emotional, and spiritual statuses, you’re basically destroying all of the good cells (as well as the cancer cells). In this instance, integrative medicine used in conjunction with traditional cancer treatment can help.

When you add these natural therapies (emotional, spiritual, etc), you’re allowing the body to recover quicker so the patient will heal more effectively. Using both traditional and natural therapies will get at the root cause.

Myth #2: Physicians feel that integrative medicine is not scientifically based. Integrative medicine is voodoo.

This could not be further from the truth.

When you look at what voodoo means, you’ll see descriptions such as mysticism and the fear of the unknown. Some practitioners almost promote a magical, spiritual quality to some forms of integrative, alternative medicine.

However, the vast majority of all practitioners, like myself, are simply using and recognizing science-based therapies which tap into the body’s natural healing abilities.
science behind integrative medicine
Integrative medicine is science. It is not magic. We approach this with an inquiry-driven perspective, and we are open to new paradigms— the use of natural, effective, and less invasive methods as possible. We use broader concepts to promote health and the prevention of illness, as well as the treatment of disease. We train practitioners to be the model of integrative medicine.

There’s a time to use conventional methods, and there is a time to use natural methods to facilitate the body’s innate healing responses. The key here is that integrative medicine is a philosophy that neither rejects conventional medicine nor accepts natural therapies uncritically.

The faction of medical society that says none of these natural therapies have been substantiated is just plain false. If you read peer-reviewed literature, you’ll see numerous studies on natural therapies and topics.

We need to understand there are good points and bad points for each side of the coin here. We cannot be critical of integrative medicine just because one individual says that it’s voodoo.

As an example, in 1990, the University of Calgary conducted a study on the deleterious effects of mercury. By “deleterious” we mean harmful, and slowly pertaining to health. This study talks about the effects of mercury vapor, how it gets into the body’s tissues, and how it impacts acute and chronic diseases. They presented their study to the American Dental Association (ADA), which at that particular time was heavily promoting the use of amalgams as a safe substance.

This research group was not being critical on the efficacy of amalgams when it goes into a person’s mouth. No. What they were saying is that over time, mercury in the mouth could cause chronic exposure of mercury.

The study unequivocally proved that mercury, over a period of time, is going to leech into the body. And guess what the American Medical Association said about the scientific research study? Junk science was the response!

They never did a study on the safety of mercury. They only responded from a public relations perspective. They just called it junk science.

So you see, it’s all about public perception. That’s why, from an integrative medicine perspective, our philosophy is that we neither reject conventional medicine nor we accept natural therapies uncritically. We have scientific research to back everything up.

Myth #3: If it’s too good to be true, why isn’t everyone else doing it?

This type of medicine might not appeal to everyone or may not be appropriate for every clinical condition; a wide spectrum of conditions can be treated in a variety of ways to produce the exact same results. This misconception starts because of the way (the dogma) that traditional doctors are trained.

As an example, scurvy was a disease back in the 1500s or 1600s. In the 21st century, we now know that scurvy was caused by vitamin C deficiency. Scurvy was prevalent among sailors in the British naval forces traveling across many parts of the world.

Their purpose was to seek new lands and bring back food, treasures, and ways of life to England. About 75-80% of the sailors were dying before the end of the trip. One Scottish naval surgeon hypothesized that it was due to a vitamin C deficiency (when you have a lot of vitamin C in your body, it acts as an antioxidant to prevent oxidative damage to the DNA cell).

It took 50-60 years before that became the standard of care for scurvy. How many thousands of sailors died due to the arrogance of the physicians at that time who didn’t want to think outside the box?

As another example, a physician named Mendel hypothesized about washing your hands prior to surgery. At that time in the 1800s, you could literally deliver a baby calf and in that same afternoon deliver a human baby without even washing your hands! What would end up happening is the spread of disease and germs. It took several decades for this hand washing theory to become the standard of care.

In functional integrative medicine, we believe that the standard of care will be integrative medicine in the future.

Why do I say that? Well, 20 years ago we talked about the benefits of using omega-3 fatty acids (an essential fatty acid) to block an inflammation mechanism. You can do the exact same thing with steroids, but steroids act as a double-edge sword—-they work great for stopping inflammation, but they shut down your entire immune system, which makes you susceptible to infections. Yet, when you use omega-3 fatty acids (and omega-6 and omega-9), you block the inflammatory aspect of the body.

Physicians 20 years ago tremendously criticized this because they said there was a lack of scientific evidence. Well guess what? Nowadays, some fish oil is available by prescription, called Lovaza®. Yes, you can buy the exact same natural product in a health foods store, but now they have it available in pharmaceutical-grade.

My point is that it took 20 years with something we knew was safe back then, and now we know it’s a standard of care today.

Myth #4: Integrative medicine is only used by “hippies” and “tree-hugging vegetarians.”

This is truly a myth. The truth of the matter: integrative medicine is real medicine. It’s not only for “hippies” and the “tree-hugging vegetarians.”
family integrative medicine
People from all walks of life have an interest in natural, integrative, alternative medicine. I’ve personally seen people from all spectrums of life— political, religious, lifestyle, etc—take advantage of alternative medicine. Everyone is embracing this type of medicine.

Quite frankly, not all diets work for everyone. For instance, I believe carnivorous diets are good for some and vegetarian diets are good for others. It is very individualized. What works for some may not work for others.

We have to go back to the root cause here—integrative medicine is addressing all aspects of medicine. That’s what I like about getting to the root cause with the team approach.

Myth #5: Naturopathic doctors are not real doctors.

This is not true. A naturopathic doctor has thousands of hours of training and attends a 4-year school. Naturopathic doctors are always evolving. We are always receiving training, as well.

The definition of “naturopathic medicine” is—: a distinct system of healing, a philosophy, a science, an art, and a practice, which seeks to promote health by stimulating and supporting the body’s inherent power to regain harmony and balance.

Although the terms “naturopathy” and “naturopathic” were first used at the turn of the century, the philosophical basis of many of the methods used in this field are ancient, with some dating back to well over 400 B.C. when Hippocrates became famous for his treatment of disease.

Quite frankly, naturopathic doctors have been around for thousands and thousands of years. It is accepted as a federal definition in the United States as a naturopathic physician. In fact, Hippocrates is called the Father of Medicine, and modern medical science typically ignores the self-evident laws of health laid down by him, which state that only nature can heal, providing it is given the opportunity to do so.
healthy foods
Hippocrates said, “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food. A disease is an expression of purification.”

Hippocrates also mentioned that if we give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health. As you can see, this is all about balance. You can give too much medicine, too little medicine, etc, but it is all about balance. This is what I really love about integrative medicine. We look at our history, but we also look at our present and strive for our future. The future is to constantly make our medical system better.

Closing Comments by Gez Agolli, ND, PhD, DrPH

Freedom is not free. We have to educate our society on taking responsibility. The best doctors that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime as a physician are the doctors who’ve been traditionally trained (or they’ve been ill or had a family member who was ill) and have seen what integrative medicine can do. These people are passionate about this type of medicine because they’ve seen the impact in their lives, and they want to help their patients.

Integrative medicine will be the standard of care in the future. This is an exciting time to be involved in the medical field and Progressive Medical Center plans to be at the forefront. If you’d like to learn more about how we are helping patients with their chronic health conditions, please visit our conditions treated page, and then contact one of our offices to schedule your appointment at a Progressive Medical Center near you!