How Are Herbalism and Functional Medicine Different?

Variety of colorful supplements in large white spoons on marble counter

Many of the clients I work with have been treated with functional medicine in the past. It should be no surprise that one question I get is about how herbalism is different. Some people think that because herbalism and functional medicine both use natural substances that they are essentially the same. Although functional medicine providers might use herbs from time to time, and herbalists may recommend some supplements, the training and approaches are very different.

First, let’s talk about how herbalism and functional medicine are similar.

We both address issues from the perspective of going deeper than the symptoms. For instance, if someone is depressed, why is that happening? The medical approach would be antidepressant medication. If we can identify a state in the body that is causing or contributing to depression, a person may rebalance and heal without having to rely on suppressing the symptoms with medication.

To get to a deeper level, both herbalists and functional medicine practitioners spend significant time with clients getting to know their life and health history, and lifestyle. When we’re not just suppressing obvious symptoms we need more context... and more than six minutes!

Here are some of the main differences:

  1. Our training is completely different training - Most functional medicine providers were first trained to look for and treat/manage symptoms. This tends to carry forward into their practice of functional medicine. From the start, herbalism is more holistic in its approach. We look at relationships between systems in the body in a different way. I feel that our best work is done with people who have chronic conditions or haven’t been able to get a diagnosis from medicine.

  2. Our diagnostic criteria is completely different. Because functional medicine was developed by medical doctors, their model is still very much a symptom-oriented approach, even though they look at symptoms at a different level than doctors. The Western Herbalism model that I use looks for tension, laxity, heat, cold, dryness, dampness, gastrointestinal dysfunction, and immune dysfunction. Healing these issues can lead to improvement in energy, digestion, cognitive function, systemic inflammation, and more.

  3. How we determine our recommendations. Functional medicine providers rely heavily on lab tests. Herbalists largely rely on observations and client feedback. We look for nuances of what a client is experiencing and feeling. An herb that is soothing and healing to one person could be aggravating to another, depending on their body. Matching the right herb with a particular person can be a little bit of an art form.

  4. Supplements and herbs aren’t the same thing. Functional medicine uses supplements but still in a medicinal-type way. Functional medicine digs deeper than conventional medicine but generally still needs a lab result or “finding” of some type to apply their supplements. Many times, herbs can be applied in a broader, foundational way to take out some of the “guesswork.” We identify an herb that matches a person and their condition and let the herb do its work.

  5. Herbalism usually costs less. Without expensive lab tests, herbalism is usually much more affordable than functional medicine. Visits and the herbs themselves are also usually less expensive.

  6. Herbalism digs a little deeper. Functional medicine is marketed as addressing the “root causes” of poor health. While they do go a level deeper than symptoms, they often still call things “causes” that herbalism would label as symptoms. For instance, in functional medicine, inflammation may be considered a cause. In herbalism, we ask: what is causing the inflammation? Using our criteria, it could be dryness, laxity, heat, or poor GI function. Or, more likely, some combination of imbalances.

What does this all mean with regard to helping people become healthier, or for those with chronic illness?

Herbalism shines when helping people with poor health that has eluded a diagnosis. The herbal intake is a very different experience than conventional or functional medicine. Because of our unique diagnostic process, we can effectively work on problems like brain fog, feeling crummy, feeling sluggish, and many simple aggravations without expensive lab tests looking for a “root cause.” We can let the herbs modulate, stimulate, and remove obstacles to healing without expensive lab tests.

I have had great success working with people who have hit a wall with functional medicine. Most of the conditions in the body that I initially address with herbs aren’t even recognized by functional medicine, let alone addressed. And yet, I have seen some very good improvements starting with these foundational issues.

Click here for more information about how Evergreen makes Herbal Therapy affordable.

Larry Leach, Herbalist, Evergreen Health Clinics

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