Different Types of Medicine

Explicating the Nomenclatures of Medicines

When patients and consumers look up the different types of nonconventional medicine or healing methods out there, dozens of nomenclatures pop up from the search engine such as alternative medicine, complementary medicine, dietary supplements, herbal medicines, botanical drugs, Naturopathic medicine, functional medicine, Integrative Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, acupuncture, etc. These different terms can be very confusing not only for everyday consumers, but also even for some medical professionals who do not specialize in these fields. In this brief article, we will be going over some of the most common terms that you might run into while searching for nonconventional medical treatment and we will also compare and contrast these terms so you will understand their differences the next time you see them.

Conventional Medicine

Conventional medicine, or also known as standard medical care, has become the most prominent and mainstream type of medical care. If you have ever been to a hospital or medical clinic and have been treated by a Medical Doctor (MD), you have been in contact with conventional medicine. It involves the use of modernized lab diagnostics, synthetic drugs, and surgery to treat and cure your disease or symptoms. Conventional medicine is evidence-based and is backed by numerous scientific studies or clinical trials. However, conventional medicine tends to treat the general population rather than individuals because the treatment is often not patient-specific or based on an individualized approach.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Complementary and alternative medicine are frequently used together as medical terms; however, they have very different meanings. Alternative medicine describes medical approaches outside of conventional medicine or standard medical care such as using acupuncture or aromatherapy. On the other hand, complementary medicine involves using both conventional medicines as well as alternative medicine together to treat the disease. CAM has frequently been used alongside cancer treatments to either cope with side effects or provide comfort to help cancer patients. The national cancer institute has separated the different types of CAM into five categories which are mind-body therapies, biologically based practices, manipulative and body-based practices, biofield therapy, and whole medical systems.[5] Mind-body therapies include meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, yoga, tai chi, imagery, and creative outlets.[5] Biologically based practices include using vitamins, dietary supplements, botanicals, herbs, and special foods or diets.[5] Manipulative and body-based practices include massage therapy, chiropractic therapy, and reflexology.[5] Biofield therapy, also known as energy medicine, includes reiki and therapeutic touch therapy.[5] Last but not least, whole medical systems include Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), homeopathy, and naturopathic medicine.[5]

Functional Medicine

According to the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) and the Cleveland Clinic, functional medicine focuses on finding the root cause of a disease. According to functional medicine, a disease can have multiple factors and one factor can cause multiple diseases. One example given by IFM is that a disease such as depression can be caused by multiple factors such as antibiotic use, pre-diabetes, vitamin D deficiency, low thyroid levels, and omega-3 deficiency. Another example is that one factor such as inflammation can cause many diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and depression. Therefore, functional medicine focuses on a very individualized approach and attempts to identify root causes of an illness such as poor nutrition, stress, toxins, allergens, genetics, and microbiome. To sum it up, functional medicine focuses on the patient who has the disease rather than the disease the patient has.[4,6]  

Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine is an approach or model of healthcare which focuses on the whole person including physical, mental, and emotional health (body, mind, and spirit). It is a holistic approach to medicine that uses both conventional and nonconventional methods together to bring the patient to wellness. It is similar to complementary medicine, but the nomenclatures are used under different circumstances.[1]

Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic medicine is an approach or model of healthcare which similar to integrative medicine also focuses on healing the body, mind, and spirit; however, it stresses the utilization of natural remedies in order to promote the body to heal itself.[7] The naturopathic medicine approach to wellness focuses on education, prevention, diet, detoxification, lifestyle changes, stress levels, and health history. In addition, it frequently uses therapies such as acupuncture, massage therapy, promotion of exercises, and nutrition management.[7] 

Botanical Drug Versus Herbal Medicine

The two nomenclatures, botanical drug, and herbal medicine, are often confused to mean the same thing; however, they are quite different. The FDA website strictly mentions that botanical drugs are intended to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent diseases, which puts them in the category of drugs either over-the-counter (OTC) drugs or prescription drugs.[2] The difference between botanical drugs and synthetic drug is that botanical drugs consist of vegetable materials such as plant materials, algae, macroscopic fungi, or a combination versus synthetic drugs which are made from artificial chemicals rather than natural substances.[2] On the other hand, herbal medicines have a plant or plant part(s) as ingredients but are considered to be dietary supplements, which have labeling restrictions and cannot claim to prevent or treat diseases.[3]

Lastly, this article is not meant to treat, diagnose, or prevent any disease; it is for informational purposes only so make sure to consult with your physician and pharmacist before starting any new medications, medical food, or supplements.


[1] NCCIH staff. “Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What's In a Name?” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July 2018
[2] Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, FDA staff. “What Is a Botanical Drug?” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, https://www.fda.gov/about-fda/center-drug-evaluation-and-research-cder/what-botanical-drug
[3] MedlinePlus staff. “Herbal Medicine.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 10 Feb. 2021, https://medlineplus.gov/herbalmedicine.html
[4] Cleveland Clinic staff. “Why Choose the Center for Functional Medicine.” Cleveland Clinic.
[5] NCI staff. “Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).” National Cancer Institute, 24 Nov. 2020, https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam
[6] IFM staff. “What Is Functional Medicine?: IFM.” The Institute for Functional Medicine, 16 Apr. 2018.
[7] WebMD staff. “Naturopathic Medicine: What It Is, Benefits, Risks.” WebMD.

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