What is Holistic Medicine?
What is Holistic Medicine?
Holistic medicine is a term that describes a way of looking at healing. Doctors and other health professionals who practice holistically see you as a person, not just a collection of symptoms. This approach underlies a gentle, effective, and humane way of treating sickness and promoting wellness.
Indeed, holistic is occasionally spelled as “wholistic”, which points right to the heart of the matter. Holistic medicine is all about healing the whole you, and giving your body the support it needs to thrive. A holistic path to wellness involves exploring and assessing all the areas of your life where you might be experiencing trouble or imbalance. You and your doctor then work together to address that trouble.
Holistic medicine is not a specific type of medicine, nor practiced by a specific type of health professional. It is a philosophy and outlook—one that sees illness or disease is almost always the result of multiple factors, and emphasizes the importance of healing root causes rather than just making your symptoms go away. A holistic health professional understands that physical, emotional, mental, social, environmental and spiritual wellness all matter, and seeks to work with you to promote healing on all of those levels.
A key tenet of any sort of holistic healing is the relationship between you and your doctor (or other health professional). The goal is to create a true, working partnership where both sides can communicate openly and you feel heard and understood. Ideally, your doctor isn’t dictating to you, but collaborating with you—a companion on your wellness journey.
It is in that spirit that when defining the principles of holistic medicine, the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) states that “unconditional love is life’s most powerful medicine. Physicians strive to adopt an attitude of unconditional love for patients, themselves, and other practitioners.”
Any health issue can be treated holistically, but the difference between a holistic doctor and a more conventional doctor is clearer for some conditions than others. For example, there is no specifically holistic way to splint a broken arm, but a holistic doctor would probably take a different approach to a gut disorder than a conventional physician would. Many holistic healers really shine when working with chronic or complex health conditions, as they are well-equipped to deal with the many factors that typically cause such conditions.
Holistic physicians prefer to use treatments that work with your body, and support your innate healing ability. A holistic healing plan typically involves making changes in diet and lifestyle, as well as nutritional supplements. Mind-body practices, medication, surgery and referral to additional professionals, like a therapist, nutritionist or acupuncturist, are also suggested as needed.
Who practices holistic medicine?
Holistic medicine is most commonly used to describe the way some doctors practice. A holistic physician may be an MD, DO or a naturopathic doctor (ND). All NDs have a holistic perspective.
More broadly, any type of health professional can work holistically. Chiropractors, traditional Chinese medicine doctors, mind-body medicine practitioners, dentists, nutritionists, nurse practitioners, herbalists and bodyworkers are among those who may approach their craft with a holistic eye. Some psychotherapists and psychiatrists also do so.
Integrative medicine and functional medicine are other words commonly used to describe a holistic healing philosophy. You can expect doctors that practice integrative or functional medicine to offer a holistic viewpoint.
How does holistic medicine work?
The holistic approach to medicine and health is based on the philosophy of healing the whole person. For example, if you saw a holistic doctor because you were having trouble sleeping, they wouldn’t just give you sleeping pills. Instead, they would work with you to explore your stress levels, whether you were eating any foods that could be keeping you up at night, how much time you typically spend on your phone before bed, and anything else that could be relevant. In other words, a holistic doctor wants to get to know you, in order to better help you.
Holistic physicians and other holistic health professionals may offer their patients any treatment they are qualified to perform or prescribe, including the same treatments that non-holistic doctors also use. Most holistic doctors do prefer to emphasize nutrition and lifestyle changes, and turn to medication and surgery only when really necessary. However, their overall approach is based more on principles than techniques. Key principles of holistic medicine include:
You are more than just your body. Holistic doctors see their patients as more than just a collection of body parts. They believe in the importance of physical, mental, emotional, social, environmental and spiritual wellness, and work with you to achieve healing in all of those areas.
Your body is more than the sum of its parts. Doctors have been traditionally trained to see the body as a collection of separate organs and systems. However, all those pieces are connected and working together—and consequently always affect each other. Understanding this is critical to healing, because an imbalance in one part of your body can actually result in symptoms that show up in another part.
Love is the ultimate healer. Medicine and healing practices can help you recover from an illness. However, love, kindness, humor and compassion are the foundations of both wellness and a happy life. Holistic physicians believe in the importance of doing their best to offer you unconditional love in addition to their more tangible care.
Everything is a learning experience. Wellness, sickness, pain and even death are all opportunities for both you and your doctor to learn about life. Seeing them as such can also be inherently healing.
Working with your body, not against it. Your body wants to be well, and has an innate ability to heal. Treatment should focus on taking away anything that is interfering with your healing ability—for example, an unhealthy diet—and giving your body the support it needs to get better.
Emphasizing disease prevention. Practitioners of holistic medicine understand that preventing illness is preferable to treating it. In other words, a holistic doctor wants to make sure you don’t get sick in the first place. Working with a holistic physician while you are well can help keep you that way.
Treating underlying causes. Many common medical treatments only suppress the symptoms of disease. This can help you feel better, but does nothing to cure, reverse or even affect whatever is causing your symptoms. Holistic doctors will work with you to relieve your symptoms, but their focus is on helping you heal on a deeper level by addressing the root causes of your sickness The AIHM states, “Holistic physicians expend as much effort in establishing what kind of patient has a disease as they do in establishing what kind of disease a patient has.”
Illness equals imbalance. From a holistic perspective, if you have a chronic health condition, it probably doesn’t have just one cause, like bad genes or bad luck. Holistic physicians tend to see disease as a manifestation of a broader imbalance in your wellness, likely caused by several factors coming together. These could include what you eat, stress, emotional pain, exposure to environmental hazards, your family situation, your genetic makeup, and anything else that may be affecting how you feel. Bringing you back into balance means addressing all of these factors, in one way or another.
The power of the doctor-patient relationship. Developing a strong relationship with your doctor is one of the most important parts of healing. Holistic physicians strive to build good relationships with all their patients. A typical first appointment with a holistic doctor lasts upwards of 90 minutes, in part so the doctor has time to get to know you.
The AIHM also notes that holistic physicians view optimal health as more than just being free from sickness. True wellness is about being in the flow—touching your highest self and connecting fully with the world around you.
Science and holistic medicine
Holistic healers practice evidence-based medicine and health care in accordance with their professional standards. In other other words, a holistic doctor uses treatments that have been supported by science. However, that doctor is likely to draw from a wider range of healing techniques, and approach treatment from a different perspective than other doctors do.
In addition, holistic health professionals often tend to value case reports and proven traditional healing techniques as well as those supported by randomized-controlled studies. The former are often more appropriate ways of assessing more complex, individualized treatments—for example, taking a custom blend of herbs that changes as your symptoms change. The later works well when studying less variable, more standardized interventions like medication. Recognizing this, holistic healers consider all forms of evidence when evaluating what works.
What are the benefits of holistic medicine?
You can see a holistic physician for anything you would see any other doctor for. Likewise, other holistic health care professionals can help you with any condition that falls within their scope of practice. However, certain aspects of holistic healing make it especially appealing.
For example, holistic doctors are particularly good at treating complex, chronic or otherwise difficult health conditions. Because such conditions are almost always the result of a combination of root causes, the holistic emphasis on looking for those causes in all areas of your life is really effective. A holistic doctor may be able to see that there is an emotional component to your illness, or notice how your gut health is affecting your brain health and creating symptoms of depression. If you’re struggling with a health problem you just can’t shake, seeing a holistic doctor could help.
In addition, holistic approaches tend to be more gentle on your body. A key goal of any holistic treatment plan is to nurture your body—usually through eating the right foods, taking supplements, mind-body practices like meditation, and exercise. This supports your natural healing ability, and can often be enough to reduce your symptoms or even reverse the effects of your illness.
If you’re already feeling good, meeting once or twice a year with a holistic physician can help keep you well. The holistic emphasis on preventative medicine means your doctor should be good at spotting potential trouble well before it becomes a problem, and can also support you in sustaining or even boosting your overall wellness.
Finally, many people like working with a doctor who is willing to explore healing on emotional, social and spiritual levels. That can be essential to getting you well. It can also just feel good to be seen as a whole person.
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Holistic Medicine: How to Define It
Davis Katz, MD
Principles of Holistic Medicine
Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine