What is holistic medicine?

What is holistic medicine?

Team ErbologyErbology

It’s a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, but what is holistic medicine? And why are so many people turning towards it in an effort to find happiness in a stressful and chaotic world?

November 17, 2022 7:06 pm

What is holistic medicine?

Holistic medicine is an approach to healthcare and wellbeing which takes into account the physical, emotional and even spiritual wellbeing of the patient.

It differs from clinical medicine as this tends to focus on one particular problem, or disease, at a time. For example, if a patient presents with an illness, clinical medicine would try identify and treat that specific problem. A holistic approach would try to look at the entirety of the patient’s situation and try and improve their overall wellbeing.

In the eyes of holistic medicine, healthcare isn’t something we should only roll out in response to an illness. Rather, it should be an important part of our overall lifestyle. Followers of holistic medicine believe that many health problems can be prevented by taking a proactive approach to wellness.

Hence, you should always be making an effort to take care of your health.

This can mean making sure you’re eating well, taking care of your mental health, or undergoing treatment for any specific problems that arise.


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Is holistic medicine the same as complementary, alternative or integrative medicine?

Strictly speaking, holistic medicine is different from complementary, alternative and integrative medicine. Many people use the terms interchangeably, but there is a difference.

Complementary and alternative medicines both make use of treatments which ‘have origins outside of usual Western practice’, according to the US National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health.(1)

However, as the names suggest, ‘complementary’ medicine aims to sit alongside mainstream health treatments. ‘Alternative’ medicine means to replace them entirely.

Some people refer to these two practices under the umbrella of ‘complementary and alternative healthcare and medical practices’, or CAMs.

‘Integrated’ medicine sits somewhere between complementary and mainstream medicine. It uses carefully selected parts of complementary medicine alongside ‘orthodox’ methods.

According to an article published in the British Medical Journal, the difference between integrative and complementary medicine is that ‘integrated medicine has a larger meaning and mission, its focus being on health and healing rather than disease and treatment.’(2)

You can think of complementary, alternative and integrative medicines as techniques, while holistic medicine is an overall approach. It might include elements of mainstream and non-mainstream medicine.

Why is holistic medicine popular?

This is a tricky question to answer. There are many individual motives which might draw someone towards holistic medicine.

There is limited data available at the reasons people choose to go holistic, but one survey from 1998 is quite illuminating. The researchers set out to test three hypotheses about why people turned to alternative medicine:

  1. They were dissatisfied with mainstream medicine
  2. They thought that alternative medicine would give them more control over their healthcare
  3. Alternative medicine was a good fit for their beliefs and world views.

The study found that the majority of participants chose alternative medicine because it fit in with their beliefs and world views.

Contrary to the stereotype that people who use alternative medicine are ‘hippies’ who reject science-based medical treatment, dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine was not a main reason for people to use alternative medicines. The vast majority of respondents (95.6%) used a combination of mainstream and alternative therapies.(3)

The survey also noted that alternative medicine users were likely to be more educated and consider themselves to be in generally poorer health than others.

Related reading


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"Alternative medicine users were likely to be more educated and consider themselves to be in generally poorer health than others."

The ancient tradition of holistic medicine

A holistic approach to healthcare is becoming more and more common in the Western world. However, in many other cultures it has been a mainstay of health and wellbeing for thousands of years!

For instance, Ayurveda – an ancient Indian healthcare system – has always advocated for a holistic approach including a healthy balanced diet and psychological wellbeing.

It has taken a bit longer to catch on in the West because Western medicine developed down a slightly different path, starting with Hippocrates, and later Pedanius Dioscorides and Galen. Hippocrates and Galen based their work on the theory of the four humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm), the balance of which controlled the wellbeing of the patient.

Getting anatomical

Later, the focus of Western medicine turned to anatomy. Scientists began to uncover the mysteries of our organs, circulatory systems and bones. This enabled them to track a malady to a particular part of the body, which is perhaps why Western medical treatment ended up focusing on solving diseases with specific treatments of that area of the body.(4)

Until very recently, it has not really focused on the role that psychological or emotional factors have to play in physical disease. In essence, Western medicine tries to find what is physically wrong in the body, and fix it.

Meanwhile Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese medicine are concerned with bringing the whole body back into a state of equilibrium. They do not delve so minutely into the causes of disease, but rather try to bring the body and mind back into a state of balance.(5)


western vs holistic medicine