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?

April 28, 2022 5:23 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.

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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

How a holistic approach is used in modern medicine

Nowadays, Western medicine is starting to take a leaf out of the ancients’ book and apply a more holistic approach to illness.

One of the most prolific writers on holistic medicine, James S Gordon MD, says: ’the cornerstone of holistic medicine is in its insistence that each patient be understood and treated as a unique individual made up of body, mind and spirit and that any health care must also take into account a person’s environment.’(6)

This means paying attention to aspects of the patient’s life which Western medicine has previously ignored. It also means that practitioners have to swap a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to medical treatment for a more nuanced, individual approach.

Treating people as individuals

Dr Gordon gives the example of three teenagers presenting with depression and asthma. One might respond better to joining a running group, one may continue to need medication, and one may benefit from family therapy. This requires a bit of digging on the part of the doctor to figure out which approach is best for the individual patient, based on their personality and circumstances.

This may include elements of alternative medicine if the doctor feels it is appropriate. Some common practices like acupuncture, meditation, yoga and massage fall into this category.

There are also obvious benefits to considering factors such as the environment and psychological wellbeing of the patient when choosing a treatment. For example, Dr Gordon says, it is useless to prescribe vitamins to a patient who cannot afford to eat healthily, or to children who are constantly exposed to junk food advertising.(6)


holistic living

What are the controversies around holistic medicine?

Most controversies around holistic medicine seem to stem from a misunderstanding of the term. The holistic treatment of a patient, taking into account their physical and mental wellbeing and individual circumstances, is not particularly controversial in and of itself. In fact, for most people it’s preferable to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

However, issues start to arise when holistic medicine is conflated with alternative medicine.

Many people, especially in the West, are suspicious of alternative medicine. Unlike clinically approved drugs, most traditional remedies are not scientifically proven to work.

While Traditional Chinese Medicine has taken steps to modernize, and does now perform scientific tests on many traditional remedies, many of these and their Ayurvedic equivalents are based on traditional use only. This is not sufficient evidence for Western medicine to consider them a useful treatment for disease.

However, that’s a slight misunderstanding of what many of them are intended for. Lots of Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese remedies are intended to keep you healthy, rather than cure a disease.

The intersection of scientific evidence and traditional wisdom

Some traditional medical practices have managed to prove themselves in the eyes of Western medicine. This usually happens when a body of scientific evidence demonstrates that they are clinically effective in the treatment of disease.

For example, the NHS may offer acupuncture (a Traditional Chinese practice) for the treatment of tension headaches and migraines.(7)

Other common treatments, such as a visit to the chiropractor, are considered part of complementary and alternative medicine. However the NHS states that it can help with back, neck and shoulder pain.(8)

Meanwhile, some modern practices have their roots in traditional belief systems. ‘Mindfulness’ is a popular treatment for depression and anxiety, but it is actually a Westernized version of meditation which has roots in ancient Buddhism. There is evidence to support mindfulness as a treatment for depression.(9)

All of these are fairly recent additions to the canon of Western medicine. Perhaps more traditional practices will be added in time, as the scientific evidence behind them mounts.


rose water

How can you use a holistic approach in your own life?

You don’t need a trip to the doctor to benefit from a holistic approach to your health. There are plenty of things you can do yourself to look after your overall wellbeing.

Many people refer to this as ‘self-care’.

It might mean carving some time out for yourself apart from work and family responsibilities, to help you manage stress. It could be incorporating moments of relaxation into your day, such as having a soothing bath, or a warm milky drink before bed. You might like to try out a traditional remedy to help you maintain your general health.

The key point is that it is individual to you and your specific needs, and it looks after your mind as well as your body.

The message of holistic medicine is this: don’t wait for something to go wrong! Make taking care of yourself a vital part of your lifestyle. That way, you can make the most of your health, and it’ll be reflected in the way you feel.

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