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Holistic health
by Edward V. Brown

A discussion of the history and meaning of the holistic approach to healing, and its integration into traditional medicine.


Holistic health is a concept that is entering into greater common usage and occasionally misuse. Many feel that health care measures are holistic if they are preventive in nature. Others would argue that holistic refers to ‘natural’ remedies. And a few would even equate anything unorthodox or not within the allopathic medical repertoire as being holistic. It becomes apparent that the meaning of holistic health needs greater clarification.

While the application of the word holistic is comparatively recent, the concepts underlying holistic health go back at least 2,500 years. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, stressed ‘vis medicatrix naturae’ or the healing power of nature. His approach was to utilize therapy to facilitate the self healing efforts of the body. The opposing school of thought felt that the physician should actively intervene to conquer disease, much as a mechanic would fix a broken machine. This philosophical debate continued over the centuries, with neither side predominating until the scientific revolution of the 19th century.

The discovery of effective antimicrobial agents by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch accomplished remarkable recoveries not previously possible. However, even during Pasteur’s time there were scientists who cautioned that the germ theory should be put in its proper context. Claude Bernard, a noted physiologist of the time stated, "Illnesses hover constantly about us, their seeds blown by the wind, but they do not set in the terrain unless the terrain is ready to receive them." Pasteur and Bernard debated this point over the years, and it is revealing to note that on his deathbed Pasteur is reported to have said, "Bernard is right. The germ is nothing; the terrain all." While the holistic point of view acknowledges the importance of germs and disease, the primary focus is placed upon the resistance of the host.

Holistic health stresses that each person is a unique individual and exists on many levels of being. Traditionally these areas have been subdivided, with the physician treating the body, the mind assigned to the psychologist or psychiatrist, and the spirit belonging within the sphere of the clergy. Modern medicine has continued the separation even further, with one doctor treating your gastrointestinal tract, another treating your kidneys, a third treating your heart, and so on. While this degree of specialization has certain advantages in the treatment of disease, it is hardly conducive for treatment of the whole person. It is apparent that while modern medicine is adept at producing disease specialists, it has shown little interest in the training of health specialists.

The holistic health perspective acknowledges that these divisions are artificial and frequently counterproductive to the enhancement of optimum health. In holistic health, no standard or prescribed treatment can be appropriate for all individuals or even all individuals with the same ‘disease’. The treatment must be individualized for each person, and the person must be actively involved in the construction and implementation of a program unique for their special needs. If the individual merely wants to be the passive recipient of a ‘cure’ and is not willing to accept responsibility for their health, they would probably be better served to stay within the traditional sick care system.

Perhaps the most important characteristic that would allow you to discriminate between holistic therapy versus mechanistic disease oriented therapy is the means by which it seeks to obtain changes in your health. Holistic health care endeavors to work with and stimulate the natural restorative health processes inherent in the body. If the therapy circumvents these healing processes to combat the disease directly, then it is a mechanistic therapy. This is not to say that, upon due consideration, individuals should not choose to use orthodox medical treatment as part of their health restorative program. If the disease is far progressed, this may be advantageous. However, they will use the orthodox medical therapy as just one part of their total health program, rather than with the attitude, "Here is my body, fix it."

Many diverse therapies might be involved in a health restoration program, such as diet modification, vitamin supplementation, herbal remedies, exercise therapies (aerobics, tai chi, yoga), chiropractic or osteopathic manipulations, massage, acupuncture, colonic irrigations, meditation, prayer, psychological counselling, music therapy, color therapy, Bach flower remedies, homeopathic medicines, radionic treatment, etc. The list will be as varied and individual as the person seeking health renewal. The health care field is so large and diverse, it is very unlikely that any one individual will be expert in all areas. Rather, the holistic health specialist should be thought of more as a resource person who can offer suggestions for health enhancement and possesses the technical expertise to monitor the effectiveness of the program that has been jointly agreed upon.

While the body-mind-soul concept has its limitations, it can be worthwhile in guiding a self-appraisal of health. For example, individuals might ask themselves, "In what areas might I strengthen the body’s ability to achieve robust physical health?" or "Are my emotional relationships allowing me to grow into optimal health?" or "Are my daily activities providing a meaningful outlet for the inner spiritual self?" and so on. The individual in consultation with the holistic health adviser should attempt to identify as many areas as possible where positive changes toward health can be made. Optimizing function simultaneously on multiple and diverse levels of being offers the greatest chance for recovery from disease and the maintenance of vibrant health.


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005