Overview of Holistic Health

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Holistic medicine is an approach to health care that involves the whole person, meaning the mind and spirit are considered along with the body in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of illness. A key guiding principle of holistic health care is that physical, mental, and emotional well-being each play essential roles in overall health. When one of these aspects of the self is out of balance, the entire body is affected.

In addition to emphasizing the whole self, holistic medicine focuses on prevention as a key goal of care. The American Holistic Health Association (AHHA) regards "optimal health [as] much more than the absence of sickness. It is the conscious pursuit of the highest qualities of the physical, environmental, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social aspects of the human experience."

To that end, other important tenets of holistic care include searching for the underlying cause of disease as a key to prevention rather than simply treating symptoms, and encouraging patients to tap into their own power to bring about self-healing.

Holistic Treatments

Holistic medicine is regarded as the basic philosophy that guides alternative and complementary health practices, such as acupuncture and Ayurvedic healing, which fall outside the purview of conventional (allopathic) medicine.

There are countless such medical modalities, some of which have been shown to be safe and effective in studies, prompting many conventional doctors to accept and even recommend them in addition to mainstream treatment. The term typically used to describe such an overlap in allopathic and alternative healthcare is integrative medicine.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), groups non-mainstream medical practices into five categories:

  • Alternative Medical Systems: Many of these are comprehensive healing practices developed thousands of years ago outside of Western medicine. Examples include traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda (from India). Homeopathy and naturopathic medicine fall into this category as well.
  • Mind-Body Interventions: These range from yoga and meditation to prayer and cancer support groups. They aim to boost the mind's ability to enhance physical health.
  • Biologically-Based Therapies: Aromatherapy, herbal medicine, and dietary supplements—options that stem from plants and other biological materials—fall into this category.
  • Manipulative and Body-Based Methods: These practices focus on the physical body and include massage therapy and chiropractic.
  • Energy Therapies: The theory behind these practices is that energy fields that exist within and around a person's body can be manipulated in order to improve health and well-being. Examples include Reiki and qi gong.

Because only a handful of the many therapies and other practices typically employed by holistic practitioners have the backing of rigorous scientific studies, if you would like to work with a holistic doctor or take a more holistic approach to self-care, it may be advisable to check with your regular doctor first.

In addition to any of these specific treatments, a holistic doctor also may prescribe dietary changes, exercise, psychotherapy, or other forms of counseling as part of the whole-self approach to healing and prevention.

It should be noted that the AHHA emphasizes that everyone, particularly those who are dealing with a serious illness, should have at least one licensed, physician-level professional — such as a medical doctor, doctor of osteopathy, or naturopathic physician — on their healthcare team, as well as support from other medical professionals (nurses, midwives, psychologists, physical therapists, etc.)

A Word From Verywell

Holistic medicine seeks to expand the focus of health care beyond the boundaries of assessing and treating discreet physical symptoms to include an equal emphasis on how mental and spiritual health factors into overall wellness. This body-mind-spirit approach has much to offer, particularly for both doctors and patients who regard preventing illness and maintaining overall wellness as important as dealing with the disease when it arises.

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