An Overview of Holistic Health

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Holistic health care has become increasingly popular. Whether turning to massage for muscle pain, popping dietary supplements to fend off colds, or meditating to tame anxiety, about 30 percent of American adults now use some form of holistic medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

There are countless reasons for this. People with chronic pain may turn to holistic medicine to reduce their reliance on opioids. Others use alternative treatments to help manage conditions that can be difficult to treat solely with medication, such as depression. And in many cases, people add holistic treatments to their daily routine in order to improve their overall well-being—to boost energy, improve sleep quality, lift their mood, and alleviate everyday stress.

Most people weave holistic health practices into mainstream, or allopathic, medical treatment. Combining conventional care with alternative care often is referred to as complementary or integrative medicine. This approach to self-care can be highly effective: Many alternative treatments are cornerstones of ages-old traditional medical systems throughout the world, such as Ayurveda (which is rooted in India) and as such have long histories of being acceptable approaches to medical care.

Types of Holistic Treatments

Alternative treatments vary greatly. Some, like chiropractic, are professionally administered therapies. Others can be learned and done independently, such as meditation and other mind-body practices.

Acupuncture

Used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is thought to support healing by stimulating the body’s flow of vital energy (also known as “chi”). This is done through the insertion of very thin needles into specific points on the body by a trained acupuncturist.

According to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, these points are located along invisible lines of energy flow called “meridians”, which connect our organs to other parts of our body.

One of the most widely studied alternative treatments available, acupuncture has been found to effectively relieve several types of pain (including low back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis-related pain). There’s also some evidence that acupuncture may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraines.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy involves inhaling the scent of essential oils extracted from specific plants, such as lavender and rosemary. It’s thought that breathing in these aromas can influence health in part by affecting certain brain chemicals.

While few clinical trials have tested the health effects of aromatherapy, according to the NCCIH, it may help to alleviate stress, relieve common health troubles like menstrual pain and insomnia, and even has been studied as a potential treatment for various side effects of cancer treatment such as nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth.

Common Scents for Aromatherapy

Those that have received the most attention from researchers include:

  • Bergamot
  • Cedarwood
  • Chamomile
  • Eucalyptus
  • Ginger
  • Lavendar
  • Lemon
  • Peppermint
  • Rosemary
  • Sandalwood
  • Vanilla

Ayurvedic Healing

As an important healing tradition in India, Ayurveda is based on a belief that the body is made up of a combination of air, water, fire, earth, and space which combine to form three doshas (vata, kapha, and pitta) that define an individual person's primary energy.

It's believed that a person's dosha defines his or her risk of individual propensity for illness and that an imbalanced dosha interrupts the natural flow of vital energy, interfering with digestion and allowing for the build-up of body waste, or ama, which further impairs energy and digestion.

The practice of Ayurveda includes diet, cleansing and detoxification (through fasting, for example), herbal medicine, yoga, meditation, exercise, and body treatments such as massage. These elements are combined into individualized treatment plans by a skilled Ayurvedic practitioner.

Chiropractic

Chiropractic care centers on manual manipulation of the spine and other parts of the body often called adjustments. Adjustments aim to correct alignment problems and, in turn, promote recovery from a range of health conditions.

Often used in the treatment of pain-related health problems (including back pain, headaches, and even fibromyalgia), chiropractic also may be helpful in controlling conditions like asthma and insomnia.

Dietary Supplements

Perhaps the most frequently used type of holistic treatment, supplements include a wide variety of products including herbs, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, probiotics, and natural substances such as fish oil. The most extensively studied supplements include fish oil (found to improve heart health) and vitamin D (shown to strengthen bones).

Because there are so many different supplements available and they aren't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it's important to check with a doctor or other health professional before adding supplements to a drug regimen, as some may interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications.

Massage Therapy

An alternative treatment practiced for thousands of years and with multiple variations, massage can have a powerful impact on physical and mental health. Studies have found that massage can help treat health problems ranging from various types of chronic pain and arthritis to tension headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, anxiety, and depression.

A Popular Alternative Therapy

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, the primary reason people get massage is to boost health and wellness. The organization reports that in July of 2017, around 50 million adults in the US. discuss massage therapy with a doctor or other health care provider, and that 59 percent of those doctors strongly recommended massage and/or referred them to a massage therapist.

Among the many types of massage used in this way are Swedish massage (which involves long strokes, kneading, and deep circular movements), deep tissue massage, and shiatsu (which focuses on applying pressure to the same points on the body targeted by acupuncture).

Mind-Body Techniques

Practices such as meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, tai chi, and guided imagery may provide a wealth of health benefits ranging from easing depression to helping to lower blood pressure by relieving stress.

As more and more research shows a strong link between stress and pain, there’s also some evidence that some mind-body techniques may benefit people with pain-causing conditions.

For instance, in 2016 a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that tai chi was more effective than physical therapy for treating knee arthritis.

Nutritional Therapies

These involve tailoring the diet to achieve specific benefits or to control chronic conditions. An example is the trend of combining fresh fruit and vegetable juices to boost health and enhance energy.

Other examples of widely practiced nutritional therapies include drinking green tea to strengthen the immune system, eliminating dairy and/or sugar to reduce acne, and following an anti-inflammatory diet to manage conditions like arthritis.

Are Holistic Treatments Safe?

Because few alternative treatments have been extensively studied, little is known about the safety of these treatments. In order to minimize the health risks of alternative treatments, it’s important to talk to your doctor before adding such treatments to your health regimen.

It’s also important to remember that natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe. For example, many herbal or nutritional supplements can trigger adverse effects, as well as interact with medications or other natural remedies.

In addition, it should be noted that using alternative treatments in place of physician-prescribed therapy may have serious consequences and significantly harm your health.

A Word From Verywell

When chosen carefully, many alternative treatments can be safe and effective additions to a treatment regimen for a specific disease or condition or simply as part of a healthy lifestyle. Before discussing alternative treatments with your doctor, make sure to do your homework by reading up on the latest research on your alternative treatment of interest (including its possible risks).

Your doctor can guide you in finding a qualified practitioner, an essential element in reaping the greatest benefit from whichever alternative treatment you choose.

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