Healing the Whole: Understanding the role of holistic medicine for better health

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Young hiker walking down a pathway in the forest covered with leaves in bright autumn colours.

Imagine you are out walking one sunny day and notice a pudgy toddler wobbling toward the edge of a rocky cliff. What do you do? Leap forward and scoop up the kid? Or wait until he tumbles over the edge and treat whatever injury results?

Unless you are a horrible person, you’d likely choose option number one. It makes much more sense to prevent an injury than to repair one, right? Would you do the same thing for your own body? Your health is much more than just fixing your body when it breaks.

A preventative approach to healing is at the root of holistic medicine. A holistic philosophy sees illness and injury in context, rather than just treating the resulting symptom. A migraine headache, for instance, can be treated with medicine to immediately reduce the pain, but in a holistic philosophy it should also be treated by changes in your emotional health, daily habits, relationships and even the way you sit at work.

Principles of Holistic Health Include the Following:

Holistic care uses many forms of healing, from conventional medication to alternative therapies such as aromatherapy and massage. If a person with anxiety approached the challenge with a holistic philosophy, they would likely examine all potential factors that contribute to the problem … health concerns, diet, sleep habits, stress management, personal challenges and even spiritual practices. Treatment would therefore include not just drugs, but introspection and lifestyle modifications.

Traditional Western medicine tends to divide health conditions into small components such as symptoms, genes and germs. Other contributing factors take backseat to how the condition is being expressed. Often the whole person gets boiled down to a medical history and a set of symptoms. Under this scenario changes for better health are (unsurprisingly) difficult to make and maintain. Holistic medicine, on the other hand, is an investment in long-term health. It emphasizes education, prevention and whole-body treatment as opposed to automatically defaulting to drugs and surgery.

A holistic approach offers many benefits… but it isn’t a magic cure for perfect health. For many people it can be daunting to take responsibility for their own health. The burden of responsibility for an unhealthy lifestyle can be difficult to accept – both physically and emotionally. But a holistic view also assumes that an individual has the power to cope, rehabilitate, adapt and recover, which is deeply empowering.

Some of the most well-known alternative treatments used in holistic medicine are becoming more and more popular and well understood. Fortunately for everyone, there are more medical professional willing to practice both holistic philosophies when treating patients. When the two combine, the strengths of both approaches can be leveraged for our good. And access to resources for alternative treatments have become more easily available to the individual.

Acupuncture

Used to alleviate pain, nausea, fatigue and muscle tension. Acupuncture involves inserting hair-thin needles into specific points on the skin and gently moving them. It stimulates the nervous system to release natural painkillers and immune system cells.

Aromatherapy

Essential oils – the highly concentrated extracts of flowers, leaves, stems, and roots – are massaged onto the skin or diffused in the air for breathing. Aromatherapy has a wide range of benefits from pain and stress management to better sleep.

Chiropractic

Involves hands-on manipulation (or adjustment) to treat problems with the muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissue, focusing on the spine.

Herbal medicine

Types of dietary supplement. Sold as tablets, capsules, powders, teas, extracts, and fresh or dried plants. People use herbal medicines to try to maintain or improve their health.

Massage

Massage is a hands-on method of manipulating the soft tissues of the body using the hands, fingertips, and fists. It can be light, concentrating on the skin, or deep, focusing on the underlying layers of muscle tissue.

Meditation

A mental focusing practice that suspends the normal stream of thought. Practicing meditation regularly is believed to calm the mind, increase alertness, and bring a person into a state of physical and psychological balance.

Therapeutic touch

Practitioners place their hands on or near their patient’s body with the intention to help or heal. The focus is on balancing the energies of the total person and stimulating the body’s natural healing ability.

Yoga

a Hindu spiritual and physical discipline that includes breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures. Yoga is widely practiced for health and relaxation.

While scientific research on most alternative therapies is relatively new, early results show that some therapies can help ease physical and emotional symptoms and improve long-term well-being. When combined with conventional medicine, holistic therapies may offer a more integrated approach to healing. However you approach your health, a healthy lifestyle is the greatest defense against disease and your healthy choices will lead to a longer and stronger life.

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