According to the concept of holistic medicine, health and wholeness imply the integration of the physical, mental, and spiritual levels of being. From this perspective, humans are more than a machine that can be serviced like a computer or car. Spiritual needs, emotional concerns, social interactions and relationships cognitive functioning, and general energy level are as important as physical health in determining our overall well being. We are meant to function as a totally integrated being, and any medical system of analysis or diagnosis that effectively treats us must also be complete. As we search for ways to achieve health and prevent illness, holistic, complementary and alternative medicine and preventive medical systems offer many tools and ideas in this endeavor.
Before delving into the various therapies utilized in holistic medicine, it is first necessary to redefine the concept of health. From a holistic perspective, health is not merely the absence of disease. Being healthy implies that an individual is capable of positively adapting to changes in their inner and outer environments. Health is not a static phenomenon but a dynamic process reflecting a positive physical and mental adjustment to varying stressful circumstances. These stresses can assume many different forms: emotional upheaval, climatic events, microbial infestation, or enervating habits of one's life style. Being healthy does not mean a person never feels mental or physical pain, but that he is able to put them in perspective, can learn from the experience and continue to grow. He is free to experience the full gamut of emotions but does not become enslaved by them.
In accordance with this definition of health, symptoms represent the organism's attempt to re-establish homeostasis and well-being and are thus informative and protective. Healthy people view their symptomatology positively, as a tool and as feedback that something is amiss internally. Many physical symptoms can be understood to be the body's attempt to eliminate waste or toxins, as exemplified by boils, eczema, or mucous membrane discharges. Mental and emotional symptoms can be viewed as the psyche's attempt to bring emotional repressions to the surface. A person practicing holistic medicine tries to live simply, with awareness, and is open to exploring the underlying causes of his illness.
Cause of Disease
When a person achieves a relative balance of body, mind, and spirit, he is living holistically and harmoniously. Maintaining harmony also means that he is constantly in the process of preventing illness. This harmony is disturbed when a person's inner state is characterized by over-emotionalism, aimlessness, negative thought patterns, or lack of spiritual direction. When these conditions are reinforced by disturbing habits, such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise, or stimulant abuse, the result is a weakened organism, which is susceptible to disease. Thus, from this viewpoint, the microbial world is merely the exciting cause of disease that preys on a devitalized spirit, mind, body, and immune system, and the actual cause of disease is considered to originate within man's mental and emotional spheres. Disease can thus be defined as the inability to adapt properly to the ever-changing stresses and vicissitudes of life, so that dissipating and negative habits predominate. The ailing person may resent being ill, would like to simply eliminate the symptoms without ever understanding the underlying causes, and in general retains a morbid fear of sickness.
It is obvious that the system of holistic medicine involves a reorientation of the way in which Western medicine is accustomed to viewing health and disease and the cause and prevention of disease. The philosophy of Western man is generally materialistic; his reality is largely governed by physical laws. Western medicine perceives the cause of disease similarly. It limits itself to exploring only those factors which can be understood and categorized by physical laws.
Subjective or intuitive knowledge cannot be readily measured and, except for the study of a few diseases considered to be psychosomatic, is largely disregarded. To a large extent, then, Western man has cut himself off from inner knowledge or guidance which tells him that he is part of a greater whole. Without this knowledge, man feels alienated from his environment, and rather than flowing with nature, he tries to control it. A "me against them" intellect is the result of this loss of attunement with nature. He thus has the tendency to blame external phenomena such as the weather, bacteria, or stress for his ills. As a result, prevention of disease has generally been oriented around control and eradication of these presumed causal factors.
Besides infectious agents (bacteria and viruses), Western medicine acknowledges several other categories of disease causation. These include: (1) genetics or inherited problems; (2) deficiency disorders, such as nutritional or endocrine imbalances; (3) neoplastic or tumor growths; (4) inflammatory processes characterized by swelling and heat; (5) allergies; (6) autoimmune disorders; (7) degenerative problems; (8) accidents; (9) emotional disorders; and (10) a large group of idiopathic, unknown causes.
Many of the above categories actually describe pathological or physiological manifestations rather than precipitating causes of disease. Disorders of the "material" body are classified after the disease process has already effected specific tissue damage, because then the disorder is easily measured and categorized. The process that has occurred within the person himself, the underlying predisposition that allowed the disease to progress in the first place, is usually ignored. Questions that are overlooked include: What allows the bacteria, virus, or cancer cell to grow? What underlying factor is responsible for the system becoming so overly sensitized that allergies develop?
Concepts of Holistic Medicine
The therapies, philosophies, and medical systems incorporated into the field of holistic medicine are based on the actual promotion of health. They assert that disease originates within the individual. In accordance with this idea, in order for a medical system to properly be called holistic, there are six major principles which should be the basis of that system. These principles are by no means all inclusive. They are, however, based upon clinical experience as well as philosophic consideration.
Mind-Body-Spirit Integration: A model of holistic medicine should recognize that the human being is multidimensional, not simply a physical entity that somehow develops a mind and intelligence as offshoots of the brain's physiochemistry. In orthodox Western medicine the split between the mind and body is reflected in the high degree of physician specialization. While specialists do great service because of their highly focused knowledge, they are limited in function and scope by seeing only a particular organ system and not the whole person. A typical example of this situation can be found in the headache patient who first goes to his internist. After his laboratory tests have been found to be negative, he is sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation. The psychiatrist probes into the patient's past, seeking something that may have predisposed him to headaches, but even after gaining some useful insights, the headaches remain. He is then referred to another specialist for further evaluation, but again the problem persists. What is missing is a unified approach that looks at the headache from many different levels simultaneously
Holistic medicine understands that man's total being includes the body, the breath (or energy), the conscious mind, the many levels of the unconscious and superconscious, and the spirit or Self. Because disease can occur on various levels, the holistic doctor must have approaches available that corresponds to all of them. For example, if a person's breathing is characterized by jerks, pauses, or shallowness, and if in association with this he suffers nervousness, insomnia, and headaches, then it makes no sense to prescribe aspirin or valium. A holistic doctor sees the abnormality to be a breathing problem and teaches breathing exercises to eliminate irregularities, affecting a balance in the autonomic nervous system. The suffering patient thus learns to minimize his anxiety or headaches, as well as to recognize advance signals of distress and to prevent the onset of symptoms.
Self-Responsibility: As long as a patient blames the outside world for his ills, he remains dependent and avoids assuming responsibility for the state of his own health. He considers the weather, other people, or tiny microbes to be the cause of disease and feels that treatment should be directed at eliminating the external conditions or organisms. Holistic medical systems acknowledge that the environment is closely interconnected with human beings and may well contribute to ailments. Yet, as we have seen, they go further in maintaining that it is the inner state of the body, breath, mind, and habits that determine whether one is susceptible to illness. If he is balanced and living in harmony with respect to nutrition, breathing habits, and emotions, then external factors will have less affect on his general health. His immune system will respond appropriately to infectious agents and the nervous system will remain balanced.
What this means is that a holistic practitioner should help guide the individual to realize that he is responsible for his own well-being. Having recognized potentially harmful inner problems, the holistic doctor teaches the patient practical ways to change these habits and to replace them with positive, health-oriented ones.
Growth Orientation: An offshoot of self-responsibility is the area of the patient's personal growth. A holistic medical group should provide him with the stimulus and practical techniques for self-growth and enhanced knowledge. In order to guide the patient to new insights, the doctor or health professional should be a teacher as well as a healer. Once the patient becomes responsible for his own health care, he learns to expand his inner awareness of the obstacles that inhibit health. After observing for some time his own habits, modes of thoughts, emotional reactions, and how they affect his body and mind, he slowly gains greater control over them. Less energy is wasted in negative thinking which manifests as poor habits, abnormal breathing patterns, and overall body tension. As a consequence, more energy is conserved and is available to be channeled into creativity. Then, as his inner potential is gradually realized, growth and expansion of consciousness also occur.
Nonsuppression: In a holistic system the techniques for establishing physical and mental homeostasis, as well as the medicinal agents used, should not suppress symptoms. This can best be understood by using an analogy to psychotherapy. Thoughts and feelings that are repressed or suppressed are forced into deeper levels of the unconscious mind. Here they remain, causing the person either to act in unconscious ways, developing unconscious habits, or to erupt with uncontrolled and unpredictable force. In the psychotherapeutic process, the mental health practitioner helps the person uncover and re-evaluate this unconscious material and then to diffuse and channel the built-up emotions. (See the chapter on psychotherapy.)
Physical symptoms, similar to emotional ones, should not be forced deeper into the organism. It is generally not advisable to routinely suppress skin eruptions with topical creams, inhibit fever with antipyretics, or alleviate headaches with aspirin. All of these symptoms are reflections of inner imbalances, and even if the symptoms are ameliorated by drugs, the underlying process that caused the symptoms to occur may still persist.
The therapeutic techniques of the holistic doctor are ones that lead to increased self-awareness and also strengthen the body's defenses. In the example of fever, the holistic doctor sees it as a positive signal that the body is actively at work defending itself. He may use natural herbs or homeopathic remedies which gently assist the body in the healing process and at the same time minimize the concurrent suffering. If drug or surgical intervention seems appropriate, the holistic practitioner will intelligently use these modalities. But after the crisis situation has ended, he commits himself to helping the patient quickly recover, and then he attempts to resolve the underlying imbalances which caused the illness. In essence, the holistic doctor respects the body's innate ability to cure itself and uses medicines which enhance that natural process.
Nontoxicity: Because there are so many hospitalizations per year in America due to the side effects of drugs, the question of medicinal toxicity becomes quite relevant. The holistic doctor should study various systems of medicine in order to determine the safest and most effective substances possible. He has at his disposal different remedies, herbs, and drugs, and he matches them carefully with individual problems and needs.
The idea of nontoxicity is the natural extension of nonsuppression. The medicinal substances used by the holistic practitioner should not create more problems than the ailing person is already experiencing, and the medicine or the remedy should either help cure or palliate the symptoms.
Decreased Cost: Hospital costs and doctors' fees have been rising rapidly for many years and no way has been found to stem the inflation. The most feasible alternative is to remain healthy. A holistic system should teach people how to sleep, eat, breathe, and direct their emotions toward creativity. The initial financial output in learning these things may be slightly more than the quick interview and physical examination that is often given. In the long run, however, the holistic system should save money for the patient and the community because one learns how to prevent illness before serious complications set in.
While the words holistic medicine have become popular in recent years, they should not be taken lightly. A doctor who calls himself holistic has a tremendous responsibility to both his patients and to society. Education, discipline, ingenuity, and a desire to integrate ideas from many areas are all essential ingredients for the holistic practitioner. The holistic patient has an equally important role in a holistic medical care system. He must be highly motivated, sincere, and willing to accept responsibility for his total health. Both physician and patient should look at all life circumstances as potentially growth promoting. Even illness can provide an opportunity for the patient to learn about himself. He learns to analyze the attitudes, fears, and habits that either precipitated or accompany his distress. The more knowledge and understanding he gains, the more aware he becomes. Slowly, inner awareness increases and as a result the doctor, the patient, and society become more whole.