What is holistic medicine?
What is the benefit of seeing a holistic medical provider? What makes them different from conventional doctors?
There are many buzzwords to be found when searching for different medical providers. “Holistic,” “natural,” “alternative” and “Functional Medicine” all pop up here and there. The term, alternative, typically denotes someone who is not a medical doctor. Alternative, then, places itself in comparison to “conventional” medicine. Holistic simply means looking at the whole person and treating the whole individual instead of the disease while working to heal/cure the root cause rather than addressing the symptoms.
Because “holistic” is a way to approach health, there are many types of practitioners that technically fit under its definition. Even a medical doctor can be holistic if they practice medicine in the manner described above. The types of practitioners who typically fit under the holistic umbrella include naturopathic doctors, chiropractic physicians, functional medicine practitioners, herbalists, acupuncturists and sometimes certain types of body-workers.
Holistic means looking at the whole context of a person’s health. For example, someone with allergies can take an over-the-counter medication for their symptoms but a holistic practitioner would consider the totality of the case. Perhaps they are eating a standard American diet and have higher levels of systemic inflammation. This means that their immune system is easily triggered by a benign stimulus (tree and flower pollen, for example). Perhaps they are also not sleeping well or are doing shift-work that has significantly altered their natural sleep rhythm.
This would potentially increase immune dysregulation as we heal and reset when we sleep. So rather than just giving the person a natural remedy for allergies, a holistic provider seeks to address the underlying conditions, find and treat the root cause of the symptoms, and view the patient as a whole. This may take the form of providing patient education and guidance about diet, lifestyle, sleep, exercise, stress-management, natural anti-inflammatories and any other relevant facets of the individual case.
Holistic medicine takes a distinct approach to patient care. Conventional medicine unfortunately has evolved around the dictates of the insurance industry. The average primary care provider (PCP) spends around seven minutes with each patient. That is not a lot of time to get a deep and comprehensive understanding. A lot of PCPs are dissatisfied with the way the system has changed over the years, which sometimes leads them out of insurance networks. Most holistic practitioners have a longer and more detailed intake – spending between 60-120 minutes with a patient during the initial visit. This gives natural providers a much greater understanding of the whole picture of the case. It allows them to treat individuals instead of diseases.
My background is in chiropractic and naturopathic medicine. Naturopathic philosophy sums up the holistic approach to medicine with the following six principles:
- First do no harm
- The doctor is a teacher
- Treat the whole person
- Prevention is the best medicine
- Identify and treat the root cause
- The healing power of nature
Following these tenets leads us to build a therapeutic alliance with patients. I frequently tell my patients that they will do the work to get and stay healthy, but I will show them the path, cheer on their success, troubleshoot their hurdles, and walk next to them on their journey. Natural medicine seeks to treat the whole person using the least invasive or risky treatments first. We believe the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Using the healing power of nature means employing botanical medicine, body work/massage, lifestyle modification, dietary changes, exercise, mindfulness, etc. We have a broad toolbox to draw from. Sometimes it means literally prescribing more time spent in nature. Finally, we recognize that the Latin root for doctor (docere) means teacher. I work with my patients to teach them healthy ways of living, thereby empowering them on their health journey.
None of this is meant to demonize “Western medicine.” Conventional medicine has made miraculous and life-saving advances. There are certainly situations where surgery or medication is the first thing warranted by a health problem. I consider myself an integrative practitioner because I know how to work with other medical professionals so that each patient gets the care s/he needs. From my experience and that of my mentors, holistic medicine can help with a wide variety of health problems – particularly chronic conditions that benefit greatly from lifestyle and dietary changes. The advantage of being a holistic provider is that we get to spend more time with our patients to establish these changes, and our approach is built on addressing the root cause. Patients end up feeling more empowered to improve their health and ultimately get great results.