What is holistic therapy?
To understand what holistic therapy is it is useful to consider the modern medical approach. Our medical paradigm is focused on finding a singular, specific cause of disease and treating that issue: diabetes is caused by high blood sugar so our medications are intended to lower it. Our scientific paradigm reflects this: we look for specific drug targets on specific cells in specific organs whose function is derailed in the body when a specific condition has arisen. This has proven very successful for many diseases and treatments; antibiotics are a great example, however, inevitably there are many people who experience a wide array side effects. We are not yet at a stage where drugs are perfectly targeted to the cells they need to influence. In the context of long-term conditions, this often means the root cause of disease is not fully addressed as we focus in on one aspect of a patient’s treatment plan. We give glucose-lowering medications to diabetic patients but do not emphasise minimising dietary sugar as much. This affects the elderly even more as they have multiple conditions with different drugs, amongst which we can lose track of which medication is for what ailment, is causing which side effect or how they are interacting to cause any health issues. The approach means we are focused on managing disease but seldom have opportunities to enhance health.
Holistic therapy, on the other hand, looks at the whole person. Holistic comes from ‘holos’ the Greek word for whole. Holistic therapies seek root causes of disease across the whole body and therefore tend to address specific conditions with multi-pronged or ‘integrative’ approaches that enhance health more broadly. Holistic therapies will look at various aspects of your life, such as your physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual life. They often involve lifestyle changes in terms of nutrition, exercise, mental state, sleep and relationships; but can stretch further to encompass more ‘alternative’ treatments such as acupuncture, reflexology and herbs or supplements.
Is it a choice between modern medicine and holistic therapy?
The most important aspect of making any decision like this with your health is that you understand the risks and benefits and make a weighed-up decision in the context of your values. I do not see this as a choice between two opposing systems though. Modern medicine does break down treatment options into medical, surgical and conservative treatments. I see holistic therapy as the expansion of the conservative treatments to be more wide-ranging, addressing the root causes of disease and bridging the gap between disease management and health enhancement or wellbeing. At an individual level, it makes sense to take advantage of all the resources available to you to better manage disease and to be as healthy as possible and our systems are gradually evolving to support this.
Why use holistic therapy?
Modern medicine provides highly specialised care for specific issues but there is a risk of over specialisation. The drawbacks of this are that scientists and doctors lack the ability to learn across disciplines and contribute to patients outside of their expertise. This can make for a disjointed patient experience and potentially conflicting advice; thus the ability of holistic therapy to look at you as an entire individual rather than just the organ where you have disease, therefore, makes it appealing to patients, with over half using it in their lifetime.
From a historical perspective, modern medicine has mostly evolved to cater for acute, emergency needs. You break a bone, you call 999, you go to the emergency department and the orthopaedic surgeons will operate. All services develop according to the most pressing needs of their users and so we have incredible systems to handle emergency healthcare; but we have been much less prepared to handle long-term illness. Medications and surgery do a wonderful job to control disease in the short to medium term, but a holistic approach is required in the long term for complete disease control or reversal and therefore optimal quality of life to be possible.
I have personally seen up close the ability of holistic approaches to disease, particularly nutrition, to reverse long-term illness such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. By combining both approaches, holistic therapy offers you the opportunity to unroot disease and enhance your wellbeing.
Dr Dilraj Kalsi uses Lifestyle Medicine and Digital Health to empower patients to reverse disease via his online clinic Hippocrates Lounge. He is a Lecturer in Digital Health at the University of Warwick and publishes regularly on patient empowerment with colleagues from Oxford University. For all his latest health tips straight to your inbox, sign up here!