The problem with definitions is that they mean less and less with every new one invented. This is especially true for nebulous terms such as holistic health. It is not an insubstantial concept, but it is very difficult to describe. The other problem with definitions is that they mostly end up being descriptions, and some descriptions of things are just not very helpful. You could describe a desert as a large land area of sand. That might serve as a fitting definition, but would it give you any actual understanding or insight into what a desert really is? Probably not. Description without insight is hollow and academic, which is why we need to find a better definition of holistic health.
The traditional definition of holistic health
Dictionaries and encyclopaedias define holistic health in a variety of ways to encompass different things, depending on how close to scientific and medical orthodoxy the editors stood. It comes down to looking at human health as the health of the whole individual rather than the well-being of parts. The variations come in while defining what makes up a whole individual. Some say it’s the whole physical human being who is so much more than the sum of various biological systems. Some claim it also includes the psychology of the individual. And some go further in wanting to heal the whole being, which involves the body, the mind, and the spirit.
These are all good descriptions, but what I’ve said here is a distillation down from a lot of mumbo-jumbo you will find everywhere. Some of it is good and true, but it’s all description and doesn’t tell you much about the essence of holistic health and why it’s a good or bad thing for you to take it seriously and practice it. When it comes to the less orthodox views of medicine, another term rears its head which must be dealt with, and the question that needs clearing is …
Is holistic health another name for alternative medicine?
Short answer: no. Once again definitions limit us, and this one is even more complicated. The term ‘alternative medicine’ is a pretty bad one, not only does it not describe anything, but even the semi-description it contains only tells you what it’s not. Alternative medicine is simply everything else. Here, of course, we are talking about everything else other than what can officially called Medicine: Allopathy, Western medicine, scientific medicine, modern medicine. You know, people in white coats, syringes, pills and stuff.
Alternative medicine encompasses all manner of wonders and blunders. It is true that many disciplines which fall under the umbrella of alternative medicine do take a more holistic approach to human health. Whether or not you believe in them, systems such as herbalism and homoeopathy take the mental state of the patient as much more of an important diagnostic input than modern medicine usually does. You can look further and find more esoteric arts like transcendental meditation and yoga which go further to consider even the elusive human spirit in their quest for health.
However, alternative therapies are not automatically holistic in their approach. While many encourage the holistic view, most succumb to the the need for human beings to look at everything mechanistically and find one-to-one relationships between health problems and solutions. For this reason, today herbalism and homoeopathy are often practised in a symptomatic way, to cure symptoms rather than curing the whole person and the root causes of disorders, as was their original mandate. So while part of the puzzle, alternative therapies are not equivalent to holistic health.
What it actually means to be holistically healthy
Holism is the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That belief is the basis of holistic health, and we have adequate descriptions of what makes up this whole that must be treated: body, mind, spirit, and whatever lies beyond those pieces of humanity. We have also seen that therapies which integrate some of this holistic view of health do exist, but what is holistic health in practice, and how does one achieve it? That answer would give us some insight into this beyond the definitions.
With the development of scientific thought, we have learnt to divide and subdivide the universe into ever smaller and smaller slices, so that we might understand these pieces in isolation. This is what has lead to the symptomatic treatment of human health as the orthodox way. Systems, organs, tissue, cells, and enzymes can be measures, tested, and found to be within or outside the standard parameters. The psyche, the ego, the id, and above all the spirit are less obliging to our need to observe and measure. This makes holistic health very difficult, if not impossible, to completely outsource to experts.
All our advances in physical medicine have come by relinquishing the individual responsibility of our own health to others. If you want to talk of the whole, mind, and spirit, there is only one ultimate expert in the details of your health: you. There is only one person who can look at the big picture of your health, watch your diet, practice due diligence in what you eat, how you eat it, when you sleep, what you think, and how you feel. It’s all on you.
This can either be a scary though or an empowering one, but if you want to get any real insight into what holistic health actually entails, this is it. Holistic health is about you taking responsibility for your own health. Without that there’s nothing holistic about it. Modern medicine and the many other possible therapies at your disposal are irreplaceable tools in your arsenal, as are nutrition, hygiene and common sense. You can try to describe it in large complex terms all you want but that is what it comes down to. Holistic health is your health in your hands, with the guidance and the help of others. That is how it is meant to be, and that is how it can work well, but only if you take up the mantle as captain of your own well-being.
A big thank you to Pearl for the writing nudge.