The term "holistic" covers a multitude of therapeutic approaches, ranging from healing, alternative medicine and T'ai Chi to meditation, dowsing for health (radiesthesia) and medical astrology. Interest in holistic medicine has increased tremendously in recent years, with more and more people becoming aware of the real benefits to be obtained from natural, intuitive and traditional healing methods.
The word holistc - sometimes wholistic - is derived from the Greek word holos, meaning complete or unified, and refers to an approach which recognises that living systems must be regarded in their entirety, and that an organism is more than the sum of its parts. The holistic therapist treats the whole person, taking into account such factors as diet, environmental conditions, heredity and the psychic and psychological make-up of the individual.
This approach differs radically from that of orthodox medicine, where the emphasis is on the diagnosis and treatment of the symptoms of disease, and where illness is usually regarded in terms of local disorders affecting specific organs or parts of the body. In holistic medicine, spontaneous disease is regarded as a general or overall imbalance in the individual's vital energy flow, which may be corrected using natural healing methods and by prescribing the optimum conditions in which the body's own self-healing process can take place. According to the holistic view, illness is not something you have, but something you express. An individual is not ill because he or she has an ulcer, but has developed an ulcer because he or she is ill.
Whereas orthodox doctors are interested in knowing what kind of disease a person has, holistic practitioners are more interested in finding out what kind of person has that disease. Whereas the primary aim of a conventional doctor is to diagnose the patient's illness by taking note of signs and symptoms like pain, swelling, rashes and so on, the first objective of a holistic practitioner is to find out as much as possible about the patient's background - not just their medical history, but also their lifestyle, diet, mental outlook, ambitions, creative drive and so on. Disease - and vulnerability to infection etc. - is seen as a consequence of some deeper or more general imbalance.
Mind and Body
In holistic medicine, body and mind are regarded as one integral function, rather than separate mechanisms, and there is an emphasis on mental and emotional states and the effect these have on health and well-being. Another feature of holistic medicine which distinguishes it from the orthodox or allopathic approach is the emphasis it places on preventative systems. Whereas most general practitioners only see their patients when they become ill, most holistic therapists prefer to see their patients on a regular basis, whether or not they feel unwell. Holistic medicine, therefore, is aimed at eliminating the causes of disease, or strengthening the body's resistance to disease, whereas conventional medicine is largely concerned with the suppression and control of its symptoms.
The following is a brief summary of the most widely available and most popular complementary and holistic therapies:
ACUPUNCTURE is an ancient Chinese system based on the principle that the body's vital energy ("Chi") travels along fixed channels or meridians, and that it is possible to restore health, eliminate pain and so on, by manipulating this energy by inserting needles into the skin at specific points along these meridians. In acupuncture, disease is classified in terms of qualities of body function and energy flow, and diagnosis is made by close observation of such physical signs as skin colour and texture, the distribution of hot or cold patches, subtle body odours, action of the joints and, above all, the reading of the twelve pulses. Many modern acupuncturists now use electrical stimulation in place of, or in addition to the use of needles. Acupuncture is also now used in conventional medicine, but mainly as a means of controlling pain rather than treating illness.
ACUPRESSURE involves the application of finger pressure to Chi energy points.
CHIROPRACTIC is a system which emphasises the importance of the correct alignment of the spinal vertebrae to relieve various symptoms, particularly - but by no means exclusively - back and neck problems. The method involves manipulation and deep massage, and complementary exercise and diet programmes are often prescribed. Chiropractic therapy was developed by Daniel David Palmer, who based the system on the following observations:
HOMOEOPATHY is a healing system based on the principle that "like cures like". Two centuries ago a German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann, noted that the symptoms produced by giving quinine to a healthy person were similar to those of the malaria it was used to treat. This led to the discovery that small doses of lethal substances could be used to stimulate the body's self-healing responses. Modern homoeopathy has evolved from this discovery. The basic approach is to identify a substance which produces identical symptoms in a healthy person to those of the patient. Hahnemann believed that the smaller the dosage of the toxin given, the more effectively it was absorbed into the system. The standard homoeopathic method is to dilute the active substance with spirit - 1 part active substance to 99 parts spirit. This mixture is shaken thoroughly to ensure equal distribution of properties. From this preparation is taken just one drop, which is diluted with a further 99 drops of spirit, and again well shaken. This procedure is repeated a number of times. Sceptics insist that homoeopathic medicines can't possibly work, since there is no detectable trace of the original active substance in the final dilution. However, a number of independent surveys carried out into homoeopathy have found evidence of its effectiveness. The most recent of these, which examined the evidence of 89 trials over a 30 year period, was conducted by the US Government and the results - favourable to homoeopathy - were published in the medical journal The Lancet in September 1997.
NATUROPATHY is based on the principle that the body's own self-healing powers can only be properly effective upon the removal of negative, artificial and unnatural conditions - including bad eating habits, destructive thoughts, irregular sleep, lack of fresh air and sunlight, and so on. Treatment may include a variety of techniques, for example massage and herbal treatment, and individual exercise and diet programmes.
OSTEOPATHY involves the manipulation of the joints and muscles to relieve tension and congestion around nerve roots. Osteopathy is especially concerned with the condition of the spine (the technique's originator, Andrew T. Still, asserted that many seemingly unrelated conditions could be traced back to spinal damage). Diagnosis is made by "palpating" - that is, by touching areas of the body to determine what is termed the "quality of action" - that is, heat and speed of fluidity of blood beneath the area. This is a largely intuitive skill, similar to the ability to diagnose disease from the pulse in acupuncture.
Osteopathy is not restricted to physical manipulation but incorporates several other forms of healing.