Our bodies sometimes fail and react in unpredictable ways to the world around us. Whether it’s hardwired into our genes or the result of pathogens and foreign invaders, illness can be difficult to deal with. Diagnosis can be terrifying when faced with potentially life-altering and life-threatening conditions. Should treatment be confined to conventional medicine, or is there something better available?
What is holistic medicine?
Holistic medicine, sometimes called integrative health, is the practice of treating conditions holistically — not just with medications and other conventional clinical treatments, but with an approach that takes a person’s emotional, physical, spiritual, and social self into account. Holistic medicine often focuses on strategies for prevention rather than cures and is patient-centered. It treats the whole person as opposed to the single problem or issue at hand.
Holistic medicine often incorporates elements of conventional medical practice, which makes it complementary. If a health approach replaces traditional methods, it’s considered alternative.
Examples of common alternative approaches include:
• Natural substances (e.g., herbs, probiotics, vitamins, and supplements)
• Mind and body practices (e.g., yoga, acupuncture, and tai chi)
• Traditional Chinese medicine
Holistic practitioners may use some of these alternative therapies.
What are the benefits?
The benefit of holistic medicine is that the focus is on the patient as a whole. It also involves prevention strategies for maintaining health. In holistic medicine, diet, exercise, and sleep hygiene are all considered essential components of a person’s overall health.
Holistic healthcare practitioners are also more likely to consider alternative treatments. Many alternative therapies (e.g., yoga and meditation) have a slew of proven benefits, including stress reduction.
This approach allows physicians to consider out-of-the-box causes for ailments, beyond the physical. Holistic medicine also encourages treating not only the symptoms but the condition itself. The patient is also viewed as an active participant in their care and treatment, not a bystander.
What are the disadvantages?
While holistic medicine certainly has its place in partnership with conventional medical practices, it’s important to remember that alternative therapies cannot replace conventional medicine entirely. Focusing on prevention is essential, but all people get sick and injured and require acute treatment at some point in their lives.
Holistic medicine has some significant drawbacks, such as:
• A lack of regulation. Not all alternative medicine practices are regulated, which leaves the door open for inflated claims and scams. People often seek out alternative medicine in frustration or in hopes that something will help when conventional medicine has failed them. These vulnerable people are less likely to vet practitioners and spot red flags. In addition, supplements and herbal remedies are not regulated by the FDA, and some can have dangerous interactions with conventional medicines. There’s also a risk of overdose with certain kinds of supplements.
• Limited evidence on effectiveness. Not all alternative treatments are effective, so it’s difficult to figure out whether a treatment is working or the result of a placebo effect. Relying on unproven treatment methods can have real consequences for individuals with serious conditions like cancer.
• Focus on the patient can be detrimental. By emphasizing individual responsibility, holistic medicine can sometimes ignore sweeping public health issues.
• Limited coverage. Few holistic and alternative medicine treatments are covered by insurance — often due to insufficient evidence regarding their effectiveness. This means that many such procedures are not available to those who cannot afford to pay out of pocket.
How does it compare to conventional medical practices?
People with diseases and chronic conditions are much more than their diagnoses. Holistic medicine strives to view people as whole beings and treat ailments in an integrative manner that takes multiple dimensions into consideration.
Along with conventional medicine, holistic approaches can help with overall well being and disease prevention.
Alternative therapies often used or prescribed by holistic practitioners should never replace traditional medicine, diagnostics, and treatments. However, it’s possible to consider holistic and alternative approaches while also understanding the limitations of these practices.
People interested in alternative treatments should do their research, talk openly with their doctor, and inform themselves of the risks, benefits, and potential side effects.
Avoid leaving your doctor in the dark. Let them know if you’re curious about alternative therapies. Your doctor can help you make informed decisions about your health and wellbeing.
Written by: Steph Coelho