holistic medicine via acupuncture

What is holistic medicine?

Holistic medicine is an approach to healing that looks at the patient as a whole person. Body, mind, spirit and emotions are all part of one entity. The aim is to achieve optimal health and wellbeing using an integrative philosophy.

It’s not just about curing diseases; the goal of holistic medicine is to promote the highest level of wellness. Holistic health practitioners view people as being made of interdependent elements that affect each other. Therefore, a physical, emotional or spiritual imbalance, can affect overall health negatively.

Holistic doctors don’t limit themselves to one type of medicine, they can use traditional as well as conventional solutions to treat patients.

Is holistic medicine effective?

Yes, holistic medicine pulls knowledge from a wide array of fields that have been proven effective. Sometimes called Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) these treatments can include acupuncture, chinese medicine, ayurveda, meditation, psychotherapy or homeopathy to name a few.

Optimal health goes beyond the absence of sickness. When we take a holistic approach to health, we look at the root causes of disease or imbalance and the patient is wholly involved. There’s a whole idea of wellbeing and prevention, not just addressing symptoms. The focus is on prevention first and treatment second.

Holistic medicine also helps cancer patients

Research has shown that cancer survivors can benefit from an integrative approach, but some doctors are going even further.[1]Viscuse PV, Price K, Millstine D, Bhagra A, Bauer B, Ruddy KJ. Integrative medicine in cancer survivors. Current Opinion in Oncology. 2017;29(4):235-242. doi:10.1097/cco.0000000000000376 On his website, renowned specialist Dr. Andrew Weil explains: “I tell my patients that I think of cancer as a weed. Modern western oncology is focused on destroying the weed while integrative oncology concentrates on the soil the weed grows in and on making the soil as inhospitable as possible to the growth and spread of the weed.”[2]Weil A. Treating Cancer With Integrative Medicine. DrWeil.com. Published May 12, 2009. A great example of a holistic approach, he goes on to explain that while reducing inflammation in the body, he also strives to give back to patients control over their lives.

With holistic medicine the patient is wholly involved

That also means that patients take responsibility for their own wellbeing. To make a crude comparison with western medicine, it’s not just about popping prescription pills in order to feel better. With holistic health, the person seeking treatment learns about his or her body and functioning and makes the appropriate lifestyle choices to support optimal wellness.

What sets holistic medicine apart?

Another term for holistic medicine is integrative health, highlighting how conventional and complementary practices are brought together. This really sets it apart from typical western medicine that takes the path of symptom → diagnostic → drugs.

With holistic medicine, the practitioner usually offers a multimodal route to patients. This means that several approaches are used together in a complementary fashion. For example, conventional medicine with psychotherapy and ayurveda.

The focus always remains on helping the person as a whole and not just addressing a specific ailment.

The 5 dimensions of holistic medicine

Typically, holistic medicine views the individual as the sum of physical, emotional, social, spiritual and cognitive dimensions. These five aspects of a person are all interdependent. Optimal health and wellbeing is achieved when all five dimensions are balanced.

Physical health

Most of the time, when we visit our doctor we only address our physical health. Stomach, back, head… It’s easy to point towards what ails us. Even when we are zooming in on our physical health it should be with a holistic lense. 

With integrative medicine, practitioners also look at your diet, exercise and sleeping habits. So it’s not just where you are feeling pain, but also all the moving pieces that work together to bring you into a state of health or illness.

Emotional wellbeing

It’s well known that there’s a connection between emotional wellbeing and how our body feels. While only a handful of conventional doctors will ask you how you’re actually doing, emotional awareness is important for holistic care. 

Psychologists work a lot with this emotional dimension, usually referring to it as the feeling space, in contrast to the thinking space. Mental health englobes both emotional and cognitive health.

Emotional pain or imbalance can have an impact on both physical and mental health. For the patient, this can originate from intense feelings of:

  • Sadness
  • Repressed anger
  • Anxiety
  • Shame or guilt

While physical and emotional pain are different, there’s a study showing that both types of ache may share some neurological similarities.[3]Eisenberger NI. The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain. Psychosom Med. 2012;74(2):126-135. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182464dd1 There’s evidence that both emotional and physical pain are associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex.

For some researchers, we shouldn’t dissociate physical and emotional pain, both being part of a broader pain continuum.[4]Biro D. Is there such a thing as psychological pain? And why it matters. Cult Med Psychiatry. 2010;34(4):658-667. doi:10.1007/s11013-010-9190-y While some pain can be purely physical or emotional, most of the time it’s actually somewhere in the middle.

Social wellbeing

Humans are social animals. Social interactions contribute to our emotional wellbeing. Here too it’s all about balance and quality. We need the right amount of time with people and alone, and in either situation we need to be able to connect, whether with others or ourselves.

Aside from the usual social activities with family and friends, holistic medicine encourages social wellbeing through community involvement.

However, being selective with social settings and relationships is key for wellbeing. Avoiding toxic relationships and giving priority to the ones that are positive and nourishing is paramount. 

Just like some relationships can replenish our feeling of contentment, others that are stressful can have a draining effect on our social wellbeing.

So remember that although you don’t choose your family, you’re able to set healthy boundaries.

Related: What is my purpose in life? 4 ways to find your sense of purpose

Spiritual life

There’s no need to be religious to be spiritual. If you are part of a religious community and that it brings you spiritual nourishment that’s great.

However, many people feel that being part of a religious community does more for their social wellbeing than their spiritual development. Spirituality can be expressed in other ways than through organized religion.

In the frame of holistic medicine, spirituality is akin to feeling connected to the universe and nature’s life force. Whatever religion or believes you adhere to, there’s this connection to nature and what’s greater than ourselves.

Cognitive health

Similar to psychology’s two complementary spaces of feeling and thinking, holistic medicine has emotional wellbeing and cognitive health.

With cognitive health we are looking at the thinking space, our focus, memory and decision making abilities. In lay man’s terms, we can compare it to the conscious part of our state of being.

Cognitive balance is a state in which what we think and do are aligned. In other words, it means that we are able to be our true selves and feel whole.

This is also a dimension of holistic medicine that can be worked on with a psychotherapist. Via talk therapy or psychotherapy, patients are able to find how they have strayed from themselves and heal.

Related: 7 ways to build your resilience according to a psychologist

What does a holistic doctor do?

Typically, conventional doctors treat symptoms, mostly selecting the best drugs to alleviate a disease. They focus on the single issue.

On the other hand, a holistic doctor treats the person as whole. The aim is to find the cause leading to the disease, not just ease the symptoms. This can involve a combination of treatments.

For example, if you have sleeping issues, a conventional doctor may prescribe sleeping pills. However, a holistic doctor will look at your body as a whole. He might recommend you make lifestyle and dietary changes, and give you natural remedies to help you sleep.

There’s several types of holistic practitioners. Some of them have medical degrees giving them the conventional doctor title. Other practitioners can be specialized in a particular type of medicine, such as naturopathic, Chinese or Ayurvedic professionals.

How to choose your holistic doctor?

Just like you would with a conventional practitioner, you can check out a holistic doctor’s qualifications. If you are particularly interested in one type of alternative medicine, look for someone with that experience.

Some things to check:

  • Education
  • Licenses
  • Certifications

Word of mouth is also a great way to hear first hand if a doctor is skilled.

Finding a practitioner through professional organizations is also an option. However, paying their membership fees doesn’t guarantee they are talented. Therefore it is best to check for their accreditation and recommendations as well.

To make sure a doctor is right for you, it’s a good idea to have a chat before your first consultation to make sure that their approach to holistic health matches yours.

Different types of holistic practitioners

There’s a range of different types of physicians and doctors offering holistic medicine. Here are some of the most common type of holistic practitioners:

Osteopathic doctor

Like a doctor of medicine (MD), an osteopath is a medical doctor (DO). They both attend medical school, complete a residency and are licensed to practice medicine.

An osteopath uses osteopathic manipulative medicine to treat health problems. This discipline of medicine involves physically manipulating the musculoskeletal system.

The logic is that the musculoskeletal system, which includes the muscles, bones, and nerves, affects the body as a whole.

Related: What is an osteopath?

Integrative doctor

Integrative physicians are accredited medical doctors who have an integrative approach to medicine. Typically they mix conventional therapies and CAM.

In a way, integrative medicine can be the best of both worlds, bringing together conventional and traditional healthcare.

There are no formal degrees for integrative medicine; however there are additional training and practical experiences that confer the integrative doctor designation. It is possible to be board certified in integrative medicine, but it isn’t a prerequisite. 

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an ancient Chinese approach to healthcare that believes in the qi, or life force. When the qi is out of balance or blocked the person becomes ill.

Using acupuncture, herbal medicine and lifestyle changes, the TCM practitioner helps the patient rebalance their qi.

TCM practitioners go through formal schooling and certification. It is also possible to get a degree in Oriental medicine.

Ayurvedic doctor

Ayurveda, or “knowledge of life” in sanskrit, originates from ancient Indian medicine. Ayurvedic physicians believe disease is due to imbalances in the doshas, or life energies.

In India, ayurveda is very common. There’s formal training and schools to become a licensed ayurvedic doctor.

With ayurveda, the doshas are balanced with a range of treatments, including diet, herbal remedies and lifestyle adjustments.

Naturopathic doctor

A doctor of naturopathic medicine (ND) is trained and licensed from a naturopathic medical college. One of the key beliefs of Naturopaths is the body’s self-healing process by removing obstacles to health.

Naturopathy blends western healthcare, natural therapies, and holistic philosophy to treat illness. Natural treatments can be the primary type of therapy used or in a complementary fashion.

Is holistic medicine expensive?

The cost of holistic medicine varies according to the needs of patients and their treatments. However, because holistic healthcare focuses on disease prevention it is cost effective over the long term. Not getting sick is valuable both economically, emotionally and physically speaking.

Some therapies involving lifestyle or dietary changes can be relatively cheap or free. For example, increased physical activity and eating more unprocessed foods should not accrue additional expenditures.

For complementary and alternative medicine, it depends on the treatment. It’s always a good idea to check if your health insurance covers traditional and alternative therapies.

Types of holistic medicine treatments

Because holistic medicine involves your whole body and mind, there’s a lot of different treatment options depending on your doctor’s specialty and your needs.

Lifestyle changes

This category of treatment aims at teaching patients new habits and self-care routines that can improve and preserve their health. These treatments can include:

  • Nutrition
  • Supplements
  • Fitness
  • Meditation
  • Tai Chi
  • Stretching
  • Sleep
  • Community activities

Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM)

A holistic doctor can recommend CAM therapies such as:

  • Acupuncture
  • Herbal medicine
  • Massage
  • Reiki
  • Hypnosis
  • Aromatherapy
  • Music or art therapy

Conventional medicine

A lot of holistic doctors include conventional, or western, treatments in addition to lifestyle changes and CAM therapies. This can involve:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Prescription drugs
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery 

Because the patient is in charge of their own wellbeing, holistic medicine can take the form of a lifestyle focused on promoting optimal health.

While considering the 5 dimensions of holistic medicine, you can choose the CAM therapies and lifestyle choices that you feel will be right for your balance and wellness. This can change over time and depending on your personality and health objectives.

Key takeaways

The core values of holistic medicine are:

  • Optimal health combines 5 dimensions: physical, emotional, social, spiritual and cognitive wellbeing.
  • Disease can be due to imbalances in one or more of the 5 dimensions.
  • Prevention comes first, treatment second.
  • Treatment aims at curing the underlying cause of illness, not just ease symptoms.
  • Holistic doctors use a combination of treatment options, typically from conventional and traditional medicines, psychotherapy, and self-care.
  • The patient is empowered to achieve optimal health and wellbeing using an integrative healthcare philosophy.
  • You can apply principles from holistic medicine to improve your lifestyle and therefore health.


*Be mindful about your health. This article is provided for informational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.