Holistic medical providers come in many forms, but what they all have in common is a commitment to treating the person instead of a disease. Their scope of practice may vary widely, from traditional herbalists and bodyworkers to naturopathic physicians and functional medicine doctors.
The oldest extant practice of holistic medicine comes from ancient China. Now in its modern form—thousands of years later—traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is more than a mature system of prescribing herbal formulas and administering acupuncture. The crown jewel of TCM is the wisdom of viewing life as an integrated and dynamic system. The health of the environment is reflected in the health of people. So too do thoughts and emotions play a role in the formation of disease.
TCM places as much emphasis, for instance, on how aberrant emotions like anger contribute to disease as it does on gross physical causes like overeating junk food. This is an insight that took modern medical researchers much longer to validate. Now we know that the body’s biochemical state changes dramatically depending on whether we’re calm, stressed, depressed, angry, and so on. Emotions have an actual molecular effect and can profoundly shift the expression of different hormones, neurotransmitters, immune function, and more.
Yet our body, mind, and emotions don’t explain the origins of all human illnesses.
We must also consider the integrity of our environment to gain a complete picture of human health. This is of critical importance when establishing the root cause of disease.
Asthma may be kept in check with suppressive medication, but if the root cause is exposure to small-particulate air pollution, the body may never fully heal. Worse, other health issues may arise as the toxic burden accumulates.
The root cause of much of our illness lies in the complex interaction of our genetics, environment, and behavior. This is known as epigenetics. The founders of TCM knew this well and taught the principles of a balanced lifestyle with a focus on preventing disease. Much of modern medical care and research remains inert until disease has progressed to a dangerous state. TCM teaches that the longer we delay treatment, the more difficult the recovery.
This isn’t some quaint notion to be relegated to a spa retreat. A global pandemic has forced the world to see how fragile human health can be when the most vulnerable are those with preexisting conditions. Whereas the primary focus of conventional medicine has been on quelling the pandemic with vaccination, public health officials and the media have largely overlooked the importance of providing guidance on building resilience to prevent infection or minimize symptoms.
Medical science has historically explained infectious disease through two different paradigms: germ theory and terrain theory.
Germ theory posits that the microbe causes illness, while terrain theory upholds that the health of the body determines the severity of illness. Both are correct, but terrain theory is largely ignored by a conventional medical model that does its best work by reductionism.
Reductionism is the scientific axiom of breaking down areas of study into simpler and more fundamental aspects to aid the understanding and scaling-up of more complex subjects. For instance, understanding the chemistry of a liver cell provides insight into the physiological function of the liver organ as a whole.
The downside of reductionism is that it may fail to see how different systems integrate in unexpected ways. If the emotion of anger negatively affects liver function (as is purported in TCM), it takes a holistic perspective to make the connection between psychology and physiology.
In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, if you want an innovative vaccine in record time, you need the scientific method in all its reductionist glory. But if you want to create healthy people over the long-term and without costly medical interventions, allow the wisdom of holistic medicine to have a seat at the table.
As any good gardener knows, the health of the soil determines the fate of the planted seed. With COVID-19, the virus SARS-CoV-2 is a proximate cause. Emergency room physicians have made the astute observation that those who contract the coronavirus eliminate the pathogen from their systems rather quickly. It’s the downstream effect of the virus on inflammation (called a cytokine storm) and the coagulation of blood that contribute to severe long-term effects and death.
From the holistic medical perspective, the state of the body and its ability to fight off infectious disease is just as important as the germ itself. The allopathic axiom of “one bug, one drug” isn’t nearly as effective a treatment strategy when the terrain of human health is disrupted by poor diet, lack of sleep, and being sedentary.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if the medicine is “traditional” or “conventional,” “Western” or “Eastern,” so long as it treats the whole person safely, effectively, and compassionately. While we celebrate the technological advances of allopathic medicine in preventing death, holistic medicine offers wisdom that reinforces life and invites us to live in harmony with natural rhythms.
When consulting with a holistic medical provider, be prepared to answer a lot of questions. Treating you instead of the symptoms affecting you requires a deep understanding of your story. Asking what was happening around the time the problem began reveals hidden lifestyle and environmental contributions. Inquiring about work and home life exposes sources of chronic stress. With each response, the attentive holistic health care provider is establishing the patient’s mindset and gauging willingness to make lifestyle changes. With time and support, getting the patient on an ideal diet with physical activity and plenty of sleep can help them move beyond the healing of symptoms toward an empowered existence.
Hopefully we won’t lose the lesson of this pandemic and miss the chance to return to the basics of human health. We live and work in communities that must heal together to move forward as a more resilient species. As one strand of humanity—one healthy community of engaged people—grows stronger, so too does the rope of our coexistence. This is the promise of holistic medicine.
Brandon LaGreca, LAc, MAcOM, is a licensed acupuncturist in the state of Wisconsin. He has authored two books on cancer, “Cancer and EMF Radiation: How to Protect Yourself From the Silent Carcinogen of Electropollution,” and “Cancer, Stress & Mindset: Focusing the Mind to Empower Healing and Resilience.” He shares his thoughts at EmpoweredPatientBlog.com.