There’s more than one way to skin a cat. A gruesome expression for sure, but one that holds true for many things in life, not least the world of medicine.
In the Western world, the most common way of solving any kind of ailment is through a doctor — you book an appointment, head to their clinic, and receive a diagnosis or referral to an appropriate specialist. For those who can’t make it to a clinic in person, online pharmacies (such as The Independent Pharmacy) also offer the convenience of purchasing treatments over the internet. Once a medical professional has diagnosed your symptoms, they’ll issue a prescription — a golden ticket used to access scientifically proven, safety-tested medications.
For the vast majority of patients, this sort of approach works perfectly, but it also has its critics. Some deride Western medicine, claiming that the artificial, mass-produced medications prescribed by doctors only treat the symptoms and not the whole person. Holistic Medicine purports to right these wrongs by complementing modern medicinal treatments with alternative therapies rooted in ancient traditions.
But does it really work? Let’s find out.
A brief history of holistic medicine
The word ‘holistic’ comes from the Greek word ‘holos’, meaning “entire” or “all”. So, holistic medicine aims to treat both body and mind. The practice of holistic medicine has existed for thousands of years, and brings together ancient healing practices from cultures around the world.
One of the earliest recorded examples of holistic medicine comes from ancient Greece. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, emphasized the importance of treating the whole person, rather than just their symptoms. He was also a pioneer in the field of nutrition and believed that the body could heal itself.
In traditional Chinese medicine, which dates back to at least 2000 BCE, practitioners use a holistic approach to diagnose and treat illnesses. They believe that all illnesses are rooted in imbalances within the body. Their treatments, ranging from physical therapy to herbal concoctions, aim to equalize and restore this balance. This theory of imbalance is also shared by proponents of Ayurvedic medicine. Originating in India over 5000 years ago, this practice incorporates herbal medicine, yoga, and meditation to address health issues.
Today, the term “holistic medicine” most commonly describes any medicines that claim to treat the “whole” person and aim to address the perceived reductionism of conventional medicine. However, those within the scientific community claim that terms such as “holistic medicine”, “alternative medicine” or “herbal remedies” can be simply defined: they are medicines that have not been scientifically proven to work.
What’s the evidence for holistic medicine?
It’s fair to say that there’s a great degree of skepticism surrounding holistic medicine. But while many of the practices promoted by its practitioners have been proven ineffective, there are some therapies that’ve been studied and shown tangible benefits.
- Acupuncture: This therapy involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate healing. Studies have shown that acupuncture can be effective in treating chronic pain, headaches, and other conditions.
- Meditation: This practice involves focusing the mind on a specific object, thought, or activity to achieve a state of relaxation and mental clarity. Studies have shown that meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep.
- Yoga: This practice combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to promote overall health and well-being. Studies have shown that yoga can help reduce stress, improve flexibility and balance, and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
What’s the evidence against holistic medicine?
One of the main issues with holistic medicine is that many of its practices involve healing elements of the body that simply aren’t recognized by modern science. Practitioners often wax lyrical about “energy fields,” “chakras,” or “life force,” but any evidence showing that these elements exist has yet to materialize.
Far from healing the recipient, some of the treatments listed below may actually cause harm to patients!
- Homeopathy: This therapy involves using highly diluted substances to treat a wide range of conditions. However, numerous studies have found that homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo in treating any condition.
- Detox diets: These diets claim to rid the body of toxins, but there’s no scientific evidence to support this claim. In fact, some detox diets can be harmful, as they can lead to dehydration, nutrient deficiencies, and other health problems.
- Chelation therapy: Traditionally used to remove heavy metals from the body in patients suffering from mercury or lead poisoning, some practitioners may recommend chelation to treat conditions such as heart disease, stroke, or autism. This treatment is completely inappropriate for these kinds of conditions and can have serious side effects, including kidney damage and heart failure.
Should I consult a holistic practitioner?
“Holistic medicine” covers a vast range of treatments — some genuine, some not-so-genuine, and others extremely harmful. If you decide that holistic therapy or treatment is the right choice for you, it’s important to remember that not all holistic practitioners are created equal. The snake oil business is still very much alive and well, so it’s crucial that you research and find a qualified practitioner who’s more concerned about your health than your wealth.
There are several types of holistic practitioners. Some are “real” doctors and possess medical degrees. Typically, they recommend proven holistic treatments (such as acupuncture) alongside modern medicine. Other holistic practitioners may have no formal qualifications at all but still refer to themselves as doctors — these are usually the ones you want to avoid!
Common types of holistic doctors include:
Osteopathic doctors (DOs) use a holistic approach to healthcare, focusing on the musculoskeletal system and its impact on overall health. They may use various therapies, including manual manipulation, to promote healing and prevent illness.
Integrative physicians merge conventional medical treatments with complementary and alternative therapies to provide a comprehensive approach to healthcare. They may use therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and nutritional counseling in addition to conventional treatments.
Ayurvedic doctors follow a traditional system of medicine that originated in India over 5,000 years ago. They use a holistic approach to promote balance and harmony within the body and mind through diet, herbal remedies, and lifestyle changes. However, in the United States, there’s no nationwide license or certification for Ayurvedic practitioners. Ayurvedic doctors aren’t recognized as medical doctors.
Naturopathic doctors (NDs) concentrate on promoting the body’s natural healing abilities through a range of therapies, including herbal medicine, acupuncture, and nutritional counseling. They also emphasize preventative care and lifestyle changes to promote overall health and well-being. Naturopathic physicians attend a naturopathic medical college and are trained in the same basic sciences as traditional medical doctors. They must also take a professional board exam to receive a license, but they aren’t officially recognized as medical doctors.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners
TCM practitioners concentrate on the balance of energy, or Qi, within the body. They may use therapies such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dietary changes to promote balance and harmony within the body. The training for becoming a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner typically involves 3 to 4 years of schooling and a certification exam. Although some institutions offer degrees such as Doctor of Oriental Medicine, it’s important to note that these degrees aren’t recognized as medical doctor degrees.