Lately we have become overloaded with information. Eat this, don’t eat that. More fiber, less fat, food pyramid, good herbs, bad drugs. This causes cancer, we were wrong about eggs, side effects, second-hand smoke, toxic home materials, power lines. Organic, genetically altered, growth hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, pesticide residue, irradiated. Confusing times we live in. We read that our health care system is almost bankrupt and some of us feel uncomfortable with medical treatments that have dangerous side effects and can feel violating. There is a renaissance of interest in safer, more humane and natural ways of treating our bodies.

Where can we learn more, who is qualified, how will we know if it is working? Are there other health care systems that work better, are more empowering and respect our bodies? What is the difference between conventional (allopathic, western) medicine and holistic (or complementary, alternative, natural, traditional) medicine?

These questions are frequently being asked by many Americans. It is increasingly difficult to find what is right when authorities contradict each other, change their minds and attack one another on an ongoing basis. The average person does not have the scientific background to understand why there is so much disagreement, let alone to know how to read food labels at the supermarket!

Holistic health care, or the system of holism, is not a new concept or philosophy. It is not religious, new age or hippy. In the simplest terms, it is how we view ourselves. Do we see ourselves as a list of diseases and defects? Or, do we see ourselves as complex beings, with body, mind and spirit contributing to what makes us tick? Do we see the interactions among all living creatures, the soil, the planet, the solar system as all being symbiotic, and all working together? Do we realize that the delicate balance we call ‘life’ is fragile, sensitive and powerful? Is it possible that we each are unique beings, with individual needs unlike anyone else’s? Can we see that there is no exact system as our needs change and evolve on many levels, often in short periods of time or even seasonally?

Holism is a concept that embraces the rhythms of life. It shows us that our needs change with our age, where we are living, how much stress we are under, and endless other criteria. We are seeing that while modern medicine has made great progress in repairing physical injuries and with communicable disease (polio, plagues), it is failing greatly in other areas. Diseases of modern civilization (degenerative diseases) such as diabetes, cancers, arthritis, heart disease, brain tumors, circulatory system problems, skin conditions, fertility and many others remain unchecked. In fact, we are more unhealthy as a population than any other time in recorded history. This, combined with the number of people who are on depression medications, children on drugs for behavior modification and an epidemic of obesity in our population, has hastened our interest as a society in holistic health care.

Holistic health care is a loosely knitted network of treatment systems that strengthen the body’s ability to heal itself. Developed and evolved over thousands of years in many different cultures, this system emphasizes non-invasive therapies and lifestyle changes, all with a lack of major permanent side effects. Some of these systems include the mind-body connection, visualization, botanical (herbal) therapies, food supplements, vitamin and mineral therapies, acupuncture, massage, rolfing, hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, color, sound and light therapy, dietary (nutrition) changes, spirituality and exercise. This list is far from complete—there are many others, many of which are culturally traditional, along with some which are new for our society.

Once we understand the body’s healing systems, we learn to listen to our needs. When we need more sleep, we honor the body by giving it more sleep. We pay more attention to our body’s needs for water, rest, exercise, nutrition and fresh air. Some call this listening intuition, others call it common sense. In holistic health care we believe that illness is another way the body communicates with us. Disease is often the manifestation of not listening to earlier warning signals, and in fact, is a deeper, more dramatic wake up call to take action.

There has been a movement in the United States over the last 200 years to return to nature for our needs. To use what was put on earth for our health, and to try to live in harmony while balancing our needs with the environment. This movement has tried to organize into a distinct system of its own by combining many elements of holism. It has been suppressed by more politically powerful systems that perceived any new system as a threat. In the early 1800’s this system was called Eclectic medicine. In the early 1900’s, it was reborn as Naturopathic medicine. Up until the 1930’s, this system experienced much growth, including naturopathic medical schools. Through a concerted effort of political pressures, legal maneuvers and denial of medical insurance coverage it was suppressed until the 1970’s, and is now experiencing a renaissance of its own.

Naturopathic doctors are the only health professionals with doctorate level training in holistic therapies. In 14 states they are licensed as primary care doctors, incorporating the best of conventional and holistic medicine. There are 4 naturopathic medical schools in the Unites States and others in Canada and Europe. There are holistic clinics that treat cancers, help bring healthy children into the world and provide preventative medicine and education to their communities. Practitioners of the holistic healing arts spend more time with you than conventional practitioners.They take the time to get to know you as an individual. This caring attitude and generous attention is greatly valued by their patients.

Holistic health care may not be for everyone. Some people do not wish to listen to their body, or are afraid to disagree with their family doctor. Others don’t realize that they can slowly incorporate change into their lives and not have to be “fanatical” or give up on conventional medicine. Despite the horrendous side effects of medications, surgery and radiation, which are still the major tools of allopathic medicine, some will still require the care that system has to offer. Many people have found it wise to use the best of each system. We do not have to get stuck doing things only one way. Taking the best each system has to offer makes the most sense. Discovering what works for us is a very important learning lesson, providing growth and empowerment as we develop a trust for listening to our innate wisdom.

Natural therapies can be fun. Receiving a massage for stress, aches and pains or injury is much more enjoyable than taking chemical substances or losing sleep! Eating well can be a gourmet experience, not torture! Some changes are pleasant, others take adjustment. The results vary, depending on many factors, such as how much commitment we make to follow through, our constitutional strength (how well we heal), the seriousness of the condition, etc. As most of our conditions took years to develop, they take some time to heal. Conventional medicine masks, controls, suppresses or alleviates the condition, while holistically applied natural therapies are readjusting the body, cleansing and strengthening organs and systems so they can work the way they were created to. When working the holistic way, patience is a great asset while the body heals itself. It can feel like work at times, as you are more involved in the process of healing than with allopathy.

Economics plays a large role in choosing health care. While there can be new expenses initially, most feel that in the long run holistic health care is much less expensive. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! It is difficult to put a value on health—Ralph Waldo Emerson said “the first wealth is health.” Often, it isn’t until we lose our health that we value it—we take it for granted when everything seems to be working in our body. Americans need to think more long term when it comes to health care. Eating poor food, polluting our environment and body, overworking and overtaxing our health defense systems is much more expensive in the long run than preventing problems in the first place.

Understanding and applying holistic health principles can lead to a more vibrant life. One filled with enjoying, not just existing. Preventing needless pain and suffering, faster healing of injuries, having more energy and creativity are just a few of the many benefits we can personally enjoy through taking care of ourselves. Society benefits greatly: less violent crime, healthier and less stressed children, less expensive health care and more productivity are just some of the more profound benefits of a healthier nation. Holism encourages people to take more responsibility for their actions—not to blame others or genetics for their problems. It is about growth, learning, loving and living life. It is wholesome and divine, while allowing for individuality.