To understand what holistic medicine is we need to understand what healing is.
Healing is not only the property of medicines, as the two are often equated.
Healing is the natural process within our bodies and nature to maintain and restore functioning of an organism. In this way healing is spontaneous.
Medicines-true medicines merely quicken our healing process. Thus, a good definition of medicine is any substance or behavior that helps the body achieve a state of balance, repair and proper functioning.
Unfortunately, currently many of our western medicines are only aimed at reducing symptoms of an illness without causing the body to heal and repair itself. Allopathic medicine does very well in alleviating pain and inflammation, e.g., yet at this stage is often poor in boosting healing.
Medicines from plants often work very well to help the body recover and heal itself. The only disappointment with plant medicines in our fast tracked modern world is the lack of seeing quick results and feeling it immediately. Yet, if we were to look at our cells under a microscope while taking plant medicines we would see that toxins are being removed, cells repaired etc which we cant feel in the moment, but which materializes as feeling better days after, or weeks in some cases. So plant medicines work very deeply and efficiently to help our bodies and minds to work well. This is why we can believe in plant medicines to do deep healing work on various chronic health problems like soothing inflammation, cleaning our digestive system or normalizing our immunity, while quick relief of pain with panados is good for that problem.
Why is it plants and not pills can help with this deep healing we need?
Plants help to heal because of the many plant chemicals (phytochemicals) they make; sometimes one plant contains 80-100 different plant chemicals. Western medicine (allopathic-biomedicine) usually seeks to isolate one chemical to act in a pill, and this doesn’t allow for healing to occur. We need all those plant chemicals to act together, (which modern science now calls phytochemical synergy); to clean our bodies, boost energy by working on our hormones, and relax our minds, etc.
Because plant medicines work on so many levels of the body and mind through all the combined plant chemicals, it can be said to work holistically (on the whole body and mind).
One example being Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) that has anti-inflammatory essential oils, alkaloids such as achilleine that stops bleeding,salicylic acid that reduces fever, coumarins that are antibacterial on and on... and all in one plant! Societies that live traditionally often close to nature (tribal societies) are often described as using holistic medicine, because they use plant medicines that heal holistically.
To gain clarity on what is traditional and holistic medicine is I will provide some explanations of medicine from my studies of cross-cultural healing:
The science concerned with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation, or cure of disease. (Britannica Encyclopedia definition).
That is it is the science of healing (or what it should be).
What is science? Science is based on the scientific method which is:
1. Making a hypothesis: an idea or statement. (E.g., This medicine can treat cancer)
2. Conducting an experiment to test that hypothesis. (Testing cancer cells with a tincture of the medicine and observing if they die, e.g.).
3. The experiment will produce evidence-results that will falsify or support the hypothesis. (80% of the cancer cultured cells die e.g.)
4. If the results support the hypothesis and can be reproduced and replicated the hypothesis stands (Yes, this medicine can treat cancer).
Science can thus be defined as:
The method of testing an idea through experiments to find whether replicable evidence can support that idea.
Holistic medicine is medicine that works on the whole of the individual and I have defined it as: the science of restoring and maintaining the health and wellness of an individual on all levels of being; including body, mind, and energy relationship levels.”
Complementary or alternative medicine is any treatment modality of healing outside of the dominant medical model, but remember it can not be called medicine if it has no evidence of showing replicable results.
What is traditional medicine?
The WHO definition of Traditional Medicine (TM) is:
“Traditional medicine is the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.”
Because indigenous societies are often living closer to nature than western cultures, they often use holistic medicine treatments such as plant medicines more so than in our modern societies.
However, are all traditional healing treatments holistic medicine based?
No, some traditional treatments can not demonstrate replicable results, even if these treatments can improve ones health. Yet, this can apply to some western therapies too.
Holistic medicine traditions such as Ayurveda, TCM and traditional African healing have a long history of showing replicable results (even if not in a laboratory experiment) but through traditional diagnosis, prescribing certain formulas and observing replicable medical results, and can thus in many cases be considered scientific.
A point worth mentioning is even if replicable results can be demonstrated for western isolate medicines (pills) to have an effect, i.e. killing bacteria , e.g., and is a scientifically verified effect, this DOES NOT MEAN and EQUATE TO a healing effect: that is the medicine can maintain health and improve healing.
Thus certain isolate medicines can seem to cure a disease/pathogen temporarily (so not really a cure), but still not heal the underlying imbalance that created the disease in the first place.
Holistic medicine treats and can cure disease by restoring balance of the organism, resulting in long term harmony, while many western medicines treat disease superficially through alleviating symptoms, yet do not heal the underlying imbalance, and thus the disease can and often does re-appear stopping the isolate medicine. While western medicine is indispensable to treat acute infections, pain and specific disorders it is poor in healing. Thus, each system of medicine has its place. If I experience intense migraines I will not bother with herbal medicines I will take western pain killers. Yet to address the reason I have migraines I will turn to food and plant medicines perhaps Ayurveda or TCM for healing this condition.
Good medicine (be it a substance, activity or treatment) needs to work holistically in a person helping a person heal and have proper functioning, it needs to have evidence of replicable results, and most importantly it needs to do no harm, i.e. no toxic side effects.
A good question to ask yourself about a medicine or healing treatment you may want to get is: Does the treatment have a replicable history of results that can be reproduced, and does the treatment do any harm or does it help maintain and improve health and healing. If the latter it is then a medicine.
Many reasons exist why we struggle to embrace holistic medicine in our modern world.
To summarize some major reasons include:
The Time-Money-Success model
One major obstacle to living holistically is our modern work ethic that controls time in order to generate money. This pattern of living excludes us from having our own time (9-5/7 grind), that is essential in having balance in our lives. An observation while studying holistic medicine across cultures is that in the West we are proverbially stressed, running around with our minds in the future, this lack of being able to relax in the now driven by consumerism, fuels sickness and prevents harmonious living.
The Fear and Desire machine
In our modern consumer world focus is given to generating money in order to acquire material satisfaction and pleasure. This is achieved by manipulating our fear and desire circuits through the flood of advertising of addictive substances and activities such as: sugary-fatty fast foods, alcohol, sex and female's bodies, wealth, violence and competition and sports culture, that are promised to provide "success" and "happiness”. Over-indulgence in materialistic pleasures produces an imbalance in our minds and bodies and results in sickness. Unfortunately we are not taught in our modern society to rely on ourselves for our own happiness, but on all these externals. In this process many people loose sight of being ok with themselves, and how to use and settle their minds using their minds.
The Reductionist model
Modern medicine (which is only 500 years old compared to holistic medicine traditions such as Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine that are around 5000 years old) has as its central belief that in order to cure illness one needs to isolate the disease causing germ and kill it. This works well for infectious diseases but for most health problems the germs cause disease because of a lack of proper functioning in the body caused by some disruption or imbalance. The reductionist model overlooks this need to restore balance and in fact often worsens the imbalance through adding drugs into the body when the body is already compromised and weak.
Often a person suffering from one imbalance will take an allopathic western drug and find another problem arising. This is because the imbalance is not restored through the use holistic medicine, but the symptoms are merely temporarily alleviated or masked with powerful western drugs.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand the use of holistic medicines and their complex therapeutic dynamics from indigenous cultures around the world and to use them in their traditional forms in our modern lives today. For example, there exists the possibility in developing new synergy forms of psychiatric medications that contain standardized extracts of plants that can enhance actions and lessen side effects.
Why is plant medicine valuable and worthwhile?
1. Plants are living organisms with a vital energy which encourages our own bodies’ natural healing mechanism. Thus plants are strong healers themselves.
2. Many plants have healing chemicals they make that have had a long period of use by cultures for thousands of years: this intimate relationship between local indigenous cultures and local herbs has resulted in plants producing compounds that the body has learnt to recognize and is more able to use; compared to new western medicine compounds that the body may not have enzymes to break down or use as efficiently.
3. These above factors have led to plants being culturally acceptable to the local people using them.
4. Plants are a renewable source of medicines. You can cut parts of your medicinal trees or herbs and they will re-grow.
5. Plants have a diverse and complex chemistry that often works more holistically in the body in comparison to western isolated chemicals and thus often produce fewer side effects.
6. Herbal plant medicines are often less expensive than western medicines
7. Medicinal plants offer the opportunity for poorer communities to make a business from them, especially since their seed can be kept and sold.
8. Local medicinal plants are easily accessible to people through herb markets and healers.