I spent the first 19 years of my life living in central London, pretty much oblivious to the fact that I was not living an average childhood. Afternoon outings to the Tower of London, Westminster Cathedral, Big Ben and West End shows weren’t on most Primary (Elementary in the US) schools’ lists of field trip options.
Of all the great things I got to do during my childhood, one of my favorite memories is a school trip to Greenwich. Aside from the excitement of walking through a long dingy tunnel UNDER the river Thames to get there (that could give way at ANY second and flush us out the other end like a water park slide), my friends and I got to stand with ‘one foot in the East and one foot in the West’ straddling the Greenwich meridian. I felt like I’d made it around the world and back before my 10th birthday.
What does this have to do with holistic health?"
Well, that outing 30-something years ago turns out to be a perfect metaphor for my philosophy on healthcare in my adult life.
I didn’t pay much attention to my health or medicine when I was younger, because I really didn’t have to. I grew up with the NHS (National Health Service) having my back. If something hurt I’d see a doctor and pop a pill to make it go away and didn’t really think any more about it. My childhood BFF was Chinese and always had a home made Chinese Medicine remedy or a 10 hour simmered soup for anything that ailed you. My teenage BFF had recently arrived from Australia and was a clean eating, no soda drinking, no pill taking, workout machine. I hated exercise, barely drank any water, ate junk food and stuck my fingers in my ears when my friends tried to get me to change my ways.
But when my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer 12 years ago, I began to pay attention to what happens when conventional medicine goes to work treating a life threatening illness. The drawn out differential diagnosis, the communication between doctor and patient, and the ensuing treatment plan. I saw that any serious decisions, for the most part, are out of the hands of the patient and treatment is performed ON the patient, with very little participation BY the patient. All one can do is wait, and the whole process leaves the patient and their family feeling that they have no control over what is happening. The treatments are so complex that the average person, with limited to no anatomical and physiological education, can’t properly give their informed consent as they can’t comprehend what is actually going to take place, or understand what the risks and benefits of the alternatives are.
Frustrated by my helplessness to do anything about the situation from the other side of the Atlantic with my limited anatomy and physiology understanding from massage school, I began to read everything I could get my hands on about cancer.
After my dad lost his battle with cancer I went down some pretty deep conspiracy theory rabbit holes about the evils of conventional medicine. For several years after I refused to go to a regular doctor and researched every natural treatment I could find information about, blowing my old friends out of the water with my new-found knowledge of self care and home remedies.
I’ve since come back from the brink of strictly ‘alternative’ medicine, but I still maintain a healthy skepticism regarding the influence that money and politics have on our current medical model. I choose conventional medicine as an absolute last case resort, when I can’t fix it myself, or can’t find someone who can either gently intervene or show me how to fix it.
What eventually changed my ‘strictly alternative medicine’ mindset was a talk I attended by a pretty amazing lady named Nancy Turich. She had fallen 40 feet off of a cliff and though battered and bruised and temporarily paralyzed, lived to tell the tale. Had it not been for advanced western medical interventions, she would not have survived. But had it also not been for the holistic aftercare that she sought out on her own, she may never have walked again, or regained the ability to live a full life. Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy had discharged her as there was nothing else they could do for her, so from there she took her recovery into her own hands. During her talk, she stressed the importance of both systems of medicine, that conventional medicine has its place and holistic therapists should not try to fight against it, but that we must figure out how to work together to provide the maximum benefit for patients.
As my (at the time) radical brain digested all this, I realized where the conflict occurs. Our current medical model is unparalleled at treating trauma and catastrophic health conditions, but where it is severely lacking is preventative health and managing chronic conditions. Yes, we can screen and test for disease earlier than ever before, but doctors have no time, or incentive, to teach patients how to prevent illness though lifestyle. Doctors are paid in procedures and prescriptions.
This is where Holistic Healthcare has so much potential. But what is Holistic Healthcare? Most of us can list a bunch of terms and modalities when asked what holistic healthcare is: Massage Therapy, Chiropractic, Acupuncture, Reiki, Nutrition (why is this not part of conventional medicine?!), Alternative Medicine, Complementary Therapies. But these are just aspects of it.
This means that the effect of treatment on all aspects of the patient must be considered. Not just the physical body, the emotional state or spiritual health, but all of it. A Holistic practitioner may only specialize in treating one of these aspects of the whole, but they are always aware of what might be going on with the other aspects, and have a good referral system in place for when something presents that is out of their realm of treatment. Conventional Medicine often does a very poor job of considering the emotional and spiritual toll of illness and invasive treatments.
A very wise friend, teacher and mentor of mine, Dr. Evan Osar taught me a long time ago that although we need to consider all 3 aspects when working with patients, there is no set formula for where you need to start. If you practice bodywork, you can enter the system with the physical body and begin to effect change in the mind and spirit. For example by relieving pain you might help someone pick up a hobby again that they have been unable to perform due to pain, which uplifts their spirit; or improve their sleep and have an effect on hormone levels and emotions.
Similarly by beginning with addressing emotional stresses, physical pain can be eliminated by affecting the physiological response to pain or learning how to decrease muscle tension. Sometimes a spiritual blockage may be the primary complaint that needs to be removed to allow the patient to feel their emotions and enjoy movement and physical activities again.
Eastern medicine is historically known for its holistic approach to treatment. Ayurveda, which originates from India several thousand years ago, is a complete and advanced medical system that lays the responsibility for health firmly at the patients’ door. Patients are responsible for daily rituals to maintain their own physical, spiritual and emotional health. A successful Ayurvedic doctor is one who has healthy patients. Ayurveda includes yoga for calming the mind, pranic breathing for the cleansing the spiritual body, and diet, massage, detoxification therapies and lifestyle recommendations for physical health.
Traditional Chinese medicine is also considered a complete medical system. It incorporates Tuina (medical massage), diet and herbs for the physical body, Qigong (moving mediation therapy) for the mind, and Acupuncture to address blockages in the energy system.
Chinese medicine has been researched and studied far more extensively than Ayurveda, so much so that acupuncture is now covered by many health insurance policies. Unfortunately much Ayurvedic wisdom was lost over centuries during the numerous invasions of India, which suppressed Ayurvedic culture, but it is finally making a recovery and garnering much interest in the west.
There are also many less comprehensive forms of natural healthcare, that can work together to assist a patient looking to complement conventional medicine, and create their own approach to holistic health. For example, after a surgery, lavender essential oil could be applied to the incision for its cell regenerative properties to promote healing and prevent scarring, manual lymphatic drainage can help reduce swelling and inflammation, massage can help regain range of motion in affected joints and fascial therapy can assist in creating more functional scar tissue. Psychotherapy, Hypnotherapy or EFT could be added if there is emotional trauma surrounding the surgery, such as an emergency C-section or a car accident. Qigong or Reiki could help to clear out any spiritual or energetic blockages created by physical or emotional trauma.
The only way to make a change to the conventional drugs and surgery approach to healthcare, or as we holistic practitioners like to call it ‘sickness care’, is for patients to take a stand and demand a less invasive and/or more natural and holistic treatment. It’s less traumatic on the body and prevents a lifetime of dependency on an external system when we learn to manage the wellbeing of our own mind, body and spirit.
If we all, patients, MDs, and holistic practitioners, put a foot in the East and a foot in the West (metaphorically, I don’t work for the British Tourism Board), we could make huge strides in improving lives, by preventing illnesses before they begin and breaking free from the chronic conditions and preventable diseases that weigh so heavily on our society.
The true essence of Holistic Health is that it treats the whole person, and by whole person we mean the Mind, Body and Spirit.