What is Holistic Medicine - Ancient and Modern Views 

By Val Silver

What is holistic medicine? 

Holistic medicine is a whole person approach, not just a particular method or style of treating disease. The basic philosophy is to treat the entire person, not just the pain or disease and to enhance well-being on all levels: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual.

A well-rounded whole person approach to healing takes advantage of ancient and modern medical wisdom, along with the best that complementary therapies and conventional allopathic medicine have to offer. 

What is holistic medicine according to the ancients?

Although the official definition of holistic medicine is relatively new, its philosophy and practice predates written history.

The oldest known whole-person healing practice is shamanism, which dates back more than 20 thousand years. In shamanism, the emphasis is on spiritual healing.  Medicine men, or shamans, move energy through the use of herbs, minerals, songs, hands-on body manipulation, rattles and/or drumming. 

Because the ancients believed in the energetic nature of the web of life and that one's inner reality affect their physical reality. They believed that all beings - human and nonhuman are intertwined with each other, the Earth, and the Cosmos, the emphasis was on healthy living and living in harmony with nature, more than treating a disease. Disease was often viewed as a symptom of being out of harmony with "all that is".

With the exception of injuries, indigenous peoples and ancient cultures approached health with the whole self in mind. They believed that all parts of our being - mind, body, and spirit - are interconnected. No part exists separate from the others, nor could it be be treated in isolation from the others. Cause and cure of all disease is within the spirit, mind, and body of the person. 

According to the great Greek philosopher, Socrates (399BC), medicine had to encompass the whole person because treating only one part of the body would lead to poor results.

Doctor Hippocrates, credited with advancing medicine as a profession in the west, considered the weather, emotions, and food to be contributing factors to health. He emphasized the body's ability to heal itself and warned doctors not to interfere.  First do no harm is an oath medical doctors still pledge today.

hippocrates on stone tablet, holistic medicine

One of the world's oldest whole-body healing systems is Ayurvedic medicine, which developed in India more than 3,000 years ago. Ayurveda emphasizes maintaining good health by attending to right thinking, diet, lifestyle, and the use of herbs. When needed, it does have treatments for addressing imbalances in the energy system in order to help the body heal from specific health conditions. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has also been used for thousands of years. Practitioners use mind body practices, such as acupuncture, chi gong, and herbs to address health concerns. These are often diagnosed through tongue and pulse analysis. Like Ayurveda, TCM focuses on promoting, balancing, and maintaining a healthy flow of chi, or life force energy in the person. 

In the 16th century China, the paradigm shifted from paying doctors to help a patient get well to getting paid for keeping patients well. If patients became ill, doctors would have to treat them without payment until they were well again. Then payments would resume. 

A Modern Definition of Holistic Medicine

According to the American Board of Holistic Medicine (ABHM) and the American Holistic Medicine Association (AHMA), the official definition of holistic medicine is:

the art and science of healing that addresses the whole person - body, mind and spirit. The practice of holistic medicine integrates conventional and complementary therapies to promote optimal health and to prevent and treat disease.

Holistic practitioners often expand the definition of holistic medicine by including an emphasis on education, personal responsibility, and love of self and others. When you love yourself, you are motivated to improve your health in all areas of your life as an ongoing journey and personal commitment to wellness.

The doctor-patient relationship is viewed as a partnership, with the ultimate decisions and responsibility being your own. And together, you would try to determine the cause - mental, physical and/or spiritual - so you improve your health.

You may be surprised to see conventional medicine, or allopathy, as well as alternative and complementary therapies listed under the umbrella of holistic medicine. Some advocates of natural remedies exclude allopathy, but this is not accurate. Although holistic-minded folks tend to favor lifestyle changes and complementary alternative methods, they know that taking advantage of the modern medical system is sometimes necessary. 

It is also possible to practice holistic medicine using mostly modern medical approaches, such as psychiatry and pharmaceuticals, with a nod toward diet and exercise, but alternative and complementary approaches, such as energy healing, TCM, Ayurveda, or other ancient practices, which some medical providers consider quackery. 

what is holistic medicine

What is Holistic Medicine - An Example

The following hypothetical example illustrates how the philosophy of holistic medicine seamlessly blends modern medicine with lifestyle changes and complementary medicine to facilitate healing.

Consider someone suffering from recurring sinus infections. Let's call him Sam. Multiple visits to the doctor practicing conventional modern medicine end the same way - with serial prescriptions for antibiotics and another to ease symptoms. Discouraged that the cycle keeps repeating itself, and worried that the antibiotics are killing his good intestinal bacteria, he decides to incorporate a natural, holistic approach into his regimen in hopes of avoiding the next cycle of infection and medications.

Sam talks with his doctor, does research, and comes up with a plan. He supplements with probiotics to replace the good bacteria the antibiotics kill off and medicinal mushrooms to boost his immune system. To further boost immunity and healing hormones, he reduces his stress levels, drinks more water, and improves his diet. Reducing sugar keeps yeast at bay (sometimes behind sinus infections). 

Sam's doctor suggested running a humidifier in the bedroom because dry air irritates the sinuses and saline spray to flush them out.  Sam bought a new pillow (Old pillows are filled with dust mite droppings and mold) and decided to clock an extra hour of sleep each night. He airs out his house daily and switches to green cleaning products to reduce irritating indoor pollution.  

In the following weeks, as his body and life got into balance, his resistance grew. Sam feels better mentally and physically. His sinuses feel better, too.

Related Pages


Hopefully in the future, when the question of what is holistic medicine comes up, the answer will describe mainstream medicine of the day. Whole person healing and health care will be the norm. Some doctors are already making this vision a reality. Until these pioneers are the rule instead of the exception, you may have to design your own holistic wellness and healing plan or partner with a wellness practitioner or coach. It is definitely worth it.

What is Holistic Medicine page updated 12/2020

For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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