While there are definite crossovers between western and holistic approaches to health – the two differ fundamentally in concept. To take a very generalised view, western medicine (known as allopathic) tends to focus on diagnosing and treating a specific illness once it occurs – it is designed to attack, and will often use pharmaceutical drugs to do so. On the other hand, a holistic approach (derived from the Greek word halos for whole,) is not so much a system of treating illness, but rather a way of preventing it in the first place, by promoting healthy living and integration of mind, body and spirit. It may (but not necessarily) favour alternative therapies or it may be used in conjunction with western treatment. Neither approach needs to be exclusive as each has its strength and weaknesses, so ideally they can be used to complement each other depending on given circumstances. Stay well and healthy and you will get sick less often, and thus have little need for western medicine, but when it comes to a sudden life or death scenario, it is the fast responding, western-trained A & E team who will probably save your life.
Although the term holism wasn’t coined until the 20th century, the practice dates back thousands of years. Chinese medicine and India’s ancient Ayurvedic traditions emphasised healthy living, while the ancient Greeks and Egyptians were herbalists, using common plants and herbs for healing. In fact Hippocrates, (a physician in Greece in 400BC) who is considered to be the father of modern medicine, had one foot in scientific reason and the other in the power of natural healing. He believed that the task of the physician was to help the healing process along rather than to take it over. A holistic approach to health fell out of favour with radical advances in allopathic medicine around the turn of the 20th century, but by the 1970’s it was making a resurgence . While some dismissed this practice as ‘new age,’ actually holism is about as ‘old age’ as it gets.
Prevention as a cure
There is, however, no denying the impact of advances in modern medicine, with developments such as antibiotics, neurosurgery, transplants, ultra sound, immunisations and so forth having a radical effect on the quality and quantity of human life. Until the 1800’s the average life expectancy was 30 – 40; in the ten generations since then it has doubled. Obviously increased sanitation, access to clean running water and better nutrition have a huge part to play in this shift – but there is no denying the crucial role allopathic medicine has played. Nevertheless, a valid argument is that western medicine treats only the symptoms but not the underlying causes. Take recurring chronic sinusitis. You could take a course of antibiotics every time it occurs, or you could look at what is causing it – maybe a dust allergy, or perhaps too much dairy in your diet. Then by making some lifestyle changes you could prevent it. Here in lies the difference. With western medicine, you go to the doctor to get healed, with a holistic approach the onus falls on YOU the individual. What about a wheat or dairy intolerance? There is no magic pharmaceutical pill to cure this, only you can heal yourself by changing your diet.
Again, when it comes to common colds and flu, many people will go rushing off to the doctor or pharmacist. But, there is no antibiotic that will attack a viral infection. Paracetemol and decongestants may give temporary relief, however your best bet is to rest, take Vitamin C and eat lots of garlic – which is proved to be anti viral, anti fungal and anti bacterial. In fact, regularly eating garlic in the cold season, or at the first sign of a cold will help prevent you getting ill, while a strong tea infused with ginger, garlic, lemon and honey will provide greater relief than over the counter medicine – and will also fight the virus and strengthen your immune system. Again, the onus is on the individual. If you pay attention to your body you will notice that you tend to get sick when you are run down, stressed or overworked and not eating properly. These are things that most of us can take some control over – should we choose to. We can redress the balance by joining a yoga class, eating well and doing things that make us feel happy.
The beauty of Holism is that it encourages awareness, and responsibility for our own health, which makes total sense. But no matter how healthy we are, sooner or later we are all exposed to bacteria, succumb to genetic predispositions, or suffer from serious accidents and injuries, and at times there really is no disputing the power of western medicine. Managing chronic asthma is a good example of taking a combined holistic/western approach to well being. Avoiding triggers such as dust, smoking, dairy products and certain foods such as tomatoes can lessen the frequency of attacks, but when a really severe attack hits, the administration of hyrdrocortisone and oxygen in a hospital may be the only thing that prevents respiratory failure. And if your head is split open in a serious car accident – you are probably going to want the skilled neuro surgeon using advanced western techniques to be the one who treats you.
Reducing dependency on western medicine and synthetic drugs by taking responsibility for your own health is a great thing, but remember that sometimes taking responsibility for your own health means visiting the doctor. While it is well documented that many people successfully treat cancer holistically – your greatest chance of survival is to detect it early (while it is still isolated and treatable) through medical imaging or blood screening.
Perhaps the best way forward is not to debate holistic v western, but rather to embrace the notion of holistic & western.
Published in Kula Magazine July 2013