|The following is the "Holistic Health" chapter from the critically acclaimed book, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines, published by The Rosen Publishing Group in 1999 and presented here with permission. This material was written by AHHA President, Suzan Walter.
Holistic Health is actually an approach to life. Rather than focusing on illness or specific parts of the body, this ancient approach to health considers the whole person and how he or she interacts with his or her environment. It emphasizes the connection of mind, body, and spirit. The goal is to achieve maximum well-being, where everything is functioning the very best that is possible. With Holistic Health people accept responsibility for their own level of well-being, and everyday choices are used to take charge of one's own health.
Ancient healing traditions, as far back as 5,000 years ago in India and China, stressed living a healthy way of life in harmony with nature. Socrates (4th century BC) warned against treating only one part of the body "for the part can never be well unless the whole is well." Although the term holism was introduced by Jan Christiaan Smuts in 1926 as a way of viewing living things as "entities greater than and different from the sum of their parts," it wasn't until the 1970s that holistic became a common adjective in our modern vocabulary.
Holistic concepts fell temporarily out of favor in Western societies during the 20th century. Scientific medical advances had created a dramatic shift in the concept of health. Germs were identified as outside sources causing disease. Gaining health became a process of killing microscopic invaders with synthesized drugs. People believed that they could get away with unhealthy lifestyle choices, and modern medicine would "fix" them as problems developed.
However, for some conditions medical cures have proven more harmful than the disease. In addition, many chronic conditions do not respond to scientific medical treatments. In looking for other options, people are turning back to the holistic approach to health and healing. The Holistic Health lifestyle is regaining popularity each year, as the holistic principles offer practical options to meet the growing desire for enjoying a high level of vitality and well-being.
Holistic Health is based on the law of nature that a whole is made up of interdependent parts. The earth is made up of systems, such as air, land, water, plants and animals. If life is to be sustained, they cannot be separated, for what is happening to one is also felt by all of the other systems. In the same way, an individual is a whole made up of interdependent parts, which are the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. When one part is not working at its best, it impacts all of the other parts of that person. Furthermore, this whole person, including all of the parts, is constantly interacting with everything in the surrounding environment. For example, when an individual is anxious about a history exam or a job interview, his or her nervousness may result in a physical reaction--such as a headache or a stomach ache. When people suppress anger at a parent or a boss over a long period of time, they often develop a serious illness--such as migraine headaches, emphysema, or even arthritis.
The principles of Holistic Health state that health is more than just not being sick. A common explanation is to view wellness as a continuum along a line. The line represents all possible degrees of health. The far left end of the line represents premature death. On the far right end is the highest possible level of wellness or maximum well-being. The center point of the line represents a lack of apparent disease. This places all levels of illness on the left half of the wellness continuum. The right half shows that even when no illness seems to be present, there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Holistic Health is an ongoing process. As a lifestyle, it includes a personal commitment to be moving toward the right end of the wellness continuum. No matter what their current status of health, people can improve their level of well-being. Even when there are temporary setbacks, movement is always headed toward wellness.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the key factors influencing an individual's state of health have not changed significantly over the past 20 years. Quality of medical care is only 10%. Heredity accounts for 18% and environment is 19%. Everyday lifestyle choices are 53%. The decisions people make about their life and habits are, therefore, by far the largest factor in determining their state of wellness.
The most obvious choices people make each day is what they "consume"--both physically and mentally. The cells in a person's body are constantly being replaced. New cells are built from what is available. Harmful substances or lack of needed building blocks in the body can result in imperfect cells, unable to do what is required to keep that person healthy. Similarly, on the non-physical level, a person's mental attitudes are "built" from what they see and hear.
The majority of illnesses and premature death can be traced back to lifestyle choices. There are the well-known dangers connected with drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and unprotected sexual activity. Less recognized is the impact of excesses in things like sugar, caffeine, and negative attitudes. Combined with deficiencies in exercise, nutritious foods, and self-esteem, these gradually accumulate harmful effects. With time they diminish the quality of the "environment" within that human being, and can set the stage for illness to take hold. Quality of life, now and in the future, is actually being determined by a multitude of seemingly unimportant choices made everyday.
While preventing illness is important, Holistic Health focuses on reaching higher levels of wellness. The right half of the wellness continuum invites people to constantly explore which everyday actions work for them and discovering what is appropriate to move them toward maximum well-being. People are motivated by how good it feels to have lots of energy and enthusiasm for life, knowing that what they are doing that day will allow them to continue to feel this great for years to come.
When disease and chronic conditions do occur, the Holistic Health principles can also be applied. The term is usually changed to holistic medicine, and additional factors are added. The healthcare professionals using the holistic approach work in partnership with their patients. They recommend treatments that support the body's natural healing system and consider the whole person and the whole situation.
A holistic approach to healing goes beyond just eliminating symptoms. For example, taking an aspirin for a headache would be like disconnecting the oil light on the dash of a car when it flashes. The irritation is eliminated, but the real problem still exists. In holistic medicine, a symptom is considered a message that something needs attention. So, the symptom is used as a guide to look below the surface for the root cause. Then what really needs attention can be addressed.
Holistic Health supports reaching higher levels of wellness as well as preventing illness. People enjoy the vitality and well-being that results from their positive lifestyle changes, and are motivated to continue this process throughout their lives.
American Holistic Health Association (AHHA)
Graduate Certificate Program in Holistic Health Care
Collinge, William, Ph.D., The American Holistic Health Association Complete Guide to Alternative Medicine, New York: Warner Books, 1996.
Gordon, James S., M.D., Holistic Medicine, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
Travis, John W., M.D. and Regina Sara Ryan, The Wellness Workbook, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1988.
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Once you have this permission in writing, next notify the author, Suzan Walter