Integrative Health and Medicine
What Does It Mean to Heal Holistically?
The field of integrative health and medicine continues to grow, as health care consumers choose complementary and alternative therapies for their health conditions. But what exactly is “integrative health” or “integrative medicine,” and how can healthcare consumers choose wisely?
“Integrative medicine,” or the more recent term, “integrative health,” refers to health care practiced in such a way that addresses whole-person health and makes optimal use of both conventional medical treatments and time-honored traditional healing modalities to bring about healing in body, mind, and spirit.
The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Despite this fact, conventional medicine views the human body as a machine with smaller fixable parts. With this view comes treatment strategies that rely primarily on the use of medications or procedures to treat the dysfunctional body part(s). While these strategies are highly effective for treating acute conditions or traumas, they often fall short when it comes to reversing chronic conditions, such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
An integrative health approach, on the other hand, addresses the health of the whole person at the root level and cherishes opportunities to achieve true healing. For example, why does a person become diabetic? While genetics do play a part, lifestyle choices and environmental factors often play an even greater role. Eating refined carbs (such as white pasta, white bread, or white rice) and sugary or processed foods over many years, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, can ultimately be the root-cause of this disease.
Knowing this, it becomes obvious that only treating diabetes with medications that may lower blood sugar levels, without fundamentally addressing the risk factors that will eventually lead to diabetes-related outcomes such as heart diseases and strokes, does not truly heal the person. To achieve true healing holistically, we must understand what constitutes wholesome nutrition, what habitual or social forces continue to prevent a person from adopting healthy lifestyle choices (such as stress and family influences), and what purposes and life goals motivate a person to pursue a path to health.
An effective integrative health treatment plan considers these and other factors, so that healing in body, mind and spirit actually happens. The result is that optimal blood sugar levels are achieved, often without the need (or with a much-reduced need) for medications. In turn, physical, mental, and social well-being are restored.
Research has shown that treating health conditions in a holistic way is associated with better health outcomes and measurable changes in laboratory tests. Dr. Dean Ornish found that people with coronary heart disease who underwent a lifestyle intervention, including a whole-food, plant-based diet, meditation, stretching, aerobic exercise, smoking cessation, and group psychosocial support, had a reduction in the blockage in their coronary arteries over five years. Interestingly, patients in the control group had an increase in the artery blockage.
Men with early-stage prostate cancer who followed a similar lifestyle change program were able to inhibit the growth of prostate cancer cell lines eight times more than the men who did not make such changes. This finding suggests that lifestyle changes resulted in the presence of substances in the blood that have anti-cancer effects.
Many complementary therapeutic modalities are used as part of an integrative health approach to care, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, chiropractic, mindfulness practice, yoga, and Tai Chi. However, using these therapeutic options as if they are just another “drug” or intervention would lead us back into the trap of viewing the human body as a machine, rather than approaching health in a truly holistic way. To be sure, it is prudent to make the best use of these integrative treatment modalities as part of a plan for health recovery, but don’t forget to consider the whole person and explore the fundamental choices that will pave the path to true health.
George C. Wang, MD, PhD, is the founder and director of Wisdom Health and Wellbeing and adjunct Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is board-certified in integrative medicine, practices acupuncture, and is passionate about helping people discover the path to true health.
Location: Wisdom Health and Wellbeing, 1st Floor West, 51 John F Kennedy Parkway, Short Hills. For more information, call 973-671-1868 or visit WisdomHeal.com.
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