A fairly controversial discussion revolves around holistic medicine vs. traditional therapy. What are the differences between the two? What are the similarities? Is one approach better than the other?

As we see it, the only similarity between holistic and traditional therapies is that they’re both intended to fix problems related to health. However, they’re vastly different in terms of how they solve problems, and their level of effectiveness in doing so.

To understand the underlying issues at stake, it’s important to first know that vitamin and mineral deficiencies lie at the heart of many health problems. Beyond that, toxicity and high sugar intake are also key contributors to people feeling tired, cranky, or generally in poor health.

Often times, the real solution to feeling better is to simply remove poisons (like refined sugar, pesticides, processed foods, and chemicals) from the diet, and to supplement the diet with specific vitamins, herbs, and minerals required by each individual person’s body. Indeed, not everyone requires the same supplements - which is why patients at our clinic are scanned to assess their nutritional needs and food allergies first.

Unfortunately, traditional medicine often doesn’t adhere to this basic truth. Some doctors like to over-complicate things, and make solutions messier than they need to be. In this realm, you find doctors masking symptoms (with drugs), invading the patient’s body (as in surgery), and often providing temporary relief at best. Sure, there are many good doctors out there who understand that helping patients heal doesn’t begin with the crack of a pill bottle and end with the cut of a scalpel. However, finding these doctors who practice holistically can be easier said than done; some physicians unfortunately still subscribe to the old formula of drugs and surgeries.

Holistic therapy, on the other hand, adheres to simple truths about how the human body was originally designed to operate. Holistic medicine assesses the whole picture of a patient’s life, removes what doesn’t belong, and adds what DOES belong – so that the body is free to heal itself naturally. Holistic doctors, integrative physicians, and the like seek long term, permanent solutions by helping a patient’s body heal naturally with minimal invasiveness. While permanent changes may not be as simple as swallowing a pill and sleeping on it, the old saying of “what is worthwhile requires work” applies in wellness as well.

As we see it, there are 3 major differences between holistic medicine and traditional therapies. We’ve given some examples below to highlight these differences:

#1 Holistic medicine examines the whole being, while traditional therapies address only the parts.
A traditional doctor usually asks a patient what his symptoms are. You will rarely, if ever, find a traditional doctor asking questions like, “How many hours of sleep are you getting each night? How much water are you drinking? What supplements are you taking? What kinds of foods have you been eating? How stressed do you feel lately? How happy are your relationships making you? How do you feel about your job/work?”

The questions above are something an integrative health physician might ask in order to get a comprehensive picture of the patient’s overall quality of life. For example, if a person isn’t sleeping well, the integrative health physician might dig into the patient’s life and habits and discover that removing calcium supplements, and replacing it with magnesium citrate, will help clear up an insomnia problem.

A traditional practitioner, on the other hand, might simply hear the symptom, “I can’t sleep,” and react by prescribing Ambien, which leaves many people feeling drowsy the next day, and which has a potentially terrible side effect: it can leave the patient dependent upon the drug for sleep.

#2 Pharmaceutical drugs address symptoms, while natural herbs, minerals, and vitamins can help restore a body to its natural state, thereby addressing the root cause of the health ailment.

In holistic medicine, the idea is not merely to hide a symptom, but to seek out the true source of the problem and permanently remove it. For example, if a person has chronic allergies (sneezing, itchy nose, runny nose), a traditional approach might be to prescribe Claritin or some other man-made medicine that masks the problem. In contrast, a holistic doctor might ask the patient what types of foods they’re eating. Perhaps they’re eating lots of gluten, soy, or dairy, and perhaps the person has food sensitivities to these substances – which would be responsible for the presence of unwanted symptoms.

Whereas the traditional doctor might say, “Take 2 Claritin a day and your allergies will be gone,” the holistic doctor might say, “Pull out gluten, dairy, and soy entirely from your diet for 30 days, and see how you feel.” Within days, the patient could discover the allergies suddenly gone without ever having taken any pharmaceutical drugs.

#3 Surgery (a traditional option) is invasive; finding non-surgical alternatives to health problems FIRST and leaving surgery as the LAST RESORT is the mantra of the holistic health practitioner.

For major health problems, a commonly recommended solution in the traditional medicine world is to cut open the body and remove the offending parts (as in surgery). This is akin to cutting one’s hands off in order to make the arms fit an properly sized jacket. The real solution may be as simple as getting a better-fitting jacket.

Not only can surgery be invasive, dangerous, and risky, it can also be very stressful for the patient. The patient may worry about possible complications and there is definitely an emotional toll involved with the whole ordeal.

Of course, no one should be recommending to delay surgery if it’s the BEST option and there are NO other feasible alternatives. For example, legendary tech icon Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, should have had cancer surgery early on instead of trying to treat himself with alternative diets for two years. When it comes to life-threatening ailments, holistic medicine should be used in conjunction with traditional therapies to maximize the chance of saving the patient’s life.

Again - instead of grabbing the scalpel first - the holistic approach would be to assess the patient’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and advise the patient of all of the options, including surgery. Recommending back surgery to a person who strained her back mowing the lawn is ludicrous when a trip to the chiropractor and plenty of bedrest would’ve been the solution. However, stranger things have happened in the American healthcare system.

Remember - by addressing our bodies’ healing systems on all four of its levels: the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels, and by seeking to address CAUSES and not SYMPTOMS, we can maximize our chances of optimum health without having to reach for the pill bottle or scalpel.

Author's Bio: 

Throughout his lengthy career, Dr. Char has spent a lifetime researching and applying holistic treatments to benefit thousands of patients worldwide. As an ardent supporter of naturopathic medicine and a well known voice of reason in the holistic medical and dental community, he has authored three books and countless articles on the subject of wellness. He is also a nationally recognized authority on alternative and complementary medicine, and has used both successfully throughout his distinguished career. www.drjohnchar.com/blog