Those who hold official positions within international and governmental organizations – the supposed leaders of our world – seem to be just as clueless as we are about solving the world’s deepest problems. Instead of the top-down model of change that world leaders have tirelessly tried to implement, it is time to make a change that begins with the very core of every human being. Such a fundamental change can be brought about by improving the health of everyone, thus collectively improving the health of the world. Western medicine has damaged our perception of how to achieve wellness, and even what “wellness” means to begin with. Using influences from Paul Fiddes’ Seeing the World and Knowing God and John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable, we can exemplify the importance of every individual’s holistic health and investigate the influence of spirituality in the realm of healthcare to bring about global change.
Wide-Scale Health Crisis:
Before delving into fine details about holistic medicine and wellness, it is necessary to state the reasons why we need reform in our approach to medicine in the first place. Among the onslaught of health problems, chronic pain seems to be the most prevalent. The NCCIH defines chronic pain as “pain that lasts more than several months (variously defined as 3 to 6 months, but certainly longer than ‘normal healing)” (Chronic Pain: In Depth 2016). In other words, chronic pain is nothing like the immediate acute pain felt when someone stubs their toe. Chronic pain is debilitating, which is described in an article published by Gereau et. al in 2014 which defines chronic pain as “…longstanding pain that adversely impact(s) quality of life” (Gereau et. al 2014). This decrease in life quality is partially responsible for the mental, emotional, and physical illness that run rampant throughout the world. To combat the chronic pain epidemic, Western medicine fought back with pharmaceutical treatments and other scientific therapies. According to a 2012 national survey given by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the United States spends $635 billion a year on chronic pain, which is more than the cost of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined (Nahin 2015). Chronic pain in the United States is costing American tax payers and insurance companies billions of dollars due to the prevalence of chronic pain in the United States population. The NCCIH released a report about the prevalence of pain in the United States, estimating in the three months preceding the survey, 25 million adults in the United States had daily chronic pain while 23 million claimed to have severe pain (Nahin 2015).
There’s no question that pain problems are running rampant throughout the United States, and scientists are avidly working to ease suffering by conducting research on a slew pharmacological treatments. This approach has continued to cost Americans in money, as well as quality of life. Many healthcare activists and physicians are calling for a different approach because drugs simply don’t work for many patients. Patients prescribed opioids to control their pain are becoming addicted and often dying due to opioid overdose (Opioid Overdose Crises 2017). One physician published an article criticizing Trump’s approach to fix the opioid epidemic in the United States because it failed to recognize that the problem is in the approach to chronic pain treatment, not in opioids (Jonas 2017). Physicians historically fall back on pharmaceutical treatments for pain, and seldom consider “unconventional” treatments that fall under the “holistic medicine” category.
This narrow-minded approach of medicine has wreaked havoc in other realms of healthcare as well. Obesity, diabetes, and nutritional issues have been on the rise, and this increased prevalence is arguably due to physicians’ ignorance to aspects that govern patients’ health that go beyond the scope of physical symptoms. The Organization for Economic Co-operation reported that the United States joins other highly populated countries in having the highest prevalence of obesity in the world (Devaux and Sassi 2015). Diabetes, cancer and suicide can also be included in our discussion of the US health crisis as reported in the Center for Disease Control’s top ten causes of death in 2015 (Center for Disease Control 2015). Nutrition, dietary habits, social influences and mental health are aspects of health involved with these illnesses, and it may come as no surprise that they are often neglected by healthcare practitioners in traditional Western practices.
The roots of disease incidence are ambiguous and unique to every individual. In addition to the lacking aspects of the healthcare system, people may be sick simply because they do not have access to treatment they need. A 2005 study found that limited access to healthcare is associated with “being Hispanic and speaking Spanish, being younger or male, having low income or limited education, being employed, and agreeing that financial concerns prevented pain treatment” (Nguyen et. al 2005). These demographic disparities also play a role in chronic illness. The NCCIH study on chronic pain found that women, older individuals, and non-Hispanics were more likely to report pain, and that race and ethnicity impact how gender influences pain incidence (Nahin 2015). Because Western medicine puts a great deal of emphasis on treatments available only through an appointment with a professional, limited access to such treatments could be detrimental. A holistic approach to medicine may lessen this burden by providing medicine in the comfort of one’s home. Thus, the prevalence of chronic illness and limited access to healthcare can be lessened by considering a more holistic approach.
Holistic Medicine – An Overview:
The basis of holistic medicine lies in the treatment and wellness of the whole person – more specifically, consideration of balance between the mind, body and spirit (Mohan 2017). The fundamental aspects of holistic medicine are tied to the balance between an individual’s mind, body and spirit. The mind is concerned with mental health and stability, and the body represents physical health that is the typical focus of traditional medicine. The spirit is an abstract element of health that involves core beliefs and values, as well as the meaning of life itself (Spiritual Wellness 2017). Holistic health also focuses on the individual’s capability to heal themselves which partially eliminates the need to see a professional – helping to diminish people’s inaccessibility to healthcare by taking responsibility for one’s wellbeing. Treatments involved with holistic medicine aim towards healing imbalances between the mind, body and spirit. This holistic approach to medicine has profoundly improved the lives of many, including women with breast cancer who gave personal accounts after undergoing a mind, body and spirit self-empowerment program. These women gave personal accounts of their experiences claiming this treatment regimen pushed their personal boundaries to uncover an unprecedented sense of healing (Kinney et. al 2003). Holistic practices are not only for the sick – many have been adopted by a wider scope of the population.
Holistic medicine is regularly practiced throughout the United States despite the lack of representation in traditional healthcare. According to the NCCIH, the most common holistic practices in the United States are the use of natural products, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi or qi gong, meditation and massage as seen in the figure below (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s in a name? 2017). There are many type of holistic medicine, such as acupuncture, acupressure, reflexology, homeopathy, and naturopathy just to name a few. Some of these practices date back to ancient times, suggesting they must reap some sort of benefit to an individual’s health since they have propagated for thousands of years. Where did we steer away from holism? The answer lies in the history of medicine itself.
History of Medicine – How Did We Get Here?
Holistic practices have been around for thousands of years, like the Aryuvedic practice of medicine that originated in India 3,000 years ago which continues to be India’s main avenue of medicine (Weber and Killen 2013). The movement away from holism was gradual until the last 500 years when it quickly accelerated after the germ theory proposal. This change is described in Guenter Risse’s comprehensive account of the history of medicine from Greek and Roman practices until the emergence of germ theory in the late 19th century. In 500 B.C.E. techne iatriche, “healing science,” sought to explain the relationship between health and illness. Hippocrates was a huge proponent of medicine in this time. “Hippocratic Medicine” emphasized the individuality of the patient in healthcare. Hippocrates defined health as a state of balance between the four bodily humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Physicians of this time would suggest changes in diet, rest, exercise, and drugs. Physicians treated their patients by supplementing the “natural healing powers” inferred to be within every human being (Risse 1993). Holistic practices were prominent in ancient times, however the understanding of the human body and illness at this time were nowhere near our current understanding of medicine.
Influences from the early Christian era and Islam incorporated religion into the act of healing. More specifically, Islamic physicians were “approved” by religious leaders after a more formalized medical education. This professionalism of modern medicine further developed in the later stages of medical history with the Middle Ages. The idea that the four bodily humors were the primary basis of health and illness were still prevalent at this time, however further observation by physicians led to the supplementing idea that “essential or ‘radical’ moisture was needed to ensure proper mental and physical functioning” (Risse 1993). This supplemental idea posed a more scientific relationship between physiology and health and disease. Thus, more education was necessary to become a physician. A major growth in medical education occurred in the 13th century with the opening of major schools in France (Montpellier and Paris) and Italy (Bologna). Medical education incorporated emphasis on theory, rhetoric and philosophy, all of which accompanied a rise in social prestige by physicians (Risse 1993). Public health initiatives also emerged in this time. European response to the plague launched quarantines which protected the elite social class from sickness (Risse 1993).
The causes of such illnesses were still not understood, however the Renaissance kick-started the movement towards pathological research by finding that chemical processes were involved in the treatment of syphilis. Such understanding was thought to be controlled by internal “archeus” or alchemist, which kept a proper balance between bodily mixtures (Risse 1993). Medicine still lacked understanding at this time, so scholars aimed to answer questions about medicine through research. Rene Descartes proposed that the body had a dual nature composed of a physical body that is defined by the laws of matter and motion, and a pure thinking entity located in the pineal area of the brain called the soul or mind (Risse 1993). Here we can still observe an approach to medicine that considers a part of health that we cannot physically observe. However, an increase in physiological research shortly followed Descartes’ proposal. Italian scholar Galileo Galilei was one of the most prominent researchers of the time to investigate such bodily functions (Risse 1993). William Harvey’s observations about the circulatory system, Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope studies, and Thomas Sydenham’s patient monitoring model were all steps leading toward the narrow view of medicine that would further narrow the scope of medicine, thus abandoning previous holistic practices.
Germ Theory & Its Effect on Medicine:
Germ theory is the idea that diseases are caused by microscopic living organisms that act as parasites to the human body (Risse 1993). Theories leading up to germ theory discussed poisonous materials from decomposing organic matter called “miasma,” Girolamo Francastoro’s seeds of disease called “seminaria,” and Justus von Liebig’s abiotic, self-reproducing particles called “ferments” (Risse 1993). French chemist Louis Pasteur and German physicist and microbiologist Robert Koch developed germ theory after Pasteur’s work with doctrine of spontaneous generation and Koch’s work with anthrax. It was composed of three postulates to deem an illness a result of specific organisms: firstly, the specific pathogen must be present in all cases of the disease. Secondly, the pathogen should not be found with any other disease, and lastly, the same disease should be present in another animal after isolating and inoculating the pathogen in that animal (Risse 1993). These postulates aim to describe the highly specific nature of pathogenic diseases, hence moving further away from holistic practices.
The effects of germ theory were unprecedented, for it took the medical world by storm. Vaccines and medicines were synthesized to prevent or treat diseases caused by microorganisms. In the last two decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, vaccines for typhoid fever, leprosy, malaria, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, tetanus, pneumonia, the plague, botulism, dysentery and syphilis were synthesized using ideas from the germ theory postulates (Risse 1993). However, the germ theory was not the answer to all health issues. Many would argue that the sharp decrease in mortality was due to the increase in sanitation and cleanliness rather than the development of medicines and vaccines (Harvard University Library). This hidden cause of decreased mortality also evaded the public eye of Western medicine. The Flexner Report – a detailed study about medical education in the United States and Canada published in 1910 by Abraham Flexner – further narrowed the Western perspective of medicine. The report caused states to “restrict or condemn training and licensing of unconventional forms of practice,” which would include many forms of holistic and complimentary treatments (Barret et. al 2004, Cox and Irby 2006). A sharp divide was created between traditional, scientific medicine and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), as noted by the chiropractic opposition to germ theory (Wiese 1996). Such a divide occurred throughout the medical field, likely preventing general practitioners from referring patients to such “abstract” treatments. Despite the opposition between traditional and CAM, there has been a recent resurgence in holistic medical practices as it becomes more mainstream. Many practitioners in the holistic field of medicine believe that prejudice and ignorance are to blame for the divide between holism and medicine (Barret et. al 2004).
Resurgence of Holistic Medicine:
Holistic practices have been revived due to the lacking understanding of medicine that stemmed from the germ theory and narrow-mindedness of traditional Western medicine. This revival occurred in the mid 20th century and has continued to rise in popularity ever since (Wiese 1996). Some holistic medicine practitioners believe that if more people were educated and experienced the healing for themselves, we would be able to close the gap between holism and traditional medicine to create an integrative approach that combines the best of each realm (Barret et. al 2004).
We described holistic medicine to be a balance between an individual’s mind body and spirit. Among these three entities, the soul is a part of healthcare that lags behind physical and mental health considerations. In fact, many physicians admitted in a survey that their medical education did not prepare them to deal with spiritual aspects of health and illness in their experiences with patients (Singh and Ajinkya 2012). The only time anybody usually links religion with medicine is with terminally ill patients. When I volunteered at Hospice of the Sacred Heart in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, part of my volunteer-orientation was to prepare me to deal with the religious and spiritual aspects of patients that are close to passing away. Based on my own observations, people sought refuge from religion in their last moments on Earth and I believe it made their exit much more peaceful. This form of healing can be used in healthy people as well as those in their last days on earth. Spiritual health can be brought about by practices of mindfulness – an integral part of holistic medicine (Mohan 2017). Mindfulness practices have been shown to benefit mental and emotional health, and sometimes even physical health (Chu 2009). This interplay between the mind, body and spirit is how practitioners help individuals achieve wellness outside of traditional medical approaches.
Integration of Holistic and Traditional Medicine: Patient Histories as Parables
One of the major trends in the medical field is the integration of holistic practices into traditional medicine. This practice of holism is often implemented by taking a more thorough patient history and looking for undertones of patient statements to uncover integral information about their health. Any practitioner would declare that a patient’s health history is key for diagnoses and treatment plans. In a way, the patient is telling a story about their health history as well as their life outside of their health. To get a wider view of the patient’s health, practitioners should pay attention to unrelated statements that may yield information about the patient’s home life, social interactions, emotional health, economic status, and access to resources. These are all parts of the individual’s health, and it is the practitioner’s responsibility to cater their care to these various aspects. The patient’s “story” is similar to Paul Fiddes’ explanation of the self having a “narrative identity.” This narrative identity is defined as the way an individual sees oneself in relation to the world (Fiddes 2013). By looking between the lines, practitioners can delve deeper into patient histories, thus catering their care to the unique aspects of the patient by seeing how the patient tells their story.
The enthusiasm in which the narrative of health history is told varies from patient to patient. Regardless of how much a history feels like a “story,” it is a story nonetheless. John Dominic Crossan’s discussion of a “parable” defines a parable as a metaphorical story (Crossan 2012). Thus, a patient’s story that indirectly yields health information would be considered a parable in this respect. Their story would carry information across different domains, just like Crossan’s explanation of a metaphor, which describes the nature of metaphoricity and how it carries meaning across different planes of thought (Crossan 2012). Crossan references Jesus’ parable in the book of Mark 4: 3-9 which talks about the Sower. The passage ends with Jesus’s call to action, saying “He who has ears to hear let him hear” (Crossan 2012). In the case of holistic medical practices, the one who has ears to listen for would be the physician listening to the patient’s story about their life. Thus, a patient’s health history can be interpreted in the sense that it carries meaning throughout the patient’s life as well as the integral parts of their overall health status. The integration of holism into traditional medical practices can relate to Jesus’ parables, and can teach practitioners how to properly listen to patients by viewing their stories as parables.
Holistic Medicine in Popular Culture:
Appreciation of the world’s beauty and mystery, however, are not the only sources of spiritual and mental wellness. One can nurture their mind and soul by simply acknowledging they need to heal, and practicing self-care to improve their well-being. Self-care rituals have been on the rise on social media networks due to increase awareness throughout the world. Celebrity advocates for self-care include Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga and Demi Lovato. These people have publically advocated for self-care habits while facing severe threats to their physical and mental health.
In addition to meditation and other self-care rituals, many individuals seek refuge in consuming their favorite type of popular culture. In my personal experience. I’ve found that watching one of my favorite movies is the medicine I need when I feel overwhelmed. This is just one example of how popular culture can play a role in holistic health. Many people find joy in listening to their favorite music, watching a TV series, or even the simple act of scrolling through social media sites to stay in touch with the rest of the world.
Regardless of what works for everyone, whether it be meditation, watching a movie, or regular checkups at their doctor’s office, there are ways to improve health of the whole person that show promising results in the improvement of healthcare as we know it. Moreover, individual improvements of health would have drastic effects on a global scale. Problems would be solved from the bottom-up. This can be done by adopting holistic medicine into everyone’s daily routines. Taking a step back and appreciating the little things can have drastic improvements on one’s health, and it may even bring you closer to feeling the healing power of love that God has to offer.