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What Does “Holistic” Living Actually Mean?

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When you hear the word “holistic,” you might think of meditation and vegetables, or associate the word with a wholesale rejection of modern medicine. But what does “holistic” actually mean? And is there only one way to live a holistic lifestyle?

Seeing the Whole

“Holistic” comes from the word “whole,” meaning that a holistic approach to something takes every aspect of the whole into account and considers how one factor can affect another.

What does holistic mean in practical terms? Here’s an example: When you cook a meal for a dinner party, how do you decide on the menu? How will you flavor each dish? How do you decide how to present the food on the plate? Clearly, the taste, cost, social class, and dietary needs of your guests will influence your decisions.

It’s the same with health. You might experience frequent headaches and go to see a “holistic” doctor. What is a holistic approach to a headache? A holistic doctor will go beyond prescribing a pill for the pain and ask you questions about your stress levels, postures used at work, test you for food allergies, and recommend treatments like psychotherapy and massage as appropriate, to deal with the root cause of your symptoms.

Alternative and Western Approaches to Health: What Does “Holistic” Mean in Modern Medicine?

So, why don’t conventional doctors analyze every form of disease this way? It comes back to the divide between Alternative and Western mindsets about health.

In Western medicine, “disease” is an invader in the body that is separate to the person’s health and must be fought off with drugs, radiation, and surgery. Got an infection? A Western doctor will prescribe antibiotics to kill the bacteria. Got a tumor? A Western doctor will cut it out.

What does “holistic” mean in traditional or Alternative Medicine? In Alternative Medicine, “dis-ease” is the surface symptom of an unbalanced state in the body. Rather than seeing sickness as an invader to be killed, Alternative Medicine sees it as a challenge to be met by balancing the body’s internal terrain. The pathogenic bacteria in an infection are balanced by increasing the patient’s “good” bacteria with prebiotics and probiotics. A tumor is shrunk through the use of herbs and foods to re-oxygenate the affected cells.

A Time for Everything

With Alternative and Western doctors taking such different perspectives, what is a holistic approach to healthcare? The beauty of a holistic approach is that you can take the best of everything and use it as needed.

For example, Alternative Medicine is wonderful when you’re looking for health-building foods, ethnobotanicals (like kratom and CBD oil), and habits to incorporate into your daily life to stay as balanced and as internally strong as possible. What does “holistic” medicine mean for minor ailments? You can use natural, balancing approaches to treat small ailments at home, like herbs and healing foods to treat colds, the flu, fungal infections, and sunburn.

However, if you suffer a serious car accident or contract a deadly disease, Western medicine can step in and act fast! With powerful drugs and life-saving surgeries, the conventional approach can keep you alive and get you back on your feet in one piece.

A woman lying face down on a massage table, receiving a back massage

Keys to Balance: What Does “Holistic” Mean for Our Daily Lives?

Ok, so if our state of health is a combination of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual factors, what is a holistic way to keep each one in balance? This is the basic question of holistic living, and the answer will be different for everyone.

Balancing Your Body

Physical health is largely related to how you nourish your body and how you use it. What does “holistic” mean for your diet? A balanced diet will include all three macronutrients—proteins, fats, and carbohydrates—and the full spectrum of micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals. No matter whether you’re a vegetarian or a carnivore, it’s important to include a wide range of whole foods in your diet to cover your macros and micros and keep hydrated with plenty of clean drinking water.

What does “holistic” mean for fitness? A holistic fitness program will depend on the nature of your daily activities. A bricklayer or fitness instructor might want to balance their active careers with some gentle stretching and a relaxed walk outdoors. A sedentary office worker would need to invest more time outside of work playing sports, dancing, and going to the gym to balance the amount of time they spend sitting down during the day.

Balancing Your Mind

What does “holistic” mean for mental health? For a healthy mind just as for a healthy body, it’s important to balance active time with downtime. If you’re a very cerebral person in a “thinking” job, integrate some downtime into your day with some relaxation or focused breathing. What is a holistic approach to a healthy mind for manual laborers? Those who have more hands-on jobs can add balance by spending time reading and doing mind games like crossword puzzles and sudoku.

Balancing Your Emotions

We often don’t think about emotions in terms of balance. However, there is a role for every emotion and it’s just a matter of putting each one in its place.

What does “holistic” mean for emotional health? It’s important to enjoy happy, social moments to the full, give yourself space to be alone when you need it, and accept your emotions without judging them. If you’re struggling to keep your emotions balanced, talking through your feelings with someone and keeping a journal can be two very helpful tools.

Balancing Your Spirit

This is the last part of the holistic health picture and is just as important as the other three (body, mind, and emotions). Spiritual balance is about asking the big questions while living in reality. Both are needed! Having a mission or passion in your life that is bigger than yourself provides motivation to get going in the morning and helps you to keep your own problems, successes, and failures in perspective.

Self-Care and Other-Care

What is a holistic approach to spiritual development? Aside from finding a life code to follow and something to believe in, a good way to start is to find a way to balance self-care with care for others in your life.

Volunteering is a great way to expand your view if your daily activities can tend to get you self-absorbed. However, for those who spend their days serving others, the picture is a little different. For example, what does “holistic” mean for a nurse or personal care assistant? If you already spend your days helping others, treat yourself to a day off to take care of yourself. It’s all about balance!

Bringing it All Together…

No matter where you are at in your life journey, there are always areas to improve and greater heights to reach. What does “holistic” mean for you? A holistic lifestyle will take all aspects of life into account and seek to restore balance so that you can enjoy your life to the fullest!