It is a term that is bandied around these days with increasing vagueness, like ecological or alchemical. Can you have holistic holidays? Or an holistic diet? And of all the different alternative and complementary therapies, which ones are actually holistic?

A holistic system of medicine treats the individual as a whole person, and not as an assembly of separate disease conditions. A patient with headaches, period pains, acid reflux, arthritis and depression, who receives a different treatment for each condition, with no attempt to perceive the whole person, is not being treated holistically. Note, however, that the non-holistic approach is not limited to pharmaceutical medicine. Herbs, supplements, homoeopathic remedies can all be applied to treat individual symptoms. In other words, the style of drugs does not determine whether the treatment is holistic or not. What determines this is the approach of the practitioner.

The first question to be asked by a physician is: what needs to be cured in this individual patient? A holistic perspective requires individualisation. In analysing the patient’s symptoms, the physician pays close attention to the personal, unusual aspects, which illuminate the patients unique nature and condition, so that a treatment can be applied which targets the root cause. In the case of our fictitious patient, the symptoms involve imbalances in the circulatory system, producing headaches, hormonal system producing menstrual problems, digestive system producing acidity, articulation creating arthritis and the emotional/chemical balance, resulting in depression. Also relevant is how the patient feels (the predominant emotional states), and what events in their life preceded the onset of their symptoms. The sum of all the symptoms adds up to a recognisable totality, and it is this totality that uncovers the unique pattern, which individualises the patient.

However, when we can perceive the pattern that pre-configures the patients totality of symptoms, how is it possible to target this unitary source with treatment? Symptoms are the attempts by the body to re-stabilise itself, they are adaptation to change, especially trauma.

Holistic medicine begins with perception of the totality, and seeks to treat causes, rather than effects. This approach is often taken by the practitioners of energy medicine systems, such as acupuncture, cranial osteopathy, homoeopathy and shiatsu, to name a few.

Going to the whole food shop, and filling the basket with supplements and vitamins does not constitute holistic medicine, whatever the hype on the label, (although eating nourishing food is essential for maintaining good health).

Can Western (allopathic) Medicine be practiced holistically? In the map handed out in current medical schools, there is little care taken in training the physician to perceive the totality of symptoms. Disease is regarded as pathology, and treatment is focused upon the chemical suppression or masking of the pathological symptoms. You can decide for yourself whether this is holistic.

And holistic holidays? Take your body, mind and soul! Holistic diet? Clearly more than just food…