An all around lesson in everything.
That word, “Holistic”, gets thrown around a lot these days, especially in regards to health and wellness. Some of us know what it means, but most probably have no idea. I occasionally get asked what “does holistic mean?” when I describe the work I do, and I have to explain it as briefly as I can. Well, now I’m here to fill you in on the meaning, and I have plenty of space to do it completely.
Let’s start with the official definition:
characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.
Now there’s a mouthful. Did you get any of that? I know what it means, and I still had trouble following that definition. Allow me to boil it down into real English.
Add a “W”
Holistic can be identified as the idea of incorporating all aspects of something, rather than just its individual parts. Think of the word “whole”, what does that mean to you? Basically it denotes, “complete”, “entirety”, “everything”. That is, in essence, holistic. You really could just add the letter ‘W’ to the beginning and get a more understandable word: “Wholistic”. English is a strange language sometimes, so don’t ask me why it ain’t spelled that way in the first place.
The Holistic Body
Consider this; in order for your body to operate, scores of different systems must be functioning independently, yet at the same time working together to keep you alive and healthy. If all you had were a digestive system working in your body, you would not live. Your immune system wouldn’t be there to eliminate any microscopic enemies, and you’d be overrun with viruses and bacteria. Your blood wouldn’t get pumped because your heart and lungs aren’t working to distribute the nutrients from your food. Plus your digestive system couldn’t operate anyway without the guidance of your brain and nervous system. Get the picture? EVERYTHING works together! One can’t function without the others.
The theme of community seems to pop up in almost every aspect of health that I discuss. Curious. Like I was just saying, all the parts of your body work together to make the whole thing function properly. That’s exactly how any community works. Any community. Think of a city, there are the citizens, government, the economy, private services and businesses, maintenance and waste management, emergency departments, etc. If any one of those branches of the community were to disappear completely, the whole city would eventually collapse. You can apply the same equation to a forest, our planet, the solar system, and your own body just the same. Your body is a community of cells working together to create tissues and organs. Your tissues and organs work together to create functional body systems. Your body systems work together to create a healthy You. In reality, you are made up of a series of nested communities within nested communities all working together to make you work. When one part fails, the whole thing fails.
When it comes to repairing and maintaining your health, the investigation, diagnosis and treatment must include all aspects of you in order to create lasting health. All aspects meaning, digestion, movement, posture, environment, thoughts and emotions, lifestyle, etc. Any or all of these can contribute to health problems or imbalances, and simply treating just the part that is showing symptoms will only fix the symptom (and often the symptomatic area has little to do with the real root of the problem).
The Medical Method
Here’s an example I like to use to demonstrate this situation. Imagine a woman has pain in her knee. Every time she walks, steps up, or bends down the knee gives her a shooting pain, and then subsequently aches for hours or even days. So after months of this issue she has gotten into a habit of limiting her movement to avoid the pain. The woman goes to her doctor to get some relief. The doc tells her it’s arthritis and gives her anti-inflammatory medication, and refers her to an orthopedic surgeon for specialized care. The Ortho doc takes X-Rays and other tests to find the woman’s cartilage is nearly worn away and is riddled with arthritis inflammation. The doctor tells her she may eventually need to consider knee replacement. She goes home drugged, frightened, disappointed, and weak. As for the pain, well, it may be just a little bit less because of the drugs.
This is the conventional medical method of treating a problem in the body, focused isolation on the area of complaint without any regard for the rest of her body. What the doctors failed to take into account was the way in which the remainder of body functions on a daily basis.
The Holistic Method
A Holistic approach to the same woman’s knee pain will include investigation into muscle function, posture, activity, and many other potential keys to unlock the problem. The first step in getting to the bottom of the knee pain will be to feel the muscles in the upper and lower leg, the quads, the hamstrings, calf, and shin. And I can almost certainly assure you that one or more of those muscle groups will be so tight in contraction that the muscle can be mistaken for bone by an untrained hand. This is most often the cause of knee pain because the muscles bridge the knee joint.
For example, the quad muscles (the large muscles on the front side of your upper leg) extend down your leg, past your knee and attach somewhere near the top of your shin bone. The hamstrings do the same thing on the back. The calf does the same on the back side, but in reverse, reaching up past the knee to the femur (upper leg bone), and so on. So with that in mind, it makes perfect sense that if these muscles are tight, they are shorter, and thus pulling the joint closer together. This results in the joint being squeezed inappropriately tight, and then every time it moves, the cartilage and bone inside the knee are scrapping and grinding against one another. This causes pain and swelling in the knee, but as you’ve just learned, the knee isn’t the problem, it’s the muscles squeezing the knee together that are causing the whole mess. If you just treat the knee, totally ignoring the muscles, the pain is guaranteed to return, because the cause has not been resolved. If your bathtub is overflowing, is it better to bail the water out as fast as you can, or just turn off the running faucet? It’s a simple case of cause and effect.
But the Holistic approach doesn’t stop there. We need to find the root of the cause. Pointed questions to our patient here may end up leading us to find out that she spends eight hours immobile in a desk chair every day (which tightens the muscles by default), she rarely exercises, eats a lot of sugar, and when she was in high school someone accidentally whacked her in the thigh with a baseball bat on that same leg experiencing the knee pain. Every one of these matters will contribute to the tightening, shortening and gluing of the muscles in her leg, resulting in knee pain. Soften, unstick and relax those muscles and the pain will fade into the past. Ain’t that better than a full knee replacement?
Opposite of Isolation
Holistic is the opposite of isolation. It’s all inclusive, as well as creative. Holistic folks look at the whole picture and everything around it to find clues. Just like the great Sherlock Holmes reaches for the most obscure details to piece together a puzzle, the holistic practitioner will often find the most unexpected causes for common problems, and usually know a way to fix them, too.
When you look at the big picture to find a problem you will have a much better chance in discovering it. Once you find it, that’s when to zoom in and use focused attention on the cessation of the problem. This concept works, not only for the body, but for any and all systems and communities. With patience and a broad perspective any situation can be remedied.