Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • February 2018
Written by 

Taking a look at holistic living

I’d like to invite you to consider what you mean when you say (or hear someone else say) you want to “be more holistic,” or “adopt a holistic lifestyle.” If we think about the meaning of holism (from ὅλος holos, a Greek word meaning “all, entire, total”) from a philosophical perspective, it is a belief that all the properties of any given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, psychological, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. If we take that one step further, and apply it to health and wellness, to treat someone within a holistic framework requires the treating of the whole person, accounting for psychological, cultural, and spiritual factors, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease or injury.

It is interesting, then, that we often hear more about modalities than about a true holistic perspective. Are herbs holistic? Are essential oils? Is massage or acupuncture? The answer to this is that it all depends on how you think about and use these modalities. If your mindset is “Do you have an herb for my headache?” then you are looking for symptom management using an herbal versus a pharmaceutical approach. And while there is nothing wrong with that, it is not a holistic approach. If you only look at health/well-being as something that requires treatment when a malady arises, you may still be approaching health from more of a Western, reactionary mindset rather than a holistic, promotion/prevention mindset.

So how does a holistic, or traditional health perspective (sometimes called folk medicine, which may be intended to minimalize its effectiveness) differ from a Western perspective? Rather than treating only the symptom, holistic care looks for what is going on in the person’s life, which might be at the root of the headache. How is his stress level, and could the adrenal glands be depleted? How is the individual’s nutrition? His sleep? How active is he? How are his relationships with his family/friends, at work, in his community? What is his spiritual belief system? Are there cultural/ethic/familial traditions that might influence his health and well-being (positively or negatively)? What are his beliefs about stress, about pain, about nutrition, about health? Understanding an individual from a holistic perspective requires time to build a relationship, a willingness to listen, and an ability to consider the person’s own values and beliefs and how they can influence health.

Herbs, essential oils, massage, yoga, t’ai chi, bodywork: these are just some of the many modalities that can be integrated into personal care in a way that allows the individual to take control over his or her own health and well-being. These modalities can be integrated with Western medical practices — screenings, medication, physical and occupational therapy — in a way that can improve outcomes; they can also be used alone. However, to be truly holistic, we have to think beyond the “Do you have an herb for this condition?” mindset in which we simply replace a pharmaceutical agent (medicine) with a natural agent (also a medicine). We have to address the person, in all his complexity; if we do not consider all the parts, as an integrated whole that forms the human being, then we remain stuck in the “fix it” mentality often associated with Western medicine, and we resist holism at its very roots.

Let’s be clear, people have found both methods (traditional and Western approaches to health) to be effective but today, more and more people are finding a balance between the Western, allopathic beliefs and the more traditional, holistic ones. So perhaps as we move into this new year, we can consider a different route than merely looking for a prescription/herb/essential oil, and instead taking the time to truly understand what is influencing our health — for good and for ill — and address that using a variety of methods that support our existence as complex, holistic beings.

T. Heather Herdman, RN, PhD

T. Heather Herdman, RN, PhD is co-owner of Sweet Willow Naturals in Green Bay, where we have over 140 organic herbs and 70 organic spices available for you to craft your own products, or to simply enjoy as tea. Our store focuses on education and we have many classes to help you learn about herbs, aromatherapy, nutrition, and self-care – focusing on safe information backed up by research and experience. We also offer wellness coaching and massage – stop in today! For more information, visit or email [email protected]

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