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Alternative Medicine

What is the Difference Between Conventional and Holistic Medicine?

Standard, conventional, or orthodox medicine, also called allopathy, defines health as the absence of disease. This definition is based on a negative. In contrast, holistic medicine concurs with the definition of health used by the World Health Organization (WHO), which posits that it is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.

"Despite the insights of some eminent doctors, medicine still focuses on disease, giving it a failure orientation. Its practitioners still act as though disease catches people, rather than understanding that people catch disease by becoming susceptible to the seeds of illness to which we are all constantly exposed. Although the best physicians have always known better, medicine as a whole has rarely studied the people who don't get sick. Most doctors seldom consider how a patient's attitude towards life shapes that life's quantity and quality."

Excerpted from "Love, Medicine and Miracles," by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D.

The allopathic and holistic definitions of health differ greatly in regard to the diagnosis and treatment of illness. People who use conventional medicine usually do not seek treatment until they become ill; there is little emphasis on preventive treatment. The main causes of illness are considered to be pathogens-bacteria or viruses-or biochemical imbalances. Scientific tests are often used in diagnosis. Drugs, surgery, and radiation are among the key tools for dealing with the problems.

Holistic medicine, in contrast, focuses on preventing illness and maintaining health. It views health as a balance of body systems - mental, emotional, and spiritual, as well as physical. All aspects of a person are seen as interrelated - a principle called holism, meaning "state of wholeness." Any disharmony is thought to stress the body and perhaps lead to sickness. To fight disease, alternative medicine uses a wide range of therapies to bolster the body's own defenses and restore balance. The best illustration of this approach is the fact that ancient Chinese doctors were paid only when their patients were healthy, not if they became ill.

Natural medicine, which follows a holistic approach, views illness and disease as an imbalance of the mind and body that is expressed on the physical, emotional, and mental levels of a person. Although allopathy does recognize that many physical symptoms have mental components (for example, emotional stress might promote an ulcer or chronic headaches), its approach is generally to suppress the symptoms, both physical and psychological. Natural medicine assesses the symptoms as a sign or reflection of a deeper instability within the person, and it tries to restore the physical and mental harmony that will then alleviate the symptoms.

Holistic medicine recognizes that the human body is superbly equipped to resist disease and heal injuries. But when disease does take hold, or an injury occurs, the first instinct in holistic healing is to see what might be done to strengthen those natural resistance and healing agents so they can act against the disease more effectively. Results are not expected to occur overnight. But neither are they expected to occur at the expense of dangerous side effects.

Natural healing is more or less an attitude. For example, when you have a headache, instead of immediately reaching for aspirin, which may injure the lining of your stomach or cause even more serious side effects, you reach for a pillow and try taking a nap. Backache? Instead of reaching right away for valium, which can cause fatigue, loss of coordination, and worse, try relaxing those muscles with local applications of heat. Severe back pain? Instead of going immediately to potentially addictive pain relievers, consider an osteopathic manipulation, which will often remove the cause of the pain. Chronic severe backache? Before going to surgery, consider first an exercise program, which in many cases can make surgery unnecessary.

Some heart attack patients never reach the hospital alive, not just because of the condition itself, but because panic may cause further constriction of the blood vessels, imposing an intolerable additional burden. Brain research is now turning up evidence that attitudes of defeat or panic not only constrict the blood vessels, but create emotional stresses that have a debilitating effect on the endocrine and immune systems. Conversely, attitudes of confidence and determination activate benevolent and therapeutic secretions in the brain.

One patient I worked with briefly, whom I'll call Sheila, provided a dramatic example of the importance of the mind in the recovery process. When I first met her, she was a thirty-four-year-old woman facing a mastectomy for life-threatening breast cancer. She was reluctant to have the operation, feeling that male doctors are too casual in suggesting that women have their breasts removed. Based on what I knew of her case, I urged her to have the surgery, and spoke to her about the importance of having high expectations going into the operating room-of seeing the surgery as a chance to free her body from an offender, rather than the beginning of a downward spiral toward death. We talked for a while about the studies that have given a scientific basis to the anecdotal stories of the mind's power in fighting illness, and she thanked me and left.

She decided to go ahead with the surgery, but a week or so later her physician called me to say the operation had been canceled. The tumor, which the doctor had described to me earlier as "a hand grenade," had disappeared entirely. Sheila was taking no medication at the time; the only explanation is that her own cancer-fighting capability had risen to the occasion, with the full array of immune cells that produce the body's own chemotherapy and infuse it into the cancer cells.

While not every story is as remarkable as Sheila's, most of the patients I studied made a conscious decision, when their spiraling panic and illness reached a point of desperation, to reject all notions of inevitability. They became determined not to rely exclusively on treatment provided by others, but to take an active-part in the quest for recovery. They accepted the physician's diagnosis and the unfavorable odds that came along with it, but refused to be deterred by the accompanying prediction of doom.

All of them were, in their own way, living out an ancient idea that is coming back into favor through current medical research-the idea that the healing system is connected to a belief system, that attitudes play a vital part in the recovery process. The medical community has acknowledged the human brain's ability to exercise a measure of control over the autonomic nervous system, and as a result is paying renewed attention to the patient's role in overcoming disease and maintaining good health.

Excerpted from "The Power To Heal: Finding The Healer Within" by Norman Cousins

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