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Holistic Medicine

Other common name(s): holistic health, holistic care, wholistic health, holism

Scientific/medical name(s): none


Holistic medicine is defined in different ways. In general, it focuses on how the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements of a person are interconnected to maintain health. When one part is not working well, it is believed to affect the whole person. Holistic approaches focus on the whole person rather than just on the illness or part of the body that is not healthy.


For some people, holistic medicine is defined strictly as complementary and alternative medicine. Some holistic practitioners use unproven or disproven methods to treat illness. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that these complementary and alternative methods, when used without mainstream or conventional medicine, are effective in treating cancer or any other disease.

Other people use the term holistic to mean treating the whole person rather than simply managing disease. For instance, many mainstream health professionals promote healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising, eating a nutritious diet, not smoking, and managing stress as important in maintaining good health. Holistic methods are becoming more common in mainstream care and may be used along with standard treatment or preventive care.

In some mainstream practices, doctors, nurses, and other professionals may add complementary or non-mainstream treatments to their usual care. This may be called holistic care, but is more often called integrative care.

How is it promoted for use?

Holistic medicine approaches health and disease from many angles. The approach suggests that a person should treat not only the illness but the whole self to reach a higher level of wellness. For example, practitioners may treat cancer by changing diet and behavior and adding social support groups and counseling. Others may suggest taking botanical supplements and using other complementary therapies, such as art therapy, hypnosis, imagery, meditation, psychotherapy, spirituality and prayer, and yoga. These approaches can be used along with conventional medical treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy. Combining these different methods can help people take control of their situations and attain a feeling of total wellness -- spiritually, physically, and mentally.

A few supporters of holistic medicine claim that mainstream medicine does not work, and that only alternative approaches to cancer and other diseases are effective. Proponents sometimes say that cancer has an underlying cause (such as diet or an emotional problem) that must be addressed before the cancer can heal. They may offer “cures” based on individual stories of success or personal experiences, which are very hard to verify. Some of the types of cancer that they claim can be cured by holistic methods include cancers of the bone, breast, tongue, liver, lung, throat, skin, testicle, prostate, ovary, uterus, stomach, intestine, colon, brain, pancreas, spleen, kidney, and bladder, as well as leukemia, lymphoma, and melanoma.

What does it involve?

The field of holistic medicine is very diverse. Some providers define holistic oncology as including emotional and spiritual care, while others focus on these aspects to the exclusion of the physical. There are many different techniques and approaches in holistic medicine, depending on the practitioner, the person, and the illness. All stress the use of treatments that take into account the person as a whole.

Holistic medicine can involve the use of conventional and alternative therapies but focuses mostly on lifestyle changes. A holistic approach to stomach cancer might include reducing sodium intake, increasing intake of antioxidants through food or vitamins, eliminating Helicobacter pylori (type of bacteria found in the stomach), quitting smoking, improving oral hygiene, avoiding foods that contain genotoxic agents, and increasing the amount of vegetables and fruits consumed.

Holistic medicine can also include supplements to try and produce the same changes as conventional drugs. For instance, synthetic interferon is used to treat people with certain types of cancer. A holistic approach might be to take high doses of intravenous vitamin C instead, in an attempt to stimulate the body’s production of its own interferon.

The American Holistic Health Association says that healthy lifestyle habits will improve a person’s energy and vitality. Those habits might include exercising, eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, finding creative outlets, practicing compassion, and working toward inner peace. Some people might also take herbs and dietary supplements, and use acupuncture, guided imagery, healing touch, yoga, meditation, and other methods in an effort to promote health. Still others may interpret holistic care to include methods like colon cleansing, restricted diets or fasting, and special “detox” regimens (see also Colon Therapy, Fasting, Metabolic Therapy, and Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer).

In mainstream medicine, holistic care focuses on a person’s overall health, to include prevention, rehabilitation, and other approaches, rather than looking at illness alone. This means that a person’s health plan may include the mind, body, and spirit, as well as the surrounding culture and environment. It can also include one’s family situation, housing, employment, insurance, and more, since these all have an impact on a person’s health. Some practitioners even extend their concern to the well-being of the planet as part of human health.

What is the history behind it?

Holistic medicine has its roots in several ancient healing traditions that stress healthy living and being in harmony with nature. Socrates promoted a holistic approach. Plato was another advocate of holism, advising doctors to respect the relationship between mind and body. Hippocrates emphasized the body’s ability to heal itself and cautioned doctors not to interfere with that process.

It was not until 1926, however, that Jan Christiaan Smuts coined the term “holism,” which gave rise to the more integrated concept of psychosomatic medicine now known as holistic medicine. In the 1970s, holistic became a more common term. Today, holistic medicine is more of an approach to life and health that brings together the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of a person in order to create a total sense of well-being.

What is the evidence?

Although there has been research on various complementary methods that may be considered part of a holistic approach, scientific research generally does not focus on complementary or alternative methods alone to cure for cancer or any other disease. Available scientific evidence does not support the idea that alternative practitioners are more effective than conventional physicians in persuading their patients to improve their lifestyle. Nor have available scientific studies shown that any of these approaches are effective against any disease if holistic methods are used without conventional medical treatment.

Some health care professionals suggest that cancer pain and some side effects of treatment can be managed with a holistic approach that includes the physical, psychological, and spiritual factors involved with each person. Increasingly, the health care team is made up of a varied group of health care professionals. Members of this team are drawn from the specialties of medicine, nursing, surgery, radiation therapy, oncology, psychiatry, psychology, and social work. In addition, the team may call on dietitians, physical therapists, and the clergy for support. Health professionals realize that a person’s health depends on the balance of physical, psychological, social, and cultural forces. However, available scientific evidence does not support claims that holistic medicine without mainstream medical care can cure illness.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

The substances that may be used by holistic care providers may have not been thoroughly tested to find out how they interact with medicines, foods, or other dietary supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete

Adopting healthy habits related to diet, exercise, emotional, and spiritual well-being is important to maintaining good health. In fact, studies have shown that certain dietary changes and regular exercise can reduce the risk of some kinds of cancer.

Depending on the type of care a person chooses, there may be risks in using certain complementary or alternative treatments. Each one must be looked at individually. However, relying on healthy habits, complementary, alternative, or other holistic measures alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

To learn more

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer


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Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 01/16/2013
Last Revised: 01/16/2013