What Is Holistic Medicine? How Our Holistic Approach Helps You Heal

Sara Angle
December 2, 2020

You’re probably not waking up in the morning wondering how your sartorius muscle is functioning, what amount of digestive juice your pancreas is producing, or what brain synapses are firing.

Instead, you’re sitting up and asking your, “How do I feel today?”

That question is the metric most of us use for "healthy," and it’s the same question that holistic medicine asks—and then it asks another question: “Why?”

Think back to your last doctor’s visit. They may have taken your blood pressure, ordered labs to look at your cholesterol, asked if anything was bothering you, and then sent you searching for an answer somewhere else. If you complained of bloating and gas , maybe you got a referral to a gastroenterologist. Headaches? A neurologist. Insomnia ? A sleep specialist. Each specialist looking at just one system, never stopping to zoom out and examine the big picture in the same way you think about your own health, and never stopping to ask why your body isn’t running properly in the first place.

Enter holistic medicine.

What is holistic medicine?

Holistic medicine is an approach that looks at the whole person and the interconnectedness of the body and mind to understand what’s going on and how to treat it. Simply put, holistic medicine treats the person, not just one part of them in isolation.

“Holistic medicine takes into account how a person’s lifestyle, mental health, support system, and resources play a role in their health and vitality,” says former Parsley Health provider Annie Shaltz, NP. “When we listen to our patients’ stories, we are able to connect the dots in a meaningful way that helps us identify the root cause of their symptoms, and to take an individualized approach to alleviating and correcting the disease process. It also helps the patient uncover what works and doesn’t work for them, and my goal is always to educate and empower patients so they have the tools they need to live a healthy and vital life for years to come.”

There are three key components that make holistic medicine so unique:

Understanding you inside and out

Getting to know the whole you means your holistic medicine doctor will ask you in-depth questions that you’ve probably never been asked before. They’ll start from your birth, ask about your childhood, relationships, major life events, family health history, work, lifestyle, emotional wellbeing, goals, and what’s bothering you most. They understand that you are much more than right now—your health story is your life story. These insights can offer clues that help your doctor piece together what’s driving your symptoms.

“I had a patient once, Howard, who I discovered had low blood pressure and elevated blood glucose. We spoke about the medications he was taking and he was able to name them and correctly describe the dosage. He also spoke about how his wife of 52 years had passed in the months prior. It was clear that he was depressed following the passing of his wife, but it seemed as though he was taking his medications correctly. By asking questions, spending time with him , and allowing him to talk about her, I uncovered that she organized his medication for him in a pill box every week because his vision was impaired and his arthritic hands had a hard time manipulating the pill bottles. As it turned out, since his wife’s passing, Howard had been taking too much blood pressure medication and not enough diabetes medication. I helped him learn the feel of the different tablets and within two weeks his blood pressure and blood sugar were well-controlled. We also were able to address his isolation and got him involved in a local chess group, and going to church regularly, which gave him a sense of community and connection. A few months later when I saw Howard he looked like a new man,” says Shaltz.

The moral of the story? Holistic medicine providers bring to light missing pieces that help them develop personalized care plans.

Holistic medicine practitioners will use the information they gather from getting to know you and your symptoms to recommend science-backed tests that paint a clearer picture of your health and identify issues. These may include lab tests or specialty test kits that examine stool, urine, and saliva. If you’ve had bloodwork done before, your doctor probably ran a complete blood count (CBC), which looks at your red and white blood cells and platelets, and a basic metabolic panel, which examines your cholesterol, glucose, electrolytes, and other basic markers of metabolism. Advanced testing goes a layer deeper, looking at your nutrient levels (think: vitamin D , magnesium, iron, B vitamins, and more), thyroid health, inflammatory markers, and more comprehensive measures of metabolic health, like extensive lipid panels and hemoglobin A1c.

Connecting the mind and body

In conventional medicine, there’s an imaginary wall between the mind and body. Doctors like your primary care physician , gastroenterologist, or endocrinologist are looking at what’s going on in your body—or one part of it—but not considering if your symptoms may be related to things like stress, anxiety , a traumatic event , or a big change in your life. Likewise, psychiatrists, therapists, and other mental health professionals focus on your mental wellbeing but often miss how mental illnesses and our emotions can be linked to digestive issues , hormonal imbalances , and even autoimmunity .

While all of these practitioners can be an important part of your care, having someone to help connect the dots and treat your mind and body together is key.

“Balancing the stress response of our nervous system with relaxation exercises like meditation is key to treating stress and anxiety,” says Julie Taw, MD , a physician at Parsley Health in New York City. She works with her patients to find the ideal methods to lower their stress response and has also seen the powerful impact that resolving physical ailments can have on mental wellbeing.

“I have seen significant improvements in my patients with anxiety by supplementing magnesium,” says Dr. Taw. “Many people are deficient in magnesium due to not getting sufficient amounts in our diet. Magnesium is a powerful mineral which can be effective for improving insomnia, anxiety, headaches, and muscle tension.”

Getting personal

The greatest value of the in-depth individual information your doctor gathers about your physical and emotional health and life and the advanced testing they do is that they can now make personalized recommendations for you. Think of it like this: in elementary school you may have learned the now-defunct food pyramid, you may have read in magazines the generic advice to get 150-minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, and you may be blending up the same morning smoothie as your favorite influencer. But what if you threw that basic advice out and started with a tailored-to-you plan?

Holistic medicine practitioners take all of the inputs about your body and lifestyle, combined with your goals to develop individualized advice around nutrition, exercise, sleep, mental wellbeing, supplements , and medications. Their recommendations hit on every area of your life.

What training do holistic medicine practitioners receive?

When you’re searching for a holistic medicine practitioner, it’s important to look at their credentials to ensure you’re getting the best care. At Parsley Health, practitioners are rigorously chosen for their expertise. Each Parsley Health member has a dedicated provider and health coach. Providers have had traditional training to become a medical doctor (MD), doctor of osteopathy (DO), nurse practitioner (NP), or physician assistant (PA). These accredited and highly-skilled professionals come from unique backgrounds in things like internal medicine, family medicine, gastroenterology, and more. They know the ins and outs of conventional medicine and use science-backed evidence in their practice. They’ve also received additional, advanced training in comprehensive testing and labs, nutrition, and functional medicine.

A September 2019 study in The Lancet found that worldwide, there is a lack of nutrition education in medical school, so most conventional doctors don’t have the deep knowledge of nutrition had by Parsley’s providers. That’s likely why just 6 percent of physician office visits cover diet and nutrition, according to the CDC , even though science tells us food plays a big role in the development of disease.

Health coaches at Parsley Health are registered dietitians, hold Master’s degrees in nutrition, or have credentials in integrative and holistic nutrition. They also have speciality training in functional medicine and behavioral change.

Together, your provider and health coach have a unique combination of conventional and functional medicine training to uncover the root causes of illness and develop personalized treatment plans.

Does holistic medicine work?

The traditional way of doing things isn’t working. Whole-body medicine has been largely abandoned—74 percent of doctor’s visits end with a prescription drug and referrals to specialists are the norm. Unfortunately, this has left our nation sick, with 6 out of 10 Americans living with a chronic condition. The US healthcare system performance ranks last amongst a list of 11 developed countries, yet spends far more, research finds . According to the CDC , 90 percent of the nation’s annual $3.5 trillion in healthcare costs are for people with chronic and mental health conditions.

Evidence tells us that holistic medicine, which addresses nutrition, stress levels, sleep habits, and movement can have a huge impact on getting people healthier. Only 10 percent of human disease risk has a genetic basis; the other 90 percent is actually determined by environment and lifestyle factors, research shows .

“Very often people feel better by making a few lifestyle changes. It’s very gratifying to support these lifestyle changes and help people take charge of their health and feel great. Sometimes people don’t realize how good they can feel until they stop feeling so poorly,” says Dr. Taw.

At Parsley Health, we see the power of holistic medicine every day. 85 percent of Parsley Health members see an improvement in their symptoms and 77 percent reduce prescription drug use.

The differentiators in a holistic approach to care are the key to resolving symptoms, managing chronic conditions, and preventing disease for so many.

Want to learn more about Parsley Health's holistic approach to healing? Book a free consult call to learn what we can do for you.

Sara Angle

Sara is a content creator who has worked with outlets such as Outside Magazine, Well + Good, Healthline, and Men's Journal, and as a journalist at Shape and Self and publications in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Rome. She is also an ACE-certified personal trainer. She has a degree in communication with concentrated studies in journalism from Villanova University.

Outside of office hours, you can usually find her taking a dance class, trying out the latest fitness craze, or teaching and performing synchronized swimming with The Brooklyn Peaches.

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