Integrating the conventional and the complementary.
( Published in Health Matters in Prisons (HMP), Issue 1 Volume 6 Spring 1999 )

Holistic Medicine: Integrating the conventional and complementary

The face of medical care is changing. At the very time modern medical technology is making the most incredible advances, more and more people are choosing ‘Alternatives’ rather than Orthodox medicine. The swing has been so significant that alternative medicine has been said to be the second most successful new industry in Europe in recent times – second only to the microchip. To understand the reasons for this swing we should examine the underlying principles of both conventional medicine and ‘Alternative’ or ‘Complementary’ medicine.

CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE: The Use of Mechanistic Tools

Medical schools are in reality sophisticated technical colleges. Their goal is to teach the mechanics of the body by understanding the structure (anatomy), the functioning (physiology), the diseases (pathology) and the treatment (therapeutics). The tools used in the treatment of the body are largely mechanistic and the approach is very similar to that used when repairing a very sophisticated machine.

For example in SURGERY when an inflamed appendix is removed, the body recovers from a dangerous situation and may continue to function normally. This is not dissimilar from removing a buckled mudguard from a bicycle and cycling without it. Surgeons can replace damaged parts such as hips and kidneys with dramatic results, just as a car mechanic may replace a damaged, worn-out tyre or generator. Surgery is a high skill, carried out by very special individuals but the mechanistic analogy is valid.

In the use of DRUGS the body is also used as a mechanistic system. Imagine a situation where water is being pumped into a simple plumbing system and for some reason the pressure in the pipes has become dangerously high and they are in danger of bursting. The condition of high blood pressure may be seen in this way where the heart represents the pump and the arteries represent the pipes. The physician tackles the problem in the same way as would a plumber. He uses drugs to affect the heart beat – that is, he regulates the force of the pump. He uses other drugs to dilate the arteries – that is, he increases the diameter of the pipes. And with diuretics he reduces the total volume of the blood by causing the person to pass a greater volume of urine – that is, decreases the amount of water in the system. The treatment of a very important problem is essentially mechanistic.

I am not suggesting that doctors perceive their patients as machines – far from it. Most doctors are thoughtful, kind people who care profoundly about their patients. However the tools of modern orthodox medicine mainly reflects a mechanistic approach. What we should ask is “Are these always the best available tools?” I do not believe they are and this is why people all over the world are turning in their hundreds of thousands to alternative forms of medicine.

We must not reject surgery and drugs. As the main tools of the modern doctor they are spectacularly successful and indispensable in the treatment of numerous, dangerous, acute conditions such as physical trauma, appendicitis, meningitis, pneumonia and many, many others. Nevertheless in many chronic diseases such as eczema, arthritis, asthma, migraine headaches and irritable bowel syndrome, the treatment is more palliative than curative. The doctor, accepting that he cannot cure the troubling, ongoing condition does his best to ease the suffering of the patient with medication. Thus is the eczema soothed by steroid creams, the inflammation and pain of the arthritis reduced with anti-inflammatory and analgesic medications, and the asthma eased by inhalers.

Some people are content with palliation but many are not so satisfied and remain concerned about possible drug dependency and unwelcome side effects. While drugs are aimed at a particular part of the body they are usually taken by mouth eventually reaching the blood stream and ending up just about everywhere in the body. Where they are not needed they may have adverse effects and the drug manuals are full of lists of these possible side-effects. Thus the unfortunate arthritis sufferer may also suffer a severe upset stomach and the taker of antidepressants may suffer with an uncomfortable dryness of the mouth.

Although the tools of modern medicine have been wonderful in treating many conditions especially acute illnesses, there are numerous chronic diseases where they fall short of the mark. Is there an alternative? If an alternative does exist it must be based on a different principle from the mechanistic model of orthodox medicine.


The attempt to stimulate the body to heal itself.

It is possible to view the human body as a complex organism which is more than the sum of its parts and only partially understandable in its functions. Medical scientists can never repair the body with the confidence with which a motor mechanic may fix a car. This is because the mechanic has a complete work manual for the car setting out the function of every nut and bolt. Medical doctors do not enjoy the luxury of having the manufacturer’s work manual for each and every human body. The marvellous textbooks on anatomy, physiology and pathology will never have all the answers.

It is obvious that there is an essential difference between fixing a machine and repairing the human body. The human body is capable of repairing itself. After a motor accident the bodywork of a car will require the attention of a panel beater but the driver’s bruises will go away by themselves. The body heals (which means ‘make whole’) itself of bruises and broken skin, colds and flu, headaches, ulcers and numerous other conditions.

When the body does not appear to be doing a satisfactory job of healing itself, one goes to the doctor for help and is treated accordingly. But when the body is capable of healing itself but for some reason is not doing so, would it not make sense first to try and persuade or stimulate it to get on with the job of healing? A stimulus to the body to persuade it to heal itself is generally applied to the whole person and has been aptly described by Dr Eric Ledermann as an holistic stimulus.

Many alternative medical approaches are based on the concept of the holistic stimulus. As this aims to treat the whole person the holistic doctor will need to know a great deal about the patient’s life as well as all the details of the illness itself. Here are some examples of the ways in which an holistic stimulus can be applied.

In HOMEOPATHY the principle is to prescribe a medicine which not only suits the symptoms of the illness but also the general physical and mental characteristics of the patient. The classical homeopathic physician will take a very detailed history from the patient asking him or her about all the systems of the body, their likes and dislikes with regard to diet, their sleeping habits and their personality. This gives the doctor subtle information about how the whole body is functioning. He or she is then in a position to prescribe a homeopathic remedy which may be able to stimulate the body to heal itself. A successful prescription, being aimed at the whole human being as well as the illness, will result in the person feeling better in himself as well as in an improvement of the illness. The remedies themselves are derived from a large variety of natural sources and are given in minuscule doses. If these same medicines were to be given in larger doses, they would cause the symptoms that, with minute doses, they cure. Hence the central principle of homeopathy being ‘let likes be cured by likes’.

In ACUPUNCTURE the central principle is that there is an energy called Chi which circulates all round the surface of the body on invisible lines called meridians. If the movement of this energy is harmonious, the person is healthy. In an ill person the acupuncturist can detect abnormalities in the flow of Chi along the meridians by careful questioning and a subtle examination of the pulse. Along these meridians, which can be compared to train lines, are the acupuncture points, which can be compared to stations. The acupuncturist places very fine needles into carefully selected points on the skin to harmonise the flow of Chi and thus allow the body to heal itself. The application of acupuncture needles can be seen as a type of holistic stimulus leading to increased general health of the patient as well as an improvement of the specific illness.

Homeopathy and acupuncture are two of the best-known forms of therapeutics based on the concept of an holistic stimulus, but there are many others. Massage in its many forms can have a powerful positive effect on the whole person and this may include an improvement in their illness. Osteopathy and Chiropractic in helping to create a healthier spine and joints may also benefit the whole individual. There are many other examples of this type of holistic stimulus and what they each have in common is that the patient is still a passive recipient of treatment. He or she is not necessarily encouraged to participate actively in the application of the holistic stimulus.

The patient plays an active role in applying the holistic stimulus to himself or herself.

Here the role of the doctor is to help the patient find ways in which he or she can help himself or herself become healthier generally, in addition to alleviating or eradicating illness.

In REMEDIAL DIETETICS a change in one’s eating habits can act as a powerful, holistic stimulus to health. This is because the food we eat is not only fuel for the body but also the raw material out of which the body must regenerate itself. Thus a healthier diet or even a short, medically supervised fast on fruit and vegetable juices can result in major changes in health and amelioration of symptoms. In this way changes in diet become the treatment or remedy but it is essential that the diet be carefully tailored to suit the needs of the individual.

STRESS RELEASE is another important holistic stimulus. There is little doubt that stress is an important aggravating and even causative factor in many illnesses such as irritable bowl syndrome, stomach ulcers, chronic headaches and high blood pressure. Meditation, breathing techniques, relaxation tapes and Autogenic Training – a powerful stress-releasing and stress-proofing technique – can allow people to releases a lot of tension, feel more relaxed and on the path to good health. This can result specifically in great improvements in their illnesses.

Regular EXERCISE, as we all know, makes us feel fitter and more vibrant in ourselves. This can result in an improvement in many of our symptoms. Hatha Yoga is a very sophisticated form of physical education stimulating not only the heart, lungs and muscles but also the internal organs of the body. Tai Chi is a refined series of movements causing the participant to feel energised and relaxed. The Alexander Technique teaches us to use our bodies more gracefully, helps to conserve energy and reduces wear and tear. Any form of sport or exercise, even a ten minute walk every morning, can act as a holistic stimulus and have a positive impact on health.

When we take on the responsibility for doing things to make us feel better, the renewed energy and positive attitude acts as an holistic stimulus on the whole body and can actually activate the healing process.

There are many other therapies in which we can actively participate in making ourselves healthier. Many of these may be used at the same time as using holistic therapies such as homeopathy and acupuncture or conventional medication. Furthermore, different types of treatment used simultaneously may also compliment each other – hence the term ‘Complimentary medicine’. A sufferer from irritable bowel syndrome, for example, does not have to come off the prescribed medication to try an holistic approach. He may be prescribed a homeopathic medicine, encouraged to learn a deep relaxation technique and to eat a healthier diet all at the same time. As he begins to feel better and the symptoms of the illness improve, it will become clear to both doctor and patient that less and less medication is needed until sometimes it can be dispensed altogether.


Most doctors and health practitioners agree that many illnesses are strongly related to our state of mind. In fact most GP’s believe that up to 70% of their consultations are for psychosomatic complaints. This is not to suggest that all these patients are hypochondriacs. Many severe conditions such as stomach ulcers can be psychosomatic in origin, that is a state of mind (‘psycho)) which leads to changes in the body (‘soma’), causing disease (or ‘disease’).

The good news about this relationship between mind and body is that it works both ways. If our minds are capable of making our bodies ill, then they are also able to stimulate our bodies to heal themselves. We know that people sometimes lose the will to live after the loss of their life partner. Others survive the most severe illnesses by sheer determination and have written books about how they overcame life-threatening disease by changing their lifestyles. In almost every case the person who recovered changed their very way of being by releasing pent-up emotions, by finding a more fulfilling way of doing their job or by sorting out relationship problems.

Doctors can help patients recover in these ways by listening carefully and asking questions not only about the illness but also about the achievements, disappointments, shocks and happy or unhappy relationships that form part of all our lives. Many people have nostalgic memories of the ‘good old fashioned GP who made house calls in the middle of the night’ and looked after several generations of their families. These doctors are missed because in getting to know a great deal about the lives and families of their patients, they were able to see the psychological conflicts that were aggravating or causing illness. A few gentle, well-chosen words are sometimes enough to make people feel better about themselves and their lives. When this happens their bodies often feel better as well.

In spite of the wonderful advances in technological medicine that have transformed the face of modern medicine and saved millions of lives, many present day doctors have somehow found themselves in a health system whereby they do not have sufficient time to listen to the stories of their patients’ lives. The system is geared towards the prescription of drugs.

The family doctor of the future will have time to listen to his or her patients. He or she will have not only the full range of medical and surgical techniques at his or her disposal but also the holistic techniques of complimentary medicine. Both systems are valid. The benefits of holistic medicine – with its aim of stimulating the body to heal itself, its less invasive character and fewer side effects – will enhance and expand the therapeutic tools at his or her disposal.

A prison setting could well offer an ideal environment in which to develop this more time consuming approach to health creation and maintenance : the patient here will invariably have plenty of time to attend to his or her health needs, the question becomes whether the healing professionals can find a way to match this.

Integrating the conventional and the complementary.

( Published in Health Matters in Prisons (HMP),
Issue 1 Volume 6 Spring 1999 )