Where Does Holistic Medicine Fit In Our Modern Society?

In 1850 some peculiar clay tablets were discovered by Austen Henry a famous excavator. These tablets today are known as the Sumerian clay tablets and are estimated to be 3,000 to 5,000 years old — making them the oldest written records found.

Etched on one of the Sumerian tablets is a herbal remedy that recommends using an Aloe leaf as a laxative. This antidote currently holds the record as the oldest known natural remedy.

Humanity’s history is entangled with the use of holistic medicine. From the earliest known time to our current day we have used the resources of the earth to heal our bodies.

Some examples of how holistic medicine has been used throughout the ages are:

  • In first-century A.D., Greek military physician Pedanius Dioscorides used Comfrey for healing wounds, broken bones, as well as for respiratory and gastrointestinal concerns.
  • During medieval times headaches were treated with rose leafs, bay, lavender, and sage.
  • In the 1930s it was discovered that the curare plant was a great muscle relaxant.
  • And even today the bark on the Yew tree helps fight against ovarian cancer.

Determining What Holistic Medicine is and is not

I have always used holistic medicine and herbal remedies interchangeably (and do so in this article). However, The Free Dictionary, defines holistic medicine as “. . . a term used to describe therapies that attempt to treat the patient as a whole person.”

With such a broad interpretation holistic medicine might also include modern Western methods. I have no doubt that there are some, if not many Western medical practices, that might treat the body as a whole. Though, it seems that most modern medical practitioners would not associate themselves under the holistic movement. As audacious as this attitude might be, the feeling is often mutual with holistic practitioners.

Thus being the case, I choose to view holistic medicine as not being so all-inclusive. Rather I would modify The Free Dictionary’s definition to restrict holistic medicine solely to natural/herbal therapies.

So, if I had my own dictionary it would state: “Holistic medicine is a term used to describe natural therapies that attempt to treat the patient as a whole person, and you would be foolish to not at least consider them.

Okay, that last addition to the definition might be a little too brash. Yet, it is interesting to see how often people recoil from even the term holistic remedies. For me this is difficult attitude to deal with, since humanity has had a few years to practice on many of these remedies.

Obviously, some turned out to be rubbish. Some were even down right dangerous. Yet, I am unconvinced that all of our collective efforts turned up for not!

Snake Oil the Cure of Nothing

However, I can see where such disdain and mistrust for holistic methods stem from. Holistic medicine has traditionally been a “trial and error” science. In early times, beginning herbal practitioners prescribed an herb to a patient on a mere hypothesis that it might provide relief to his or her patient. If it helped the patient the practitioner would pass along the remedy to his cohorts. If the patient died, then well, he or she might feel a bit of heat from the community he or she was serving.

In fact, this is exactly what happened during the 1860s while the First Transcontinental Railroad was being built. Chinese laborers provided their fellow co-workers snake oil believing that it might ease joint pain and bring relief. The success of the snake oil was erratic at best and as a whole did not bring relief from the intense exertion experienced when building an almost 2,000 mile continuous railroad.

The practice of using snake oil was contemptuously put down by rival practitioners who made a living administering to the train gang camps. Thus the term “snake oil” became synonymous with dubious or fraudulent healing.

The expression was further perpetuated throughout America when traveling salesmen in the late 1800s and early 1900s peddled panacean elixirs. These snake oil salesmen crookedly purported that their remedies cured any and all ailments. In the end, the only thing their all encompassing quick fix remedies cured was having a heavy wallet or purse.

Although society tends to be more accepting of holistic medicine these days, there is still the stigma that health companies are just slick institutions trying to earn a quick buck. Federal regulations have, for the most part, stifled this problem. However, there still exists corporations who boast natural ingredients, but when put under scrutiny their devious practices of adding unnatural ingredients is unearthed.

Distinguishing between what is real and what is snake oil in holistic medicine is the issue most people struggle with. Add in the fact that each of our bodies are unique, and the task of finding solid legitimate remedies is that much harder. However, this doesn’t mean there are not holistic remedies that work and work quite well.

Holistic Medicine in Society Today

Even with a snake oil past, holistic medicine is still heavily used in our society today. Yet, like the herbs it uses to heal, holistic medicine has evolved. As stated earlier I view holistic medicine mainly dealing with herbal healing. However, many alternative methods and practices now fall under the umbrella of holistic medicine. Some of them are:

  • Yoga
  • Hypnosis
  • Homeopathy
  • Essential Oils
  • Ayurveda
  • Guided Imagery
  • Meditation
  • Iridology
  • Spinal Manipulation
  • Acupuncture

Even modern pharmaceutical companies are opening up to holistic medicine. Well, at least partially. Generally these mega-corporations use natural ingredients, but they only take an aspect of it and make it a concentrated form.

Disabled World provides a great list of how the society today is embracing the ancient form of holistic medicine:

  • According to CNN one-half of all medical schools now offer courses in holistic health care.
  • Almost one-third of American medical schools-among them Harvard, Yale, John’s Hopkins, and Georgetown Universities-now offer coursework in holistic methods.
  • There are five homeopathic hospitals in Great British National Service.
  • One out of three drugs prescribed in Germany is an herb.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that between 65 to 80 percent of the world’s population (about 3 billion people) rely on holistic medicine as their primary form of health care.
  • In 1993, American consumers spent almost $1.5 billion dollars on herbal remedies-ten times more than was spent on over-the-counter sleeping pills from grocery stores and drug stores.
  • Approximately $22 million of U.S. government money has already been spent on alternative medical research since 1992 at the National Institutes of Health and Public Health Services.
  • The American Medical Association (AMA), in Resolution #514, “is encouraging its members to become better in-formed regarding holistic medicine and to participate in appropriate studies of it.
  • Mutual of Omaha says it saves about $6.50 in covering non-standard (holistic) treatments.
  • One out of every ten Americans is under the care of a chiropractor.
  • In 1991, Americans made more visits to unconventional health care providers (425 million) than to conventional doctors (388 million).
  • One out of three Americans were using unconventional medicine in 1991.
  • Americans spent almost $13.7 billion on unconventional health care in 1991.
  • 75 percent of that $13.7 billion (above) was out of pocket.
  • 12 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer alternative medicine as part of their health care compensation packages. That percentage was expected to increase to 18 percent by the end of 1996.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) A nationwide government survey of more than 31,000 adults on their use of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) showed that 36 percent of U.S. adults use some form of CAM.
  • The World Health Organization, estimates that between 65 to 80 percent of the world’s population (about 3 billion people) rely on naturopathic or homeopathic medicine as their primary form of health care.
  • Worldwide, only 10 to 30 percent of people use traditional medicine, 70 to 90 percent use naturopathic and homeopathic health care.
  • 74 percent of the American population desires a natural approach to health care.
  • Of the one out of three Americans who say they have used natural techniques, 84 percent said they would use it again.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine has been chosen by the World Health Organization for worldwide propagation to meet the health care needs of the twenty-first century.
  • The U.S. government sponsors the use of acupuncture in drug rehabilitation programs.
  • “In a [Mayo Clinic] study of 50 patients, six acupuncture treatments given over two to three weeks significantly improved their symptoms of pain and fatigue.” Time, 2005
  • “Americans make more visits to holistic health care providers (some 600 million a year) than to M.D.s and spend more money out-of-pocket to do so about $30 billion a year by recent estimates.” Newsweek, 12/2002
  • “A recent study performed by the American Massage Therapy Association revealed that 28 percent of people received a massage from a massage therapist in the past five years, up from 17 percent in 1997. Eighteen percent said they had a massage in the past 12 months. That’s 10 percent higher than was reported in 1997.” American Massage Therapy Association, 8/2002.

The End. . . of a Beginning

The ancient Sumerian Aloe remedy may seem like the beginning of holistic medicine. In actuality, we could right now consider our time the beginning of holistic medicine.

Only recently have we actually segmented holistic medicine from modern medicine. For the Sumerians and throughout the ages holistic medicine was the only medicine.

Yes, there will always be some form of snake oil found in the holistic medicine cabinet. Just as there will always be fraud and scams found in modern medicine. The most important thing though, is to not let this stop us from learning from our past and from working on a happier and healthier future.


Paul Wilson is a co-founder of Herbal Doc and the skeptic of company. He's not willing to take things on good faith and researches and tests any medicinal herbal claims he can. He believes it's possible for science and nature to be at harmony with each other. Paul and his wife have six beautiful young children who provide a plethora of opportunities for proving herbal healing.