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HOLISTIC vs. ALLOPATHIC

The Application in Nutritional Health

MICHAEL R. BREEN BPE(Hon) DC


In the past decade, much has been written about the tendencies of health consumers in North America. Dr. David Eisenberg of Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Centre in Boston, published two studies (1993 and 1998) in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which clearly identified the growing trend toward the utilization of "alternative therapies". Between 1993 and 1998 there was a 25% increase in the number of Americans who sought care from an alternative provider.

As more and more people become exposed to alternative or complimentary health care, there will be a corresponding increase in confusion surrounding terminology these people will encounter. One word, which is frequently misinterpreted and misused, is "holistic". Very often, holistic is used erroneously to mean non-medical. Along the same lines, the term "allopathic" is frequently used synonymously with "medical". In fact, these terms have definitions, which dictate their correct application in health. According to Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, allopathy is a "system of treating disease by inducing a reaction that is antagonistic to the disease being treated". Holism is defined as a "philosophy that, in nature, entities such as individuals and other complete organisms function as complete units which cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts." In other words, living organisms have an "intelligence" which allows them to function within an environment and to utilize substrates within that environment to maximize their function. Holism implies that the intelligence in nature understands the needs of an organism to a greater extent than a practitioner. Conversely, allopathy implies that the understanding of disease by the practitioner is greater than an organisms ability to govern itself and as such, treatment must be applied to alter the function of the organism in order to insure its viability. Both systems have appropriate applications. Certainly, the application of allopathy in life threatening circumstances is appropriate. That is, in the absence of the intervention, the organism (person) would die.

The confusion surrounding these terms goes back to the incorrect assumptions that "allopathic" implies "medical", and that "natural" implies "holistic" In fact, in a circumstance when a person takes Vitamin C for a cold, allopathic philosophy is being applied. That is, the vitamin is being taken as an antagonist to the cold. If a person were to swallow an aspirin for a headache, most people would understand this to be an allopathic treatment, but for the wrong reason. Philosophically speaking, taking white willow bark for a headache is no different. A herb taken for a cold or any other "condition" is also the application of allopathy as are homeopathic remedies taken for specific conditions. As such, nutritional supplementation when delivered to treat specific conditions is very much the application of allopathic philosophy. Generally speaking, most nutritional supplementation is simply a less invasive and safer approach to manipulate the functioning of the body compared to pharmaceuticals. To support this point, the term "nutraceuticals" has been coined to describe the application of allopathic nutritional supplementation.

When is nutritional supplementation holistic in nature? Most specifically, when the application of the treatment is not specific to a condition and when there is no attempt to manipulate the functioning of the body. For example, whole food supplements are holistic in nature, as are macrobiotic or vegetarian diets. That is, an attempt is made to provide the body with broad-based nutritional support such that the body can utilize the constituents of the food to its own best advantage. i.e. the "intelligence" of the body determines which nutrients are required to a greater or lesser extent under any given circumstance. The body is given the opportunity to create it's own balance or homeostasis as opposed to an allopathic approach which has the distinct potential of creating imbalance in the body while disease is being treated. It could be argued that taking a multi-vitamin on a daily basis with no alteration in quantity when a person becomes ill, is an application of holistic therapy. Conversely, the consumption of vitamins, in the absence of minerals, trace minerals, enzymes, etc., could be argued to be forcing the body into a state of imbalance.

The essence of this argument is not so much what vitamins, herbs, or foods can do, as what is the philosophy of the provider or consumer. Many people would like to apply holistic health principles to themselves but become confused by the input of practitioners or suppliers of health products. It is certainly not a black or white argument, and as stated earlier, under certain circumstances, both holistic and allopathic principles are appropriate. Moreover, it becomes a philosophical question. Does a person believe that to the greatest extent, the body needs to be directed by external means to reach a state of optimal health? Or, does a person have an understanding that the body has an "innate" intelligence, which controls all function, and as long as the body is provided with complete and appropriate substrates, this "intelligence" will create an optimal level of health.

With my own patients, I provide an environmental analogy. Imagine a pond or wetland area. Within the pond are bacteria, tadpoles, frogs, various plants, insects, and fish. Around the pond are birds, and all kinds of animals. Some of these organisms breathe oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. Some breathe carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Food to one organism is the waste product of another. We understand this slice of nature to be an ecosystem. It exists in perfect balance. Any attempt to manipulate one part of the ecosystem will lead to an imbalance, which will ultimately affect all of the organisms. Some of the changes to the ecosystem are benign - floods or droughts - and the system will recover and flourish. Some changes are malignant - petrochemical pollutants or global warming - and the ecosystem as it exists will be forever altered and will eventually fail. Most interestingly, substances which are considered to be beneficial to the ecosystem, can place it out of balance when delivered in excess. The physiology of a human being is simply an ecosystem. It exists in balance with itself and with its external environment. If the external environment is able to provide optimal support (including nutrition), the human ecosystem will provide and maintain it's own balance. When the support is sub-optimal or out of balance, the human ecosystem will struggle in its existence. Holistic based supplementation allows the body to find it's own ecological balance.



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