What Does Holistic Health Really Mean?
By Stefani Reinold, MD, MPH
While I now answer to Dr. Reinold, my health journey began long before medical school. I was inundated with the television advertisements from millennial childhood days that claimed lifting light weights and eating fat free were the avenue to health. Then, I drank the green juice kool-aid (literally) and even became a direct marketing rep for a popular wellness juice staking its credibility on the all-healing, omnipotent powers of the acai berry. All the while, seeping deeper into my eating disorder and further from true holistic health. Now some eight years later, I have not only found true holistic health personally, but professionally, I have helped more than a thousand patients find health in their own lives. From my personal, professional, and clinical experience, I must clarify what holistic health really means.
- Holistic health is more than physical health. This should go without saying; however, with the countless diet advertisements and beautiful food porn photos that likely flood your social media feeds, I want to remind you that holistic health literally means a focus on the “whole” person. Your whole person is much more than your physical body. Your whole person includes your relationship health, emotional health, financial health, family health, social health and environmental health. Any efforts to improve your ‘holistic health’ must keep all of these factors in alignment.
- Emotional health is likely the foundation of all holistic health. Researchers now understand that stress and anxiety alone can trim off years of your life, even when your diet and exercise routine are in tune. Also, stress is associated with poor digestion and decreased absorption of nutrients, even when your meal is an otherwise nutrient-dense meal.
- Holistic health often includes mainstream medicine. Although I am now a doctor, I haven’t always been keen on taking medications and going to the doctor. We as a culture have now deemed mainstream medicine as evil, while ‘holistic’ and ‘naturopathic’ medicine as worthy. While mainstream medicine surely has its limitations and problems, we must find balance. Many pharmaceutical medications and medical surgeries, for example, literally save lives. And when people avoid the doctor or stop taking their medications in pursuit of ‘health,’ they are causing more harm than good.
- You cannot improve emotional health with food. While I will save my rant on the validity of mental illnesses for another day, I will say that some emotional health issues require professional treatment. I highly recommend healthy habits and behaviors to help lighten your mood, but there is no conclusive evidence proving that any one type of diet change will cure mental illness. As I mentioned in #3, mainstream medicine may literally save your life.
- Holistic health must include other people. We live in a social media world where we can literally talk to someone across the globe from us in a matter of seconds with the touch of our fingertips. Yet, we have never felt more alone. Finding community and improving relationships is one of the best ways to not only improve your overall health, but also, increase your lifespan. So, there really is something to family dinners.
- Food cannot solve all of your problems. While I myself enjoy and feel my best eating a real foods, nutrient-dense diet, I will be the first to admit that food is not the end-all, be-all of a healthy life. To be honest, some of the healthiest people physically are also some of the most miserable people, either emotionally or spiritually. And thus, do not enjoy their physical health to the fullest. This then cancels out any ‘holistic’ measures.
- Holistic health does not exclude spiritual health. I identify as Christian, but whether or not you claim a specific spiritual or religious sect, spiritual health must be a priority. Having a soul is what separates us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. If we do not take steps to feed our soul, we will continue to feel empty and worthless inside. No amount of clean eating will fill this void.
- Holistic health is unique to you. Because I already mentioned that holistic health is an intersection of many different factors in your life, it will look different from one person to the next. Your financial status, physical health limitations, relationships, and environment will determine what habits or behaviors that you label as valuable to your overall health. Comparing your own health status to someone else’s is a surefire way to increase your internal turmoil, and thereby, downgrading your health in the process.
We live in a society that emphasizes appearances and associates physical health with righteousness. It may take some time to untangle your thoughts between food, body, and your emotions. As long as you stay true to who you are, what you value, and who you want to be, your health will take care of itself.
Stefani Reinold is a board-certified psychiatrist, women's mental health expert, and founder of Not the Typical Mom-a blog and podcast about the not-so-typical, but all-too-common issues of motherhood. For help with emotional eating, food and body image issues, sign up for her free video training series, It's Not About the Food.