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Finding ways to improve and optimize our health and vitality by utilizing a whole-body approach may become essential to long-term wellbeing.
Why it’s important
According to health rankings per county in the state of Pennsylvania, Northampton County ranks near the bottom at 53 out of 67 counties for quality of life health outcomes. Lehigh County is somewhat better at a ranking of 35, but it remains far from optimal, and when the two rankings are combined, the Lehigh Valley becomes one of the sickest areas of our state.
In addition, demographic forecasts indicate that within the next 20 years, the population of people 50 years and older in the Lehigh Valley will increase by 33 percent.
The rising costs of conventional healthcare combined with the increased need for healthcare to service an aging population makes our current model unsustainable. Taking personal responsibility and a more holistic approach to our health and wellbeing may be our best offense.
What is holistic health?
Holistic health is the philosophy that our body, mind and spirit, and our emotions are all interconnected and are contributing factors to our overall health. If one area is out of balance, it can adversely impact all other areas. Within the holistic framework is also the understanding that we have innate abilities to heal and are ultimately responsible for our own health and wellbeing.
If you use stress as an example, stress is a contributing factor to a multitude of diseases and conditions. Allopathic medicine can address the symptoms related to stress, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, adrenal fatigue and diabetes. A holistic approach targets and then addresses stress through diet, exercise, stress reduction modalities, and/or energy work, to name a few.
At the core of holistic methodology is personal responsibility. Meaning that, as individuals, we need to take responsibility for and an active role in addressing the root causes of the unhealthy or chronic conditions we suffer from. This is the micro aspect of the philosophy.
The macro aspect of holistic health goes beyond the condition of the individual but addresses the health of the community, as well. Since we do not live in isolation and are dependent upon one another, the health of the community impacts the health of the individual, economically, socially and environmentally. It therefore becomes an important, shared concern.
A common misconception
One of the biggest misconceptions about holistic practices and allopathic/conventional medicine is that they are mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary, the two can work together toward improved overall health. Holistic practitioners often view their role as supporting the clients’ overall health and energy systems, while the allopathic doctor addresses specific symptoms.
Kelly Koons, of Bethlehem, is a massage therapist as well as someone living with stage IV colon cancer. “I realized in consulting with my oncologist that I needed to do the chemotherapy.
However, I also knew that my body needed as much support as I could give it. How I ate, my exercise regimen, sleep, my thoughts and stress levels went under meticulous self-evaluation. I incorporated a daily walking regimen, received regular bodywork and reflexology, utilized meditation, music vibration, self Reiki and essential oils to name a few things,” Koons says.
“I am so grateful that I am a massage therapist and was already aware of the expanse of holistic modalities that could support my whole body’s health throughout the process.”
The Valley’s rich history in holistic health
Holistic health is not a new concept in our area. In fact, the Lehigh Valley has an especially rich history. Homeopathy, which is the practice of using diluted natural substances to address symptoms and conditions, had its US origins in Bath in the early 1800s. The first homeopathic hospital in the state was located in Allentown, and in Fountain Hill in the early 20th century, the Lechauweki Springs became a destination for health and rejuvenation.
Today, the Valley is rich with talented practitioners. Paula Michal-Johnson, a Jikiden Reiki master, is helping organize the Lehigh Valley Holistic Practitioners Group.
“We have tremendously talented and skilled practitioners in the Lehigh Valley. The services and talents of our pool of holistic practitioners often operate under the radar of most of our [residents],” Michal-Johnson says.
“By banding together we seek to clarify what the holistic health options are for [residents], serve as a reliable voice for them, work with other health professionals in cooperative, collaborative ways and inevitably empower and improve the health of individuals and our community.”
The scope of holistic practices
Addressing body, mind and spirit is quite a comprehensive task, which means there is a vast array of modalities that can be employed. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, there are five broad categories:
- Alternative medical systems are practices or methods that oftentimes evolved earlier than conventional medicine and include things like acupuncture, Ayurveda, naturopathy and homeopathy.
- Mind-body interventions look to enhance the mind’s ability to affect the body’s systems and include the Feldenkrais Method, chiropractics, reflexology, sound therapy, biofeedback and the emotional freedom technique, among others.
- Biologically-based therapies include nutritional coaching, diet, herbal products and essential oils.
- Manipulative and body based methods look to help the physical body through movement or manipulation as in osteopathy, Rolfing, massage therapy, resistance stretching and acupressure.
- Energy therapies utilize energy fields in and around the body. Qi gong, Tai Chi, Reiki and therapeutic touch are a few examples.
What’s right for me?
The first step in assessing which modality might be appropriate is self-evaluation. Identify what aspect of your health requires the most attention or feels the most important when it comes to addressing and improving it. This can be something going on with your body, mind or spirit, or a combination of all of them.
Next, investigate different modalities that are available and see what is of interest to you and is most appropriate for achieving your goals.
Before working with a holistic practitioner, be diligent and do your research. Get referrals from trusted sources and verify that their training and experience is relevant and reputable.
Checking with your doctor is helpful, but recognize your doctor may not be familiar with some of the practices or believe in their efficacy. Note that empirical data is not always available or conclusive when it comes to complementary methods. Many holistic practices are experiential in nature and empirical data may not be an effective measurement tool so remember, you are your best guide.
An important point to remember is that everyone’s body is unique and is at different stages of health and balance. While acupuncture may be ideal for you, your friend may better respond to nutritional coaching and network chiropractics.
It is important to always check with your doctor if you are considering taking any supplements or herbs, as they may interact negatively with certain medications.
The insurance mindset
“But what about my medical insurance? Is any of this covered?” It wouldn’t be uncommon to be asking yourself this right now. Many holistic practices are, indeed, out-of-pocket expenses. Although it is something to consider, the real question is, “What is my low energy level, achy body and unrelenting stress costing me in personal and professional terms?” This cost can be dramatically more substantial than the out-of-pocket expense in the long-term.
Exploring holistic and complementary methods can be another way to support your whole being. Allowing your body’s own wisdom to actualize can be an empowering path to health.
Holistic Check List
- Getting a referral from a colleague, family member, friend or trusted source is always helpful.
- What has worked for others may or may not be ideal for you.
- The holistic practitioner should be open to work with your physician and vice versa.
- Beware of some practitioners making unrealistic promises and using language like “treat” and “cure.”
- Go in with appropriate expectations; some practices are more subtle and take time.
- Take ownership and understand your role in your own health. A holistic practitioner is there to help steer you in a healthier direction, but you are the driver.