What’s the difference between modern medicine and holistic medicine?

First, it is important to understand terminology. Modern medicine, also referred to as allopathic medicine, is a term used to describe techniques that are approximately 400 years old and is founded in scientific measurements. People often use the term ‘holistic’ when referring to “alternative” or “traditional” medicine, yet its origins date back nearly 6000 years. Alternative medicine is also known as “complementary” medicine. Additionally, the use of the term “alternative” applies to the various therapeutic techniques available in the holistic field. It is important to understand that “holistic” is not a technique. Rather, holistic medicine is a method of approaching health and healing through which a person incorporates several different therapies, including modern medicine.

Indeed, holistic medicine should include modern medical approaches in order to be considered truly “holistic”. These two paradigms of healthcare (modern or allopathic medicine) and holistic (or traditional or alternative medicine) medicine are not meant to compete with one another, but to complement one another and become “integrated”. The experience, knowledge and technologies of both allopathic and holistic health care are valid, substantial and potent.

With that said, modern medicine and holistic health represent more than just two different approaches to understanding, treating and healing disease. They illustrate two essentially different paradigms of reality.

The model of modern, or allopathic, medicine is a scientifically constructed one. What is considered “real” must be measurable, usable and reliable through scientific methodology. Disease and causes of disease are measured, studied and treated within this physically-oriented system of reality. As a result, both the causes identified with the breakdown of the body and the treatments applied to heal them are physical, can occur randomly and more often than not exclude the individual control and will from the treatment/experience.
Moreover, because of the physical orientation of science and medicine, the perception is widely held that illnesses such as viruses, infections and cancer occur as a result of an invasion by an outside source, such as germs and bacteria. The difficulty with this perception is not that it is inaccurate but that it is incomplete and leads to the further assumption that every cause for every disease comes from the outside world. And therefore the method of treatment must also consist of an external force imposed upon the body to create internal well-being. The irony is that one of the most essential external sources of our health and well-being, nutrition, is an elective in medical school.

The paradigm of modern (allopathic) medicine, developed with a serious regard to scientific (i.e. unemotional) terminology. Therefore, modern medicine embraces the premise that it is the physical world that contains the forces which exert the strongest influences on the body. As a result, modern medicine treatments are predominantly passive events and the goal is one of treating rather than curing.

In contrast, the holistic paradigm is almost the exact opposite of the allopathic model of medicine. According to the holistic paradigm, illness does not happen randomly.

While modern medicine can be described as working from the “outside in,” holistic medicine approaches dis-ease (lack of ease or ill at ease) from the “inside out”. After all, the apple rots from within. The fundamental principle of holistic philosophy is that illness results when biochemical stresses (food, drugs, environmental factors), biomechanical stresses (accidents, surgeries, repetitive strain), and psycho-social stresses (emotional, spiritual) – stress still being the number one cause of death – become overwhelming and thus cause a weakening of the body. In other words, the body is the result and reflection of thought, attitude and belief and it manifests physically the deeper struggles of an individual’s entire life, culminating in what you are currently experiencing as you read this article. What the holistic paradigm suggests – and this is the central difference between these two views of disease – is that the “energy” of a human being, meaning the emotional, thoughtful and spiritual world within each of us precedes, and in fact determines and manifests, all that is experienced at the physical level of life. ‘Energy before matter’ is in fact scientific terminology describing that very perception/fact.

Holistic therapies operate on the premise that through healing the body, and the mind, and the emotions and the spirit, the body, in fact the entire being is healed and becomes healthy and whole. We cannot selectively heal. When we heal, our whole body heals. This does not mean that treatment of the body is to be ignored until such a time that a person’s mental and emotional reality is in order. Not at all. It simply means that the body is only one aspect of our entire being, and a small percentage of it at that. Science teaches us that the part of our being that is matter measures a whopping total mass of 2-5 percent. Science further teaches us that we are roughly 95-98 percent energy and that energy cannot be created or destroyed but is in a constant state of flux, or potential. The holistic approach simultaneously and appropriately treats the body (whether that be through vitamins, herbs, meditation, yoga, and/or pharmaceutical drugs, massage therapy to name a few methods), while the individual person also learns to understand, master and heal that part of him or herself that drugs and surgery cannot touch. There is no drug that can remove fear or other emotional pain such as depression, anxiety, bitterness, guilt or resentments that may be raging through a person’s being, Likewise, there is no drug that can release traumatic emotional memories or negative attitudes. And it is impossible to compartmentalize these energies. For the entire being is acutely and directly affected by emotion, thought, attitude and belief. We are at once a self-maintaining and a self-transcending being.

Also, in holistic health, the position that it is that patient who is responsible for his or her healing process challenges the very core of the modern medical paradigm, in which it is not the patient but the drug or surgical procedure that is responsible for the healing. Because of the nature of the doctor-patient relationship, the patient becomes dependent on the physician and in fact, often gives over their will to the advice of the doctor with respect to the decisions central to the healing process. In modern medicine, healing is passive event. Within the holistic model, the responsibility for healing lies with the patient and the choice of direction for healing – so necessary to human self-esteem and dignity – is entrusted to the individual, as far as which therapies feel appropriate and right for their life.

The fact is: the new trend (finally!) in the medical field of looking seriously at the varied influences of stress (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual) on the health of the human being has brought the modern medical world face to face with the fundamental principle of holistic health: The majority (not all but indeed the majority) of physical illnesses result from an overload of emotional, psychological and spiritual crises.

Where holistic medicine has (since its inception) accepted and respected modern medicine, it is apparent that modern medicine is at last beginning to appreciate that which cannot be measured scientifically but can certainly be seen with our own eyes and felt within our own bodies. Science is also beginning to take a more serious look at nutrition as an essential factor in total body wellness. This is an exciting time to be participating of the field of health, wellness, holistic medicine and the creation of vitality and a joyful life.

I invite you to join me in healing and in health (a future article contrasting these two terms and what they mean) as we explore the newest science, the most delicious and nutritious foods, superfoods and herbs, and cutting edge therapies which, now thanks to new scientific models, can study the energy behind matter. Fantastic!

Thanks for taking the time to read this article and I welcome feedback and am happy to answer any questions you have regarding health and healing, whatever level, body, mind or spirit.
Live Well!
Jenn B


All of the terms regarding holistic, or alternative medicine are confusing. Can you please elaborate on what they mean?

Alternative Medicine
Holistic Medicine
Complementary Medicine