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We're more than the sum of our parts

Socrates said it to Plato, who said it to Aristotle, who wrote it in the Metaphysics: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” In holistic medicine, this theme is carried through with the underlying principal that what kind of patient has a disease is as important as what kind of disease a patient has.

“I practiced traditional family medicine for fifteen years,” says Dr. Ronald Santasiero, cofounder of Sedona Holistic Health Centre in Hamburg. “But now when I look at a problem, be it hypertension, back pain, or a cold, I presume that there is a physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual aspect to the problem.” Holistic medicine was practiced for thousands of years before the advent of what we now refer to as Western medicine. It is often used hand-in-hand with holistic medicine as “complementary” medicine now.

Often a rush to treat symptoms can ignore a greater underlying problem. If the engine light came on in your car, would you ask your mechanic to simply disconnect the light? It would certainly be cheaper. But you might be better served by having your mechanic find out what’s wrong with your engine that’s making that light come on. If you think of symptoms such as headaches, joint pain, and high blood pressure as warning lights, and realize they’re pointing to some other problem that needs attention, you’re a long way towards understanding what holistic medicine is all about.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that the key factors involved in a person’s health break down like this: ten percent medical care, eighteen percent heredity, nineteen percent environment, and a whopping fifty-three percent based on everyday lifestyle choices. Even the most conservative politicians and health advocates now acknowledge that “wellness”—a person’s overall state of mental and physical well-being is determined by day-to-day activities, including level of activity, diet, and reaction to stress.

A person’s quality of life can be determined by the many seemingly unimportant things he or she does over the course of the day. “Stress can be healthy,” says Dr. Santasiero, “as long as there is a sense of control. We’re programmed to have stress to get us moving when we need to move. [People] can work very hard and experience stress, but if they feel that what they’re doing has value, and more importantly, if they are able to find ways to balance that stress by doing other things to relax, then [they] can be very healthy, highly efficient, and productive.” But the whole person needs to be balanced. The person who works at a desk much of the time must find time to move. The person who performs a tedious task at work must find time to concentrate on something she finds compelling.

The goal of the holistic approach is to go beyond being merely physically fit. Holistic practitioners put the absence of illness in the middle of their spectrum. At the far left end is bad health, and at the far right end is overall wellness, encompassing mental, spiritual, intellectual, and physical health. “In the United States, we’re forty-ninth or fifftieth in the world in terms of longevity, and when you think of the resources at our disposal, we should be number one,” says Dr. Santasiero. “[Citizens of] poorer countries that rely more on lifestyle and health management tend to live longer.” Holistic health is a journey, a never-ending process of making small choices every day that move us closer to the right end of the wellness spectrum.

Small changes can lead to enormous gains in terms of longevity and quality of life. “We’re spiritual beings inhabiting a physical body,” says Dr. Santasiero, “not the other way around.”

Terri Parsell Hilmey is the editor of the Buffalo Spree Medical Resource Guide.

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