What Is Holistic Medicine and How Does It Work?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 16, 2023
6 min read

Holistic medicine is a form of healing that considers the whole person – body, mind, spirit, and emotions – in the quest for optimal health and wellness. According to the holistic medicine philosophy, you can achieve the best possible health by gaining proper balance in life.

Holistic medicine practitioners believe that the whole person is made up of parts that depend on one another, and if one part isn't working properly, all the other parts will be affected. So if you have imbalances (physical, emotional, or spiritual) in your life, it can harm your overall health.

A holistic doctor may use all forms of health care, from conventional medication to alternative therapies, to treat you. 

What’s the difference between holistic and natural medicine?

Naturopathy, which you might hear called natural medicine, is a type of holistic medicine. Naturopathy uses only natural remedies, such as herbal medicine and acupuncture, to help your body heal itself. But some holistic doctors use conventional treatments, such as medication, together with such remedies. 

Holistic medicine is based on the belief that unconditional love and support is the most powerful healer and a person is ultimately responsible for their own health and well-being. Other principles of the holistic approach include the following:

  • All people have innate healing powers.
  • The patient is a person, not a disease.
  • Healing takes a team approach involving the patient and doctor, and addresses all parts of a person's life using a variety of health care practices.
  • Treatment involves fixing the cause of the condition, not just easing the symptoms.


Some types of holistic health care providers hold medical degrees. So what's the difference when you visit a holistic doctor vs. a traditional doctor? 

Here's an example: When a person with migraine headaches sees a holistic doctor, instead of simply prescribing medications, the doctor will likely look at all the things that could be causing the headaches. That might include other health problems, diet and sleep habits, stress and personal problems, and the patient's preferred spiritual practices. The holistic therapy plan may involve drugs to relieve symptoms, but also lifestyle changes to keep the headaches from coming back.

Other holistic providers may not have medical degrees, but could have degrees in various types of complementary or alternative medicine. Along with medical doctors, holistic providers may include doctors of osteopathy, naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, and homeopathic doctors.

Integrative physician

This is a licensed medical doctor (MD) who treats patients with mind-body practices like massage, acupuncture, and nutrition along with traditional medical techniques.

Naturopathic doctor

In states that license them, naturopathic doctors (NDs) hold degrees from naturopathic medical schools. But in some areas, naturopaths – who aren't licensed – may call themselves naturopathic doctors. Both types of practitioners aim to help the body itself through natural therapies, like herbal remedies and nutrition. 


A doctor of osteopathy (DO), is licensed to practice medicine, and has a degree from an osteopathic medical school. Some DOs are also trained in manual medicine, which is hands-on manipulation of your tissues and joints.


Chiropractic medicine is based on the idea that the function of your body is linked to the alignment of your spine. Chiropractors do hands-on manipulation of your spine in an effort to ease pain and improve your health without medicine or surgery. They may do imaging and lab tests, and sometimes give you exercises to do at home. While not MDs, they have doctorate of chiropractic (DC) degrees and have at least 4 years of post-graduate training at a chiropractic college.

Ayurvedic doctor

Ayurveda is a form of traditional medicine that began in India. According to ayurvedic theory, illnesses result when your body’s life force, or prana, is out of balance. An ayurvedic doctor seeks to restore this balance with practices that include special diets, herbal supplements, yoga, massage, and meditation. Unlike India, the U.S. doesn't license ayurvedic practitioners, and they aren't considered medical doctors.

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the idea that every person has a life flow, or chi. When this flow is hindered, illness is the result. Traditional Chinese medicine aims to restore the flow using acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage, and a type of mind-body exercise called qi gong. Practitioners can become certified after completing 3 to 4 years of study at an accredited institution. But they're not considered medical doctors.

Practitioners use a variety of holistic healing techniques to help their patients take responsibility for their own well-being and attain optimal health. Depending on the practitioner's training, these may include:

  • Patient education on lifestyle changes and self-care to promote wellness. This may include diet, exercise, psychotherapy, relationship and spiritual counseling, and more.
  • Complementary and alternative therapies including acupuncture, chiropractic care, homeopathy, massage therapy, naturopathy, and others
  • Western medications and surgical procedures

Holistic medicine is meant to complement, not replace, traditional medical care. 


To find a holistic practitioner in your area, visit the American Holistic Health Association website. There you can use an online provider search to find a practitioner near you.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when choosing a holistic provider:

Don't go to just anyone. As with all professionals, some are better at their jobs than others. Before choosing a holistic medicine doctor, get a recommendation from someone you trust, or contact a credible health organization and ask for a recommendation.

Do your homework. When selecting a holistic doctor, find out as much as you can about that person’s training, experience, specialty, and association with professional organizations and hospital affiliations. Are they board-certified in holistic medicine by a credible medical board? Also, consider the doctor's treatment philosophy. Is it similar to your own views?

How do you feel? Consider how comfortable you are with the provider. Do they make you feel at ease? Is the provider respectful of your concerns and beliefs? Remember, holistic medicine takes a team approach, involving you and the provider, so make sure you feel comfortable and respected and that they are someone with whom you would like to work.

Appointment time. Choose a provider who will spend enough time with you so that they can gain a full understanding of your needs.

Are the right questions being asked? In order to understand you as a whole person and not just a disease, be prepared to answer lots of questions, including questions about your diet, exercise, sleep habits, how you feel emotionally, your religious beliefs and practices, close relationships, and more. 

Treatment options. When coming up with a treatment approach, does the wellness plan go beyond pills? Make sure the practitioner examines all lifestyle factors, along with medical factors that could be contributing to your illness.

Holistic medicine is an approach to health care that takes the whole person – mind, spirit, and body – into consideration. It includes a variety of practices, ranging from traditional medical treatments like drugs to alternative remedies like herbs and massage. The goal is not just to treat illnesses, but to address their root causes. 



Is holistic medicine legit?

There are many forms of holistic medicine, including some that combine traditional Western medical techniques with alternative treatments. Some non-medical approaches, like exercise, a healthy diet, and stress reduction, are well-researched and known to work well. Others, like IV vitamin treatments, have little scientific evidence to back them up. That's why it's best to use such treatments to complement standard medical treatments, not replace them.