Holistic health

Exploring the spiritual and psychological elements of holistic health and living.

HOLISTIC health is a concept that takes into account everything that directly or indirectly affects our health. This would include spiritual, psychological/emotional, social, lifestyle, physical, hormonal, nutritional, exercise, environmental, and even, economic/financial factors.

Nowadays, to maintain good health is not always cheap, and to cope with hospital bills should you get sick is even worse.

Did you hear the story of the man who was successfully operated upon (he had quadruple bypass surgery) only to die of a massive heart attack after he was given the bill?

To all these, I would like to add energy (life-force) as an important component of holistic health and healing.

Although conventional medicine, being a strictly scientific discipline, has a more contracted view of what is meant by “holistic”, there is a trend towards acceptance of the wider definition, even among modern doctors.

For example, research has been done to see if prayers help in the recovery of patients (the result, until now, is inconclusive).

Unfortunately, the general impression is that holistic medicine only improves health through the “placebo effect”, and until adequate scientific studies are done, it will remain officially so.

Most of what make a holistic approach to health and healing are already familiar to most readers. Today I would like to discuss only the spiritual (briefly) and psychological aspects. I will elaborate on the others in future articles.

Defining holistic health

Many people erroneously use the term holistic health to mean natural or alternative/complementary health/therapies. The holistic approach is about looking at the whole, big picture.

While allopathic (conventional) medicine has often been accused of only treating the symptoms of disease, but not the whole person, some practitioners of natural or complementary healing arts are also guilty of the same.

A doctor of modern medicine can be holistic in his approach by looking into all the aspects mentioned above, while using modern medical methods of diagnosis and treatment. An alternative/complementary medicine practitioner can also be holistic and use his chosen method of diagnosis and treatment.

My view on health and healing methods and modalities is this – it does not matter if it is Eastern or Western, modern or traditional, conventional or complementary, as long as it is safe, effective and affordable. For Muslims, it has to be halal and beneficial too.

Health and spirituality

For believers, health and healing start with spirituality. God is the source of healing, and is the real healer. Everything and everyone else who heal are merely his instruments to execute the healing.

Of course, non-believers may argue that God is not a necessary part of the healing process, since believers and non-believers alike are healed, and at other times, both also fail to be healed. Since this is not a column on spirituality, I will not dwell on this further, except to mention that God plays a central role in the life (and health) of believers.

Spiritual practices like meditation, and spiritual values like patience, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude and selfless service, are traits that are known to positively impact our health.

In my interfaith travels, I heard a real-life story about a monk who cured himself of a chronic debilitating disease after realising that he had not been grateful enough in his life. Although he always thanked people for whatever good they had done to him, it turned out that it was insufficient. He had to find reasons to thank people, and to thank the universe, at least 100 times a day, before he started to feel his body healing. Now, he is totally cured after all the doctors said he could not be cured.

For believers, we have ample opportunity to thank God for all that he has given us, but do we thank him enough?

Health psychology

The impact of psychosocial and emotional factors on health has been widely studied. These factors are so important that there are whole disciplines dedicated to studying this relationship.

Health psychology is the study of the impact of psychological (more precisely, biological, behavioural and social) factors on physical health. It is also synonymous with behavioural medicine.

For example, a 35-year-long study conducted in the US showed that pessimism predicted poor health in later years. Ninety-nine Harvard University graduates were interviewed at age 25. It was found that those who were pessimistic had poorer overall health at age 45 onwards (they were monitored till age 60). This was reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol.55, No.1, 1988).

Health psychologists help us promote better health, and find better ways to prevent and treat diseases, through the enhanced understanding of how our behaviour influences health or illness, and how we react, cope and recover from illness. By providing input that can help the government formulate better health policies, they are important components of a “holistic” healthcare system.

Some of the issues which their expertise is urgently needed in our context, is in formulating effective strategies to reduce our ever-worsening problems of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease, cancer and smoking, which are all directly or indirectly behaviour-related.


As the name implies, this branch of physiology/medicine investigates how psychological factors (the mind) and the central nervous system influence the immune system.

Thus far, it has been shown that psychological factors do influence our immunity, and certain immune-mediated diseases.

Stress and depression have been shown to negatively impact the efficacy of our immune defence system, as shown by white blood cell and antibody counts.

Stress and depression have also been repeatedly shown to affect the onset and progression of common infections like the common cold, influenza and herpes.


Many hormones influence our behaviour, while some hormones are themselves modulated by psychological factors. Psychoneuroendocrinology is the study of the influence of the mind and the central nervous system on our hormonal system, and vice versa.

It is the study of how our behaviour affects our hormones, and how our hormones affect our behaviour.

The most classic examples of the influence of the hormones on our behaviour are PMS (premenstrual syndrome), PPD (postpartum depression) and perimenopausal syndrome.

Many women experience varying degrees of PMS – marked by cyclical irritability and other behavioural symptoms (depression, anxiety, mood swings) during the latter part of their menstrual cycles. The symptoms end with the commencement of the menses.

A small percentage are so severely affected that they require psychiatric help. This severe form is called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). The behavioural disturbances are directly related to the cyclical hormonal changes.

More than 50% of women experience “postpartum blues” within the first few weeks after delivery. The more serious condition is postpartum depression, and the most serious is postpartum (puerperal) psychosis. These are due to the sudden fluctuation of hormones immediately after delivery.

The symptoms may include sadness, mood swings, tearfulness, anxiety or irritability. The severity and duration vary, but most recover spontaneously within two weeks, especially with good family support. Those with depression may have added symptoms of fatigue, poor appetite and sleep problems, and may require counseling and psychiatric intervention.

Those with the severest form (psychosis) definitely require psychiatric therapy, as they may be dangerous to themselves, and to the newborn babies.

I once had a patient suffering from puerperal psychosis. She had wanted to kill her baby, and was counseled and put on psychiatric drugs. She was also repeatedly saying “Pinatubo, Pinatubo”, which none of us understood.

Two weeks later, Mount Pinatubo (in the Philippines, which none of us knew about at that time) erupted. On June 15, 2001, the volcano situated on Luzon island, only 90km from Manila, erupted and killed about 800 people and made 100,000 people homeless. It was the second largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century.

So people with psychosis, just like autistic savants, may have exceptional mental abilities because some parts of their brain are not functioning properly, heightening some abilities but curtailing others.

At around age 50-51 (range 45-55), women undergo menopause, which is defined as the cessation of menses. However, the perimenopausal period (starting from the time that the woman experiences symptoms due to instability, imbalance and decline of her sex hormones; to the time that her behaviour stabilises after menopause has been established) may start years earlier and extend years after menopause.

Some scientific studies report women having up to 10 years of symptoms. The symptoms they experience are collectively called the perimenopausal syndrome (also shortened to PMS).

Some of the symptoms are similar to that of premenstrual syndrome (irritability, mood swings, sleep problems), but the most common are hot flushes and night sweats.

Many also have menstrual irregularity, vaginal and bladder problems, and problems with libido and sexual function/enjoyment.

All these syndromes can be helped by being well informed and prepared, and by having good support from family and friends (and professionals, if severe).

In the case of premenstrual and perimenopausal syndromes, effective herbal and hormonal remedies are available to help the women cope with the symptoms.

For men, all they need to consider to experience the mind-body connection is to note what happens when they become sexually aroused. Remember, everything starts in the mind, and the body responds through the actions of nerve impulses, hormones, messenger molecules and other chemicals. Therefore, in case you don’t know, the brain is the largest sex organ.

These are some examples of the holistic nature of health and illness, where our mind influences our immunity (and sexuality, and many other things), and our hormones influence our minds.

Understanding the mechanism can help us handle problems better, should they arise. I hope to delve more into how the mind influences health through energy (life-force) soon.

Dr Amir Farid Isahak is a medical specialist who practises holistic, aesthetic and anti-ageing medicine. He is a qigong master and founder of SuperQigong. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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