What is Holistic Health and What are Its Pillars?

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Holistic health is an approach to health that includes the whole person. It is a comprehensive view of health that considers multiple areas of a person’s life and examines how these areas work together to create a healthy person.

When we think of a healthy person, we typically think of someone who’s active, eats well, and doesn’t smoke. And that’s true; physical health is essential. But physical well-being is just a piece of the formula for health. There are many different types of health, and they all affect a person’s well-being. When we only look at physical health, we don’t see the complete picture. Some of the other elements of health include social health, emotional health, and spiritual health.

Often, Western medicine overlooks these different aspects of health. And if they are acknowledged, standard practice is to compartmentalize them, viewing them as individual units instead of seeing how they work together as a unified whole. Thankfully, there’s holistic health.

Holistic health acknowledges these parts of health and sees them for what they are — parts that make up a whole. Holistic health is an approach to health that understands each part must work successfully together to create a healthy person.

In this blog, we cover the five main pillars of holistic health. We also discuss what holistic health is and what holistic health practitioners do. Finally, we talk about the difference between holistic health and wellness.

Why is Holistic Health Important?

Before we discuss holistic health, let’s talk about what the term “health” means in general. Traditionally, good health has meant the absence of disease. Even today, many people believe that if they’re disease-free, then they’re “healthy.” But health encompasses much more than that.

In 1946, the World Health Organization adopted their constitution to read, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Though this definition provides a more complete snapshot of health, it still fails to see the bigger picture.

Often, Western medicine separates health into parts and examines each part on its own. Even in the WHO’s constitution, we can see this separation. But these parts don’t work independently. Instead, they work together as a system. That’s where holistic health comes in.

Holistic health sees health as a system of multifaceted and interconnected parts. When each part is working optimally together, your well-being flourishes. But when one part is imbalanced, it can cause symptoms to appear in other parts. And it can negatively affect your well-being.

A holistic approach to health is a comprehensive view of health. It zooms out and looks at the bigger picture, acknowledging everything that can affect someone’s well-being. It also understands that physical symptoms may not have a physical cause. This ignites a deeper look into sometimes ignored areas and helps pinpoint the root causes of ailments, no matter how abstract the cause.

For example, headaches may be caused by a lack of food or water. Or they may be from poor emotional health or living in a polluted environment. A stomach ache could come directly from digestive issues, or it could be the result of an argument with a loved one or negative self-talk. Chronic pain or fatigue may result from physical trauma, or it may be a symptom of depression, PTSD, or another mental illness.

Holistic health diagnoses the root cause of maladies. Not only that, but it prevents disease and creates a more fulfilling life. The goal of holistic health is to achieve optimal wellness. Plus, it’s even been found to improve cognitive ability, alleviate pain (especially when the pain has no known cause), and enhance overall quality of life.

The 5 Main Pillars of Holistic Health

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The holistic health approach comprises five main areas: physical health, mental and emotional health, social health, environmental health, and spiritual health. Keep in mind that the following are just the five main pillars. More aspects can affect your health, and a certified holistic health practitioner can help you examine the secondary areas.

Also, just because we examine each pillar independently doesn’t mean they work alone. Remember that holistic health recognizes that these areas work together and impact each other. That’s why you may see some overlap in the healthy habits that can improve each area. Also, as you read through the pillars, consider how an imbalance in one area could affect another.

1. Physical Health

Graphic of an apple with "Pillar 1" below it

Physical health is what most people picture when they think of health. And that makes sense; physical health is the most tangible and easiest to measure of all the holistic health pillars. Physical health includes everything that has to do with the physical body. This is as superficial as skin health and hygiene, and it’s as deep as bone health and cellular function.

Here are some healthy habits to enhance your physical health:

Eat nutrient-dense foods. What we eat literally fuels our bodies. That’s why it’s important to choose whole, nutrient-dense foods. Also, consider limiting processed foods and refined sugars, which can cause inflammation and increase the risk of disease.

Drink water. We can survive for a few weeks without food, but we can only survive a few days without water. Water hydrates the body, allowing its systems to function smoothly. Plus, dehydration can cause brain fog and weakness.

Exercise. Moving our bodies is an essential and fun way to improve physical health. Thirty minutes of physical activity a day has been linked to better mental and emotional health. And regular exercise has been proven to improve well-being.

Rest. When our bodies are tired, we must rest. That means getting 7 – 9 hours of quality sleep each night. It also means allowing your body time to recover after intense workouts or invasive procedures. Rest also includes taking time off work and letting your mind rest, as well as resting your eyes after staring at screens.

Practice good hygiene. Good hygiene means keeping all external parts of the body clean. This not only includes bathing regularly but washing your hands, flossing, and cleaning your nails.

Avoid toxins. Everything we consume affects our bodies — from what we eat and drink to the air we breathe and the type of media we consume. For optimal wellness, avoid consuming toxins. If a toxin is impossible to avoid entirely, limit your exposure or take breaks.

2. Mental and Emotional Health

graphic of a heart with "Pillar 2" below it

Psychological health is the second easiest pillar to identify. It encompasses both mental health and emotional health. Good psychological health can help improve resiliency in the face of adversity. Plus, it can provide a more enriching life.

Mental health is everything that has to do with the physical brain and its processes. Mental health is measured by how well we process, understand, and apply information. It also comprises the brain’s health and our ability to learn, grow, and adapt.

Emotional health is all about our emotions. It’s measured by how well we regulate, process, and work through emotions. Having good emotional health means we know how to express emotions in a healthy way. It also means that we’re able to handle difficult emotions when they arise.

Here are some ways to improve your mental and emotional health:

Positive self-talk. We all talk to ourselves, but how we talk to ourselves can affect our mental health. Positive and uplifting self-talk can improve your mental and emotional health. It can also reduce stress and improve the immune system. On the flip side, negative self-talk can lead to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.

Keep learning. As we age, our brains naturally become hard and rigid. But engaging in new and challenging learning experiences encourages brain plasticity. Neuroplasticity allows our brains to adapt to changes more easily, and it protects against dementia.

Brighten your outlook. When challenging situations arise, reframe your perspective to see the positive. A great way to do this is by practicing gratitude. Instead of looking at what’s lacking, consider what there is to be grateful for. Another way to do this is by embodying a growth mindset. Instead of seeing the challenge as a setback, view it as an opportunity to grow.

Increase mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of living in the present moment. It slows us down and encourages us to take things as they come. Practicing mindfulness can help you reduce stress and regulate your emotions. A great way to practice mindfulness is with regular meditation.

Seek therapy. Sometimes life can create psychological issues that are too difficult to handle by ourselves. That’s when therapy is a great option. Though psychotherapy is popular, it’s not the only type of therapy around. There’s also art therapy, nature therapy, yoga therapy, and much more.

Exercise, rest, and eat well. Being tired, hungry, or sedentary can have devastating effects on mental and emotional health. The mind-body connection is profound. How we treat our bodies directly impacts our brains, so be sure to exercise, rest, and eat well to ensure your mental and emotional health thrive.

3. Social Health

Graphic of two people with "Pillar 3" below it

With social health, we begin to look at the pillars of holistic health that are harder to measure. We assess social health by how well we form and nurture meaningful relationships. Humans are not solitary creatures; we need social interaction to thrive. Being in a community and having people to lean on for support is essential for our well-being. In fact, it’s been proven that those who are more socially connected are healthier and live longer than their more isolated peers.

Here are some ways to improve your social health:

Find a Community. Engaging with like-minded individuals can provide a sense of belonging and support. Find a community and connect with them regularly to improve your social health.

Form healthy boundaries. Setting boundaries means creating rules and limits on what’s acceptable in a relationship. They establish how others can act around you. Boundaries are essential for self-care, so be sure to form and communicate those limits with others.

Practice good self-talk. Social health is all about forming meaningful relationships, and that includes with yourself. Ensure your internal communication is positive to build up this holistic health pillar.

Know yourself. When you understand who you are, you can show up authentically in your relationships with others. This allows for a genuine and trustworthy relationship.

Employ good communication, listening, and conflict-resolution skills. Communicating effectively is vital for good social health because it allows for meaningful friendships to form. Without it, optimal wellness is a pipe dream.

4. Environmental Health

Graphic of a house with "Pillar 4" below it.

Though we may not realize it, our surrounding environments greatly affect our well-being. Environmental health ranges from the planet’s overall health to the specific feeling we get in our bedrooms. It even includes our work environments and neighborhoods.

Environmental health is much harder to measure and much harder to control than physical health. As individuals, we don’t always have the authority to improve our environmental factors. However, we must do what we can to improve our environmental health for the sake of our overall well-being.

Here are some ways to strengthen your environmental health:

Tidy and decorate your space. Living and working in a clean, uncluttered, and inviting space can improve your environmental health and contribute to your overall well-being. This includes not only sweeping the dust bunnies and taking out the trash but also keeping an organized desk and a welcoming bedroom.

Breathe clean air and drink clean water. Inherently clean water and air are privileges only afforded to some. If your environment doesn’t naturally provide clean air and water, try cleansing these elements yourself. Consider water and air filtration systems. And if you live in a polluted area, spend time away from the pollution when possible.

Clean up your local community. Volunteer to help clean up your town or neighborhood. It’ll contribute to the environmental health of you and your neighbors, and it may help improve some of your social and spiritual health as well.

Create a supportive work environment. We spend 30% of our lives at work, so our work environment can definitely influence our health. A work environment should feel welcoming and supportive. If you don’t have a healthy work environment, consider what you can do to fix that. Sometimes that means talking to higher-ups, and sometimes it means finding another place to work or starting your own business.

Become eco-friendly. Reduce, reuse, recycle. As individuals, we cannot save our environment, but there are little things we can do to help. So, consider what you can do to become more eco-friendly. Maybe it’s reducing plastic use or using a bike to get around. Remember that the health of the planet has a direct effect on human health.

5. Spiritual Health

Graphic of yoga with "Pillar 5" below it.

Spiritual health is the hardest to quantify of all the holistic health pillars. Spiritual health is characterized as a sense of connection to something greater. To some, this means a connection to a higher power. To others, it means a connection to humanity, nature, or the planet.

Good spiritual health is when you transcend the idea of yourself as an individual and forge a connection with yourself as part of the collective. Spiritual wellness creates a desire to contribute to the greater good.

The following are some ways to improve your spiritual health:

Find a purpose. Living your life with purpose can help improve your spiritual health. Plus, it’ll give you a greater sense of fulfillment and well-being. If you’re not sure where to start, look at what your community might need.

Connect to something greater than you. For some, this may mean praying and connecting with a higher power. For others, this may mean meditating, spending time in nature, or stargazing.

Create altruistic connections with others. When you do things for others out of the kindness of your heart, you’re helping humanity which improves your spiritual health. Try volunteering at a soup kitchen or even holding the door for a stranger.

Spend quiet time alone. Spending quiet time with yourself allows for a deeper connection to yourself and that which is greater than you. Devote some time to journaling and meditation to improve your spiritual health, social health, and psychological health.

What Is a Holistic Health Practitioner?

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A holistic health practitioner is a healthcare worker. They help clients achieve a better sense of well-being by considering all of the various aspects that could be affecting their health. They look at each individual pillar of holistic health and understand how the pillars interact with each other to contribute to an overall sense of well-being. Their clients may be seeking to treat an existing health condition or looking to develop a higher level of wellness.

Holistic health practitioners have a wide variety of health knowledge. They know how to individualize a holistic health program to fit a client’s unique needs. Additionally, a holistic health practitioner may have specialized training in any of the following holistic healing modalities:

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Ayurveda
  • Biofeedback therapy
  • Chiropractic therapy
  • Coaching/Consulting
  • Herbalism
  • Holistic nutrition
  • Holistic medicine
  • Massage therapy
  • Movement therapy
  • Naturopathy
  • Reiki (energy movement)
  • Tai Chi
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
  • Qigong
  • Yoga

All holistic health practitioners need some degree of schooling. Most often, practitioners need a certification or license obtained after a few months of school. However, some careers within holistic health require years-long degrees.

Holistic wellness coaching is another fulfilling career within the field of holistic health. A holistic wellness coach teaches clients everything they need to know about feeling their best each day and living a truly healthy life. To become a holistic wellness coach, you must obtain an in-depth understanding of holistic wellness rather than just holistic health. If you’re unsure of the difference, check out our blog on the differences between health and wellness.

If you’re thinking about a career in holistic health, it’s vital to choose the right program. Before applying, make sure the program is accredited by an official accrediting body. Then, review the program coursework and read what the alumni say.

Holistic Health Practitioners Versus General Health Practitioners

Holistic health practitioners and general health practitioners approach health in different ways. Here are some of the most significant differences.

Perspective. When you experience discomfort, general health practitioners focus on where the discomfort is located when deciding on the root cause and treatment options. Holistic health practitioners understand that the pillars of health work together, and discomfort in one area may be caused by an imbalance in another area.

Knowledge scope. General health practitioners tend to specialize in specific parts of the body. This can make them hyper-knowledgeable in one area, but inattentive to others. Holistic health practitioners view the body’s health as a single system with multiple working parts. Therefore, they have a broad overview of knowledge of the various body systems and how they interact.

Client connection. A 2018 survey found that 62% of U.S. doctors spend between 13 and 24 minutes with their patients. With such a short amount of time spent with each person, it’s difficult for doctors to listen, understand, and pinpoint patients’ exact concerns. Holistic health practitioners, on the other hand, spend much more time with their clients. They’re observant, great listeners, and empathetic. Holistic health practitioners desire to understand everything their clients are experiencing. That way, they can identify the root cause of the issue and create a comprehensive treatment plan.

Education. General health practitioners need a medical degree. Holistic health education depends on the type of practitioner. Though all holistic health practitioners must go through schooling, most do not need medical degrees.

Holistic Health Versus Wellness

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At first blush, holistic health seems a lot like wellness. When we practice holistic health, we’re on the path to wellness. But wellness takes it one step further by fostering a system to live by.

As Suzanne Monroe, Founder of the International Association of Wellness Professionals (IAWP) puts it, “Wellness is really a way of living and being. It’s a practice of listening to our bodies and our minds and choosing to impact our health and life with empowered choices. Wellness is not a static state, but it’s always changing and evolving.”

If you’re ready to make a career change and you’ve got your eye on holistic health, that’s terrific. But you may only be seeing a piece of the puzzle. At IAWP, we train holistic wellness coaches.

Our program curriculum has three pillars. First, we teach you the 12 pillars of wellness so you have a comprehensive and holistic understanding of health. Second, you use our proprietary 12 CORE Coaching Method™ (CCM) to learn how to successfully coach your clients to a holistically well lifestyle. Finally, you receive instruction on how to run a purposeful and profitable coaching business.

If you’re ready for the whole picture, check out our wellness coach training programs.

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About the Author

Suzanne Monroe

Suzanne Monroe is the author of Live Well Dream Big: The Ultimate Guide to Becoming Your Best Self and Living Life on Your Own Terms. She has also written and published The Holistic Cookbook & Lifestyle Guide: 12 Weeks to a Healthier, Happier You, the co-author of 101 Ways to Improve Your Health and the host of the Live Well Dream Big Podcast. Suzanne was inspired to create the IAWP Wellness Coach Training & Certification Program in collaboration with other leading health experts in order to inspire people to create meaningful careers and spread the message of wellness.

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