What Is Holistic Health? Overview and Career Outcomes

What is holistic health? Explore the concept of holistic health and learn how holistic health can influence culturally competent approaches to healthcare.
Holistic Health specialist conferring with patient

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This statement from the preamble to the World Health Organization’s constitution, adopted in 1946, illustrates its belief in holistic health from its very formation. 

Exactly what is holistic health? Holistic health is an approach to wellness that simultaneously addresses the physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual components of health. As a field of practice, holistic medicine draws from many disciplines, religions, and cultures to heal people, communities, and even the environment. 

Learn more about the rich and diverse roots of holistic health and what purposeful careers people with a master’s degree in holistic health studies or other training can pursue.

Integrated, Not Separate: Holistic Approaches to Health

The term “holism” refers to the theory that all parts of a whole are intimately interconnected. According to holism (from the Greek “holo,” meaning “whole”), it’s a mistake to study just one part, or even multiple parts separately, if we really want to understand how they work together. Applied to health, holism means treating the whole person — taking into account more than just the physical symptoms of disease or injury. 

Holistic health practitioners may ask themselves and their patients to deeply consider the ways that bodies, minds, spirits, relationships, and the spaces we inhabit all coalesce — manifesting and shaping one’s health outcomes and well-being. 

Areas that holistic health practitioners may examine include the following:

  • Body. What are the body’s needs for nutrition, sleep, exercise, and rejuvenation? What are the underlying causes of physical pain, and what steps can be taken to ameliorate this pain — or live with it? What actions can be taken to prevent bodily injury, illness, and disease?
  • Mind. What are the mind’s needs for stimulation, curiosity, wonder, and creative expression? What information and lessons do our emotions provide? What is an embodied account of the mind and spirit? What are its interdependent connections with others and the environment?
  • Spirit. What practices and rituals connect us with something larger than ourselves? How can we connect with the divine, with nature, with ancestors, and with other sources of deep purpose and meaning beyond oneself?
  • People. How is one connected to others? In what ways can ties with kin, friends, loved ones, neighbors, and strangers be strengthened, renewed, and repaired? How can one give time and resources generously, draw healthy boundaries, and cultivate community? 
  • Culture. What is one’s cultural inheritance? What values and traditions — including art, performances, ceremonies, rites, crafts, and ways of life — would one like to bring into the present and preserve for the future? What can one’s culture teach us about living healthily and well?
  • Environment. What are the unique features of the space one lives in — the neighborhood, geography, flora, and fauna? Who lives nearby, and how has this place changed over time? What is the history of this place? How does this place affect one’s health — is it clean, welcoming, loud, harsh, disruptive, joyful, or peaceful? What healing and help does this environment need to be healthy?

Returning to Cultural Roots

The medical model in the U.S. is patient centered, but what does that mean in practice? Often, medical providers prioritize treating symptoms and reducing pain over understanding how patients’ entire lives contribute to their health and/or disease. Medical systems are designed to serve as many patients as possible, and shortages of medical providers mean that not all patients receive care when they need it. 

Rather than operate separately from the medical system, what holistic health does is forge teams of care providers — doctors, mental health providers, nutritionists, and spiritual healers — to support patients on their journey to greater health. 

Many holistic health practitioners are rooted in specific cultural traditions: Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Indigenous healing, and other forms of healing that date back centuries. By connecting with a deep cultural wellspring, patients of holistic medicine can not only minimize pain and alleviate symptoms but also connect with richer sources of cultural and spiritual renewal and community.

Holistic Health Careers

Earning a degree from an accredited holistic health program provides graduates with research-based instruction and practical learning experiences that can prepare them for long careers in holistic health. 

Consider some of the many compelling careers that graduates with a holistic health degree can pursue.

Naturopathic Physician

A naturopathic physician (or naturopathic doctor) cares for patients using a holistic health model. According to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the average time that patients spend face to face with a doctor during appointments averages 20 minutes, whereas naturopathic doctors spend between one and two hours in their initial appointments and between 30 and 60 minutes in subsequent appointments — taking extra time to get to understand the larger context of a patient’s health. 

Accredited naturopathic medical schools require students to earn at least four years of education in biomedical sciences (including anatomy, biochemistry, pharmacology, physiology, and pathology) alongside natural approaches to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

AANP reports that naturopathic medical programs require at least 4,100 hours of class and clinical training, and students must pass the two-part Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX), which the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners (NABNE) administers, to qualify for naturopathic doctor licensure. 

According to ONet Online, a free database developed under the sponsorship of the Employment and Training Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor, naturopathic doctors fell under the category of “Healthcare Diagnosing or Treating Practitioners, All Other” in 2021, a category of healthcare professionals making a median annual wage of $100,300.

Nutritionist

Holistic health education can also provide a solid foundation for a career in nutrition when paired with an active license. Nutritionists help individuals; families; communities; and organizations, such as schools, with improving their health with wholesome, nourishing foods. A holistic healthcare background can be useful for this line of work, given how personal and culturally specific food habits can be.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) is a nationally recognized credential that the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS; a branch of the American Nutrition Association) administers. To qualify, applicants must have an advanced degree (master’s or doctoral degree), must have experience under supervision, and must pass a certification exam. 

The BLS shows that the median annual wage for nutritionists was $61,650 in May 2021.

Holistic Health Practitioner

Many healthcare practitioners — from nurses to physicians — find that the traditional medical model practiced throughout the Western world has gaps that holistic medicine can bridge. Holistic health studies offer healthcare providers the tools to integrate holistic health into various healthcare practices. 

Moreover, mental health providers with training in holistic health understand that many clients need more than talk therapy and medication to heal from trauma and cope with life’s hardships. Practitioners with the cultural competency that holistic health provides may be better able to connect with clients and support them through difficult times. 

Zippia reports that holistic health practitioners make an average of $51,523 annually.

Educators and Health Education Specialist

Holistic health draws from a wide collection of ancient traditions and contemporary practices. By becoming holistic health educators, graduates can share wisdom while also becoming lifelong learners of the time-tested theories and practices that make people healthier, stronger, and more connected. 

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for health education specialists was $60,600 in May 2021. For community health workers, the median annual wage was $46,590.

Independent Professional

A person doesn’t always need to earn a degree in holistic health to practice, as the field is broad, with many professionals entering the discipline through complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Traditional alternative medicine practices are also a key part of what holistic health is; they include acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, massage, Tai Chi, Reiki, and osteopathic medicine. However, earning a degree can enhance a graduate’s independent practice by providing additional perspectives and skills.

Heal Oneself and Others With Holistic Health

After learning what holistic health is, professionals and prospective students need to carefully consider the path they’ll take in pursuit of holistic health education. 

The Master of Arts in Holistic Health Studies from St. Catherine University is an innovative graduate program that invites individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences to study philosophies, sciences, and arts of the holistic model of health and healing. Explore how you can draw from the best of modern scientific medicine and cross-cultural healing wisdom while earning a degree in holistic health studies. 

Recommended Readings:

Health Equity vs. Health Equality: What’s the Difference?

Panel of Local Indigenous People Discuss Native American Food Sovereignty

 

Holistic Health Studies Alumna Offers Indigenous Practices for Healing at Native American Community Clinic

Sources:

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, What Is a Naturopathic Doctor?
Healthline, “What Does a Holistic Doctor Do?”
National Center for Homeopathy, What Is Homeopathy?
ONet Online, Naturopathic Physicians
The Conversation, “Traditional Medicines Must Be Integrated Into Health Care for Culturally Diverse Groups”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dietitians and Nutritionists
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers
WebMD, “What Is Holistic Medicine?”
World Health Organization, Constitution
Zippia, How to Become a Holistic Health Practitioner