Integral Health

Integral health is cognizant of the limitations inherent in the way both the mainstream health system and the Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) sector are organized today.

The overreliance of the standard Western medicine on the physical symptoms of illness has led to a fragmentation among disciplines and often a failure to treat people in a holistic way.

In oncology in particular, increasing specialization and the intense focus on the physical formations has led to the emergence of the new discipline of psycho-oncology, as compensation for the missing focus on the emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of people.

Despite advances in science, with well over a century of robust medical research, the fundamental questions remain unanswered. What makes cancer cells start growing and what makes them stop is still largely unknown. In his recent pioneering work on cellular medicine, The Song of the Cell, leading oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee of Columbia University writes of the limits of current biomedical research approaches and its obsessive focus on gene sequencing. ‘Sequencing is seduction. It is data, not knowledge,’ he writes.

Mukherjee speaks of the need to further study the context of cancer cells as a way of deriving clinically useful information. By context he means not just the mutations the cancer cell carries, but its very identity– where it lives and grows, its origin and developmental pathway, the nutrients that sustain it, and the neighbors it depends on.

This certainly speaks to the need of a more holistic understanding. But an equal limitation applies to much of current complementary and alternative medicine.

While complementary and alternative medicine approaches to treatment are theoretically holistic, in practice they are often applied with a partial focus linked to the specific expertise or training of the given practitioner, often too limiting to provide a credible alternative treatment to a serious physical condition such as cancer.

This is despite the increasing popularity, growing evidence base and recognition of integrative oncology at the European level.

The integral approach draws together these different paradigms into a coherent view of health.


The Complexity of Illness

Integral health recognizes the value and seeks to synthesize the knowledge and evidence derived from both standard specialized medicine and CAM approaches into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching. Healing ultimately lies in our very ability to accommodate seemingly exclusive understandings.

Integrating Self, Culture, and Systems, the integral approach thinks in awareness- based ecosystems.

In the same spirit, Mukherjee suggests the integration of the ‘atomism’ and ‘holism’ of the fields of genetics and cell biology respectively, can birth a breakthrough in cellular medicine.

It is such integration that could allow us to access the wider spectrum of knowledge available, so as to form a genuine dia-gnosis.

Integral diagnosis and care

The word diagnosis comes from the Greek prefix dia, meaning complete or thorough, and gnosis, or knowledge.

The diagnostic process aims at gathering and sorting through information and interpreting this information to reach a diagnosis. Treatment is then determined based on the specific diagnosis.

The process can be represented as

Information  >>>      Diagnosis    >>>    Treatment

If we take a primary physical set of signs and symptoms as the information and reduce these to diagnosis, much of the meaning connected to the person is lost in the process. This is a valid critique often held against conventional allopathic medicine which limits itself to physical causes and physical interventions such as medication, physical interventions, and behavioral modifications.

In contrast, most holistic approaches incorporate broad elements of mind, body and spirit, but tend to be more focused on treatment and less focused on assessment. Unfortunately, as famous oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee writes, the word holism has been ‘scientifically defiled’, and often used as ‘synonymous with the mushing of everything we understand into a malfunctioning, soft-bladed blender’.

From an integral perspective, reductionism can be seen as focusing on the trees, and holism as focusing on the forest.

Integral brings the two together as aspects of the same story. The part, the whole, the intra- and inter-relationships between them belong to the same individual story and give us the widest picture and spectrum of knowledge.

It is these relationships that Mukherjee refers to when writing that we have studied the forest and can identify the various plant species; but what we are still missing is the songs that move between the trees.

The ‘song’ is about ecology, interconnectedness, and cooperativity. It is about cellular ecosystems. It links to Mukherjee’s understanding of cancer as the ‘disorder of internal homeostasis’ and an ‘ecology gone wrong’.

How could such an understanding help expand the range of treatments we may envision and apply in the future of oncology care?

* Credit and inspiration by The Song of the Cell by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee and Health Wise of MD Victor Aquista