Feel a cold coming on? You could nip it in the bud with conventional medicine, or you could consider a homeopathic or holistic approach — but what's the difference?

A holistic medical doctor combines modern, Western scientific treatment with alternative medicine or complementary treatments, such as chiropractic, acupuncture or massage. Both a homeopathic physician and a holistic medical doctor will look at the whole picture. How they differ is that the homeopathic doctor would prepare a remedy in liquid or tablet form, while the holistic doctor would provide a patient with the option of a pharmaceutical drug in addition to alternative treatments, which could include a homeopathic remedy.

Homeopathic treatment — often bashed by modern scientific institutions and doctors — in general falls under the holistic umbrella. Homeopathic medicine examines the whole person. It integrates a person’s constitution, diet, emotional and mental state and stressors, among other factors — hence the term holistic.

Homeopathy follows this theory:

  • A minuscule amount of what's bad for you is good for you.
  • “Like cures like.”
  • The body can trigger a healing response when given the least amount of medicine.
box of homeopathic medicineHomeopathy avoids narrowly examining specific symptoms and responding to those symptoms with a one-size-fits-all approach to healing. Homeopathic treatments can be packaged in lip-balm-sized tubes (below right) and include anything from aconitum napellus to zincum metallicum, or come in boxes similar to that of conventional medicine (right).

Another difference: Holistic medical doctors often encourage diagnostic testing (adrenal function and hormone levels, for example) in an attempt to find the underlying cause that led to the imbalance; homeopathic physicians treat the whole person, but generally do not suggest the use of modern diagnostic tests.

Despite the differences in how holistic doctors and homeopathic physicians treat the patient, if it’s your first time visiting either, expect your visit to last longer than an hour.

Let's look at a specific issue

With that in mind, here's an example to further illustrate the differences.

tubes of homeopathic medicineSay someone suffers from insomnia. A homeopathic treatment of coffea cruda, a diluted solution derived from coffee, may be prepared by a homeopathic physician, who would also consult with the patient about addressing underlying stressors leading to lack of sleep. A holistic medical doctor might prescribe a pharmaceutical (Insomulex, for example) but also would educate the patient about inducing relaxation through acupuncture, yoga or meditation techniques.

But is homeopathy always holistic?

No. If you have a cold, it’s easy to buy a homeopathic supplement from a health food store or supplement shop, and that might help you, but taking these pellets or solutions without examining why you got sick in the first place lacks a holistic perspective. The same could be said about over-the-counter drugs.

Most homeopathic practitioners are practicing holistic medicine; consumers who buy their own homeopathic remedies aren't necessarily doing so.

Have you ever visited a homeopathic doctor or holistic doctor? Let us know below.

Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, Calif., and the author of Living Healthy: Simple Steps. He can be reached at CoachJudd@gmail.com.

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Photo credits: Defend Sinus/Hylands; tubes: incurable_hippie/Flickr