Whole-Person Health

May 24, 2021 Joe Brady

In classical Chinese medicine, the whole is always more than just the sum of the parts. There is more to human health than the absence of disease. The health of an individual also depends upon the community in which they live, it includes diet and exercise, it includes their leisure activities as well as relationships they have. The health of the community and environment cannot be separated from the health of the individual. In science, this is known as the cybernetic hierarchy in biological systems. No component of the pattern can be isolated, our health is dependent upon the totality of the way we live our lives on a daily basis. With advances in information technology and artificial intelligence, we can now study human health in all of its complexities and national research organizations are beginning to address this with new strategic approaches to the study of whole-person health.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) was originally created to facilitate the study and evaluation of complementary therapies. Over time, NCCAM became NCCIH and was designed to focus on integrative health research, with the goals of improving care, promoting health, and preventing disease. With this new strategic plan “Whole Person Health: Mapping a Strategic Vision for NCCIH”, the center is expanding the definition of integrative health to include whole-person health, empowering individuals, families, communities, and populations to improve their health in the biological, behavioral, social, and environmental domains. Our own research on whole-person health at the University of Denver will support promoting and restoring health with complementary and integrative health approaches.

Read more about the research and watch the video

Research on Whole Person Health

Complementary health approaches include a broad range of practices and interventions that may have originated outside of conventional medical care. Complementary approaches can be classified by their primary therapeutic input, which may be nutritional (e.g., special diets, dietary supplements, botanicals, probiotics, and microbial-based therapies), psychological (e.g., meditation, hypnosis, music therapies, relaxation therapies), physical (e.g., acupuncture, massage, manual therapies, devices related to these approaches), a combination of psychological and physical (e.g., yoga, tai chi, dance therapies, some forms of art therapies), or a combination of nutritional, psychological, and physical (e.g., Ayurveda, naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine). 

Studying the entire gamut of activities that encompass a “healthy lifestyle” presents some interesting challenges when it comes to the typical ways that we do research. Human beings are complicated! Research into the entire constellation of variables that go into understanding what constitutes a healthy lifestyle requires new research models.

Whole person health refers to how all the aspects of our lives can fit together in a coordinated way. Research on whole-person health in the complementary and integrative spheres emphasizes research on multicomponent interventions that aim to improve health in multiple interconnected domains: biological (including multiple organs and systems), behavioral, social, and environmental.

The research we are doing at OLLI and the University of Denver is an attempt to address the complexity of studying the lifestyles of active individuals in the community. Our research is looking at the whole person and global health issues like physical activity, diet, social life, pain, sleep, and a host of other factors that go with a healthy lifestyle self-cultivation, and lifelong learning.

As a relatively new concept, research on whole-person health is different from reduction-based research, which mostly focuses on a single intervention’s impact on one or at most a few physiological systems as separate processes. Understanding how multiple physiological systems interconnect and interact is one of the key challenges for the success of research on whole-person health. Complementary and integrative health approaches often involve many aspects. Someone who decides to take a Tai Chi class to improve their balance may also start making changes in their diet, they might also be inspired to take a poetry class. Research into the complexity of human behavior in all its complexity may require innovative study designs to fully investigate their fundamental science and therapeutic effects. Furthermore, sophisticated analytic tools and methods may need to be developed to encompass the double complexity of multiple system outcomes and their relationships with multicomponent interventions.

Research Objectives for the Next 5 Years

The new strategic plan has five objectives:

  • Advance fundamental science and methods development.
  • Advance research on the whole person and on the integration of complementary and conventional care.
  • Foster research on health promotion and restoration, resilience, disease prevention, and symptom management.
  • Enhance the complementary and integrative health research workforce.
  • Provide objective, evidence-based information on complementary and integrative health interventions.

These objectives, and the strategies for reaching each of them, incorporate our commitment to improving the health of women and underserved groups by funding research with diverse populations and promoting a diverse scientific workforce. They also reflect our commitment to emphasizing research on common and burdensome health problems such as pain and prioritizing research topics that show scientific promise and are amenable to rigorous inquiry.

View the NCCIH’S Strategic Plan

“Whole Person Health: Mapping a Strategic Vision for NCCIH” Video

During this webinar, NCCIH Director Dr. Helene Langevin will explain the concept of the whole person health framework and discuss how the framework provides critical insights and opportunities to expand and build on NCCIH’s current research portfolio. Dr. Langevin’s presentation will be followed by a Q & A and town hall meeting where you can provide feedback.

This online event is open to ICIMH registrants, Academic Consortium members, members of the International Society of Traditional, Complementary, and Integrative Medicine Researchers, and the public. 

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