Holistic medicine has been around for thousands of years in places like India and China, but holistic cannabis medicine is a newer term that's become more popular as marijuana prohibition comes to an end. While holistic medicine takes a comprehensive approach to a person's health, aiming to balance all aspects of the mind, body, and spirit, cannabis can be used to enhance the practice. In other words, holistic cannabis medicine allows health practitioners and patients to consider how the whole plant can help the whole person.
Evidence of holistic medicine dates to the 4th century B.C., when Socrates warned that treating one part of the body (instead of the whole body) wouldn’t have good results. Instead of looking at specific ailments, holistic medicine focuses on an integrated balance — and so, it only makes sense to include cannabis, since having a healthy endocannabinoid system (ECS) means having a body in homeostasis.
“Holistic cannabis medicine, in my opinion, means looking at the entire body, mind, and spirit when creating a protocol for one's healing journey,” says Joanna Matson, ayurvedic wellness counselor and founder of Canna-Veda and Zveda. Yet, she doesn’t recommend adding cannabis into one's health routine without looking at where the dis-ease exists in the body and what its cause is.
“Incorporating cannabis on its own, without regard to any other changes, still has great potential for healing and change," she says. "However, to truly treat the entire being through a holistic lens, one should always seek to balance and nourish the entire being, from a mental, emotional and physical perspective.”
The cannabis plant's various applications may provide a patient with more control over their health, and to become aware of where, within their bodies, they're most in need of healing. What's thought to be a mental condition, such as anxiety, could actually cause physical discomfort. That's because when you feel stressed, your body releases cortisol — an acidic chemical to which your body may respond with inflammation, fearing that it is under attack. And when your body becomes inflamed, you're subject to a variety of other ailments from back pain to stomach issues. This is why a holistic approach (aided by cannabis) that takes into account the relationship between mental and physical health is key to treating the cause and symptoms of disease.
One aspect that makes holistic cannabis medicine unique is that it offers a lens for the health practitioner to consider how past trauma and adversity can influence one's long-term physical and mental health. Research supports this link: One study showed that people with higher instances of childhood adversity have higher occurrence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, while another study showed that those with high amounts of cumulative, childhood have more frequent hospitalization for autoimmune diseases as adults. Other data suggests that high stress levels in children lead to an increased risk for cardiovascular problems.
According to Matson, practitioners in the field of holistic cannabis medicine conduct very thorough assessments, measuring more than a person’s daily movements and habits. Beyond lifestyle, the practitioner considers the course of the person’s entire life. Matson says that the holistic patient intake often starts at birth and looks below the surface of physical ailments. She says that it’s important to uncover areas of “normalcy” in a person’s life, so that any disruptions or imbalances in the flow of health and wellness will surface.
One example she offers is asking a client about any sleep issues. "They could say no, [that] they sleep just fine," she says. "[But] if I were to ask what they do for the two hours before they go to bed, when they actually go to bed, how long until they fall asleep, and how many hours they actually sleep, I may discern a different answer.”
She points out that someone who has patterns that only allow for four hours of fitful sleep, or someone whose habits don’t allow for relaxation or unwinding before bedtime may (erroneously) believe they have acceptable habits.
“Their reference for good sleep is skewed by their own normalized habit patterns," Matson explains. "We would immediately need to address new routines, and I would use this as an opportunity to explain sleep cycles, and the need for the body to detoxify nightly through sleep. This could be the beginning of opening up Pandora’s box, and could give the client the opportunity to look at their own actions from a different perspective.”
The American Holistic Health Association has remained impartial on the topic and declined to make an official statement on cannabis; however, they say that they do honor all healing modalities. At the core of holistic medicine, whatever works to keep a patient’s body free from toxic stress and to encourage healing from past trauma should be a part of their wellness journey.
“All holistic medicine definitely does not value cannabis at this point in time," says Matson. "The propaganda that has been widely spread throughout all aspects of the medical professional community, including naturopathic, ayurveda, chinese medicine or homeopathy has created a vacuum of fear and misunderstanding around this valuable healing plant.”
Adding cannabis to a true holistic treatment plan can really augment the health outcomes for a patient, if it is being used in conjunction with other alternative medicine and healing modalities. The treatment plans are specifically tailored to each patient in holistic medicine, and that is no different when cannabis is involved. Taking every element of a patient’s life and lifestyle into consideration, a progressive healer's main goal is prevention, says Laura Lagano, co-founder of Holistic Cannabis Academy, an online training curriculum.
“Living well by practicing healing habits and behaviors is vital to preventing health issues. That means eating specifically for you, not based on population recommendation,” she says, pointing out that humans are unique beings, “The food that we eat and all the other lifestyle habits that we do impact the cells of our body to create our wellness status.”
Holistic cannabis medicine offers more autonomy for patients because they can tailor their treatment to work uniquely for them. Instead of dealing with the vicious cycle of trial and error with pharmaceuticals that can produce side effects (which can be worse than the actual symptoms) that are then only treated with more prescriptions, a person can slowly experiment with cannabis applications and dosage without judgement or pressure. This also means finding out what doesn’t work, because as Matson points out, all cannabis is not the same.
Depending on the person's condition, and the biological makeup of the cannabis product, with regard to cannabinoid and terpene ratio, a person needs to take time to figure out what works for them — the difference with cannabis, as opposed to pharmaceuticals, however, is that there's more potential for customization, addressing various facets of the body and mind. A terpene (aromatic compound) like myrcene can aid with sleep and relaxation, while in some cases high-THC percentages can be problematic. However, by taking into account what a person needs to feel healthy and balanced — for example, better sleep, less anxiety, less chronic pain, and more energy — they can then identify the cannabinoids and terpenes that would best help them achieve this.
While holistic cannabis medicine isn’t accessible to everyone just yet, the integrated approach to wellness is something to consider as marijuana becomes more mainstream and legalization spreads. A practitioner who understands your entire unique history and won’t judge cannabis use is a welcome change for those who feel rushed or ignored by physicians who write off the possibilities of the plant. Those possibilities continue to reveal themselves as more people get the opportunity to use it for treatment.