Holistic approaches to health care

Most types of complementary therapies are part of wider holistic health care systems. Holistic health care aims to treat a person as a whole, not just the disease and its symptoms.

In Australia, the main traditional holistic health care systems practised are naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and homoeopathy. Their origins differ, but they share the following beliefs:

  • The body needs to be balanced physically, emotionally and spiritually to be healthy.
  • Ill health often has more than one cause.
  • The body has a vital energy reflecting its level of health and wellbeing.
  • The body can heal itself.
  • Health care must be tailored to the individual.


What it is: Naturopathy maintains that the mind, body and spirit are all connected, and that the body can heal itself through dietary and lifestyle changes. Many of the underlying principles of naturopathy, such as the importance of diet and exercise, are also part of conventional medicine.

Naturopathy finds and treats both the cause and effect of a person’s symptoms using a combination of dietary changes, bodywork such as various forms of massage, and herbal medicines or nutritional supplements.

What to expect: After taking a case history, a naturopath may suggest a combination of diet changes, bodywork or exercise, and herbal or nutritional remedies.

Evidence: The benefits of some aspects of naturopathy, such as massage and nutrition (excluding extreme dietary practices), have good clinical evidence for people with cancer. Other aspects of naturopathy have mixed levels of evidence. See individual therapies for more information.

Remedies from different cultures

Australia’s cultural diversity means some people may want to use traditional healing practices as part of their complementary  cancer care.

For example, some Indigenous people with cancer may want the guidance of a traditional doctor or elder who is familiar with bush medicine and Aboriginal spirituality.

Talk to your doctor if you would like to use traditional remedies from your culture.

Traditional Chinese medicine

What it is: Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is based on using the connection between mind, body and environment to prevent and manage diseases, such as cancer. TCM  practitioners consider the person’s overall condition, not just the symptoms. It may help people with cancer strengthen their vital force (qi) and cope with the side effects of conventional treatment. TCM  includes acupuncture, tai chi, qi gong and the use of foods and herbs to improve health.

What to expect: A TCM  practitioner will take a case history and may do a physical examination, including looking at your tongue and taking your pulse (tongue and pulse analysis), to work out the flow of energy and imbalances in your body. Treatment may include one or more of the therapies listed above.

Evidence: There is clinical evidence for the benefits of some aspects of TCM  for people with cancer, while for other aspects the evidence is limited. See individual therapies for further information.

Beliefs behind TCM

According to Chinese medicine and other medical systems from Asia, everyone has a vital energy or vital force known as qi (pronounced ‘chee’). Qi is said to flow through the body along pathways called meridians. People who use TCM believe that if the flow of qi becomes unbalanced, this can lead to physical and emotional disease or discomfort.

Qi is made up of two opposite and complementary  factors known as Yin and Yang. In TCM, the belief is that there is Yin and Yang in everything. Yin is represented by water and Yang by fire. The balance of the two maintains harmony in your body, mind and the universe.

TCM also uses the theory of five elements – fire, earth, metal, water and wood – to explain how the body works. These elements correspond to particular organs and tissues in the body.

Ayurvedic medicine

What it is: Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient Indian system that was founded on the concept that health is achieved when the mind, body and spirit are in balance. Ayurvedic practitioners use a wide range of therapies, including nutritional and herbal medicine, massage, meditation and yoga.

What to expect: An Ayurvedic practitioner takes a case history and assesses vital force and balance in the body, often using tongue and pulse analysis. Treatment may include one or more of the therapies listed above.

Evidence: There is good evidence for the effectiveness of some treatments that are part of Ayurvedic medicine, such as massage, meditation and yoga. There is limited clinical evidence on the herbal remedies and certain diets used by Ayurvedic therapists. See individual therapies for further information.


What it is: Homoeopathy  is based on the theory of ‘like cures like’. It tries to stimulate the body’s ability to heal itself with the consumption of small doses of highly diluted substances. In larger doses these substances would produce the illness or symptoms. Homoeopathic  remedies are available as tablets, liquids or creams.

This information was last reviewed in May 2015
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