How Do You Define Health?

Perhaps it matches the dictionary’s description?

According to Merriam Webster, health is:

1a: the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit

b: the general condition of the body

2a: a condition in which someone or something is thriving or doing well: well-being

b: general condition or state

3: a toast to someone’s health or prosperity

Many people are eager to achieve more health in this new year, but how can it be achieved if one is unclear about what a truly healthy mindset is?

In this article I am going to explore the concept of health in medicine and healthcare. I will explain why there is a mismatch between how it is viewed and how it is managed with conventional treatments. I will also discuss the concept of wellness, which embraces many forms of health from an integrative perspective.

After reading it, I’d love to hear if your views on health have been altered.

The Changing Definition of Health in Healthcare

The concept of health has transformed in meaning throughout the years. Medical News Today provides an overview of the changes:

The word health refers to a state of complete emotional and physical well-being. Healthcare exists to help people maintain this optimal state of health.

In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO)  defined health with a phrase that modern authorities still apply. “Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

In 1986, the WHO made further clarifications: “A resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.”

This means that health is a resource to support an individual’s function in wider society, rather than an end in itself. A healthful lifestyle provides the means to lead a full life with meaning and purpose.

In 2009, researchers publishing in The Lancet defined health as the ability of a body to adapt to new threats and infirmities. They base this definition on the idea that the past few decades have seen modern science take significant strides in the awareness of diseases by understanding how they work, discovering new ways to slow or stop them, and acknowledging that an absence of pathology may not be possible.

Weaved through all these explanations is that health is more than absence of a disease or symptom relief. The WHO views health as a “resource” for living, not the objective of it. Being in sound health allows one to live their values and passions more fully and to strengthen their social connections.

This perspective on health is very much in alignment with the integrative and naturopathic viewpoint of medicine and with the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. In these, diet and lifestyle are not used solely as a means to ending symptoms, nor are they meant to help one obtain external accolades for a societal accepted body size. By practicing healthful behaviors, one’s life is meant to be enhanced.

More Than Two Types of Health

The article in Medical News Today describes two main types of health:

  1. Physical Health
  2. Mental Health

Spiritual health and religious health are not mentioned as a form of health.

I believe this is an oversight, as one’s beliefs and practices are imperative for optimal wellness. Religion and spirituality have been shown to impact treatment outcomes. They also influence physical and mental health and enhance stress resiliency.

By removing the “soul of health,” we are missing a major component to holistic healing.

Concept into Action- Are We Practicing Health in Healthcare?

In conventional medicine, regardless of how health is defined, suppressing symptoms of a disease is still too often the main focus. In recent times, the human element of medicine has been taken over by a shortsighted mechanistic approach.

Although this is changing now, the 2013 article published in Microbial Biotechnology appropriately entitled “What is Health?” touches upon health in healthcare and its pitfalls. The author reviews the “fashionable” concept of the microbiome emerging in medicine and how its research may be hindered by a broadened medical viewpoint of health that is not quantifiable. The abstract states:

Classical medical research is disease focused and still defines health as absence of disease. Languages, however, associate a positive concept of wholeness with health as does the WHO health definition. Newer medical health definitions emphasize the capacity to adapt to changing external and internal circumstances. The results of the 2010 Global Burden of Disease study provides keys for a quantifiable health metrics by developing statistical tools calculating healthy life expectancy. Of central social and economic importance is the question whether healthy ageing can be achieved. This concept hinges on theories on the biological basis of lifespan determination and whether negligible senescence and the compression of morbidity can be achieved in human societies. Since the health impact of the human gut microbiome is currently a topical research area, microbiologists should be aware of the problems in defining health.

Previously, I reviewed the issues with managing sickness (sickcare) vs. optimizing wellness. Only assessing measurable markers of health is not taking into account the many factors that impact it. (See below.) This has led to dismal results. The United States Healthcare System is the most expensive compared to much of the developed world, and it has the least impressive outcomes. Americans have the lowest life expectancy, use the most amount of preventative screening, and have the highest rates of chronic diseases. (R, R, R) Furthermore, the mental health of America is also struggling at an alarming rate. (R) Clearly, our standard way of managing diseases is not optimizing longevity or quality of life.

Thankfully, a whole-person approach, and a revival to implementing integrative methods and religious and spiritual practices is now becoming more popular in mainstream medicine. This may help to broaden the delivery of personalized medicine in healthcare and lead to more congruency with the definition of health and its delivery.

What Factors Influence Health?

Along with the different types of health, there are various influences on it. Similarly, many of these components are overlooked. A person’s social, economic, and physical environment and their own genetic characteristics and innate temperament all are related to a person’s health status. Specifically, the factors related to health include:

  • where a person lives
  • the state of the surrounding environment
  • genetics
  • their income
  • their level of education
  • employment status

As noted, in my article, “Why Sickcare Needs Holistic Health” considering these neglected factors for better medical results and expenditure is important:

Last December, a Roundtable on Population Health Improvement workshop was held in New York City at NYU Langone Health. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released the report of the proceedings which focused on reorienting health care and the business sector priorities into health and wealth being. The discussions focused on the excessive amount of money spent on healthcare with such poor outcomes. The panelists explored how social determinants of health, such as food insecurity, economic status, and social support are sorely lacking in our medical system.

Various studies have shown that socioeconomic status and social connection are highly influential in overall mortality and disease risk. In fact, these factors may be even more significant than diet and lifestyle in certain instances. This has become very evident with the current world situation, in which socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and healthcare access are all linked to vulnerability of infection and disease. (R, R, R, R)

What if We Talked About What Makes Someone Well?

Interestingly, the definition of wellness, which is related to preserving health, does have spirituality in its definition and includes many of the factors of health. It views the whole person holistically. According to the same article in Medical News Today:

The best way to maintain health is to preserve it through a healthful lifestyle rather than waiting until sickness or infirmity to address health problems. People use the name wellness to describe this continuous state of enhanced well-being.

The WHO define wellness as follows:

“Wellness is the optimal state of health of individuals and groups. There are two focal concerns: the realization of the fullest potential of an individual physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually, and economically, and the fulfillment of one’s roles and expectations in the family, community, place of worship, and other settings.”

Steps that can help people attain wellness include:

  • eating a balanced, nutritious diet from as many natural sources as possible
  • engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate to high-intensity exercise every week, according to the American Heart Association
  • screening for diseases that may present a risk
  • learning to manage stress effectively
  • engaging in activities that provide purpose
  • connecting with and caring for other people
  • maintaining a positive outlook on life
  • defining a value system and putting it into action

Embracing Wellness

Health and wellness are comprehensive and dynamic concepts that are inclusive of the body, mind, spirit, and socioeconomics. They are personalized in that everyone’s goals for why they wish to achieve them are different.

I embrace the concepts of wellness and holistic health completely. As in medicine where the pursuit of health may translate as using a medication to chase away symptoms of disease, I feel in integrative medicine, that the focus can be too heavily placed on food, lifestyle, and exercise. There is not enough attention to community, mindset, and honoring one’s connection to their beliefs and values.

I became a naturopathic doctor in order to support people’s health so that they could pursue and live a better life based on their desires and values. For this reason, I have been adamant about offering resources to support mental health and to bring attention to the power of mindset and spirituality to the medical community.

In an upcoming article, I’m going to review some of my most impactful articles and additional resources from the past year. This is to help support your health and wellness in the new year and beyond. My focus will be on attaining health as a means to living a more joyous, vibrant life and overall well-being. This means it will be moving away from narrowly focusing on dietary and exercise tips.

Stay tuned for this.

Now, I’d like to hear your feedback on health and wellness.

Has it shifted after reading this article or watching the video?

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Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)

This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.

Thanks Pixabay and Canva.