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Holistic Care: Treating Mind, Body and Spirit
By Christopher Heffron
Holistic health seeks to preserve or restore the health of the whole person. A "Living Legend in Nursing" explains this proven method of care.


Defining Holistic Care
Not New Age
Personal Responsibility
Take a Hike
Choosing a Doctor Carefully
Critical Conditions
The 10 Commandments of Holistic Health


LEAH CURTIN, R.N., ScD(h), F.A.A.N., director of communications for the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor in Cincinnati, Ohio, and executive editor of American Nurse Today—the official journal of the American Nursing Association—greets me with a very warm hug on a very cold February day.

Leah gives me a tour of the Centennial Barn, a 19th-century structure on the grounds of the Franciscan Sisters' compound in Cincinnati.

Though the facility hosts meetings, retreats, weddings and fund-raisers, it's primarily dedicated to "community building and empowerment featuring holistic therapies, opportunities for spiritual exploration and community involvement, health education and wellness classes," as its brochure states.

It's a calming environment, despite the pounding of a carpenter's hammer. The Barn is in the process of an extensive renovation. Yards of exposed brick, authentic, well-cared-for woodwork and a flow of natural light make for a centering experience.

Besides more than one fully functional kitchen and large, feng shui-friendly meeting rooms, the Barn also provides instruction in yoga, meditation and Pilates, as well as acupuncture and other forms of holistic health.

It is also a very Catholic place to be: Prayer and faith are integral to this facility and its people, both staff and visitors.

Defining Holistic Care

"Holistic care involves addressing the whole person—body, mind and spirit," says Leah, a practicing Catholic. "One of the things I'm often asked about is the spiritual aspect of holistic health care. Being a writer, I like to look at where words come from. Religio indicates 'to link back.' Spiritus indicates 'to give life.'

"Religion," she continues, "is the tradition with which we have learned to access the spiritual world."

Leah, a graduate of the Good Samaritan Hospital School of Nursing and the University of Cincinnati, has master's degrees in health planning, health administration and philosophy. She was also declared a "Living Legend in Nursing" by the American Academy of Nursing in 2009 and has an honorary doctorate in the field. She asserts that people are, in essence, bodies of energy.

"We are all made of energy—varying densities and combinations of energy. Whether it is you, me or children in Croatia—we are all made of energy," she says. "If we are all made of energy, and energy in its very nature moves, then it can be transferred."

But holistic care, despite its healing properties, is still a touchy subject in some Catholic circles. Is it New Age fluff: a world of crystals, chanting and incense? Is it voodoo: a hodgepodge of unorthodox methods aimed to remedy the body while corrupting the soul?

Holistic health, put simply, seeks to link body, mind and soul for optimum health and wellness. Some of the most popular methods of this approach are:

Meditation/Prayer: "I like to spend at least 30 minutes in meditation every day," Leah says. "For me, meditation is a peaceful connection with the Divine. It is among the most comforting and uplifting things."

Yoga: Yoga is a series of movements, stretches and poses designed to tone the body and clear the mind, without the strain of intensive exercise. "Even the best runners get hairline fractures," Leah says. "With yoga you can exercise every muscle in your body with hardly any danger. It's meditation using the body instead of the mind. It's exercise without the sweat."

Massage: "Chris, may I touch your hand?" Leah asks me. She then gently presses her finger against the top of my hand. "Just that touch lets loose a cascade of hormones in your body. Something like massage not only feels good but also will literally press certain chemicals out of your muscles," says this nursing expert. "It comforts you. It helps clear your body of toxins."

Acupuncture: This Chinese medical practice involves needles to puncture certain points on the body to fight disease or ease pain. "We know that our nerves operate on energy," Leah states. "We know our nerves are electrical. If there is a problem in the body and that energy is disrupted, [an acupuncturist] can open up that block and the body will feel better."


Though the benefits of meditation/prayer, yoga, massage and acupuncture can improve our health, many feel the holistic approach is too close to the fringe to be Catholic. Leah has a quick answer for the doubters.

"There is nothing contrary to Catholic Christian teaching when it comes to holistic health," she says. Leah theorizes the origins of this mistrust.

"Initially it was associated with 'New Age,'" she says. "The secondary reason has to do with misinformed people. I don't mean just Catholics—sometimes it's the therapists, the people who don't understand because its scientific foundation is still being formed. It has been associated with a multicultural approach to healing of the body.

"When Jesus said, 'Do unto others,' he wasn't just saying something sweet. He meant it. When he engaged in healing, he was literally transferring his energy and the Father's energy to the person who was ill," Leah says.

"As we look at what science is telling us, we find ourselves coming full circle to the teachings within our own tradition, the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is so clear."

Instead of being in opposition to Catholic teaching, Leah says that holistic care affirms the Catholic faith. "It is a confirmation of Christ. It is an affirmation of the teachings of Christ and an understanding that when he said, 'Do this,' he meant it. He didn't just mean it for his apostles. He meant it for all who believe."

Many in the medical profession are starting to believe as well. "There is growing acceptance of holistic health and a growing legitimacy," Leah says. "In fact, there is the American Holistic Nurses Association's Journal of Holistic Nursing. And more medical and nursing schools are including holistic concepts in their curricula."

But the medical community, even those who practice holistic care, can only do so much. Our own accountability is crucial in maintaining good health.

Five years ago, everything changed for this writer when I turned 30.

Prior to that, I could eat whatever I wanted, exercise as frequently or infrequently as I pleased, drink and smoke with (terribly) foolish abandon. When I left my 20s, the benefits of young adulthood all but left me, too. My body simply couldn't function and rebound as it did in youth.

Not long after I turned 30, I developed myositis, an inflammation of the skeletal muscles. For days I ached from chin to ankle. After consulting my physician, who urged me to make lifestyle changes, I decided to clean house: I curtailed my drinking. I quit smoking and implemented an exercise routine, which I've maintained.

Personal responsibility is crucial to holistic health. What we put in our bodies and how often we move them play an integral role.

"In many ways, you are what you eat," Leah says. "What you eat can affect your moods and your blood-sugar levels. This affects every cell in your body, including brain cells. If you fast and you don't eat anything, your blood sugar bottoms out. You can literally die from it. Your diet affects every part of your body."

In this hectic world, it's become too easy for busy Americans to choose quick, high-fat meals over healthier alternatives. Obesity in America is an epidemic.

According to a report produced by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 58 million Americans are overweight, 40 million are classified as obese and three million are morbidly so. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that obesity in this country is over 30 percent, declaring America the most obese nation on the planet.

Leah, as well as other professionals, can advise patients on what to eat but, ultimately, it's a matter of discipline, focus and personal responsibility. They cannot decide what we put in our mouths.

"If you choose to live on fast-food junk, you will do so. Nothing is going to change that," she says. "If you choose to be a couch potato, there is nothing I can do about it. I can tell you that you've got to move around because your muscles are turning into flab. That means you have less vitality, less energy; your level of metabolism goes down and you will gain weight. The muscles control our level of metabolism."

Leah says the human body wasn't designed to be sedentary, though technology has encouraged us to move as little as possible. Even something as common as a remote control has done us few favors.

"I can sit in my big chair, go click, click, click and the only muscle I have to use is my thumb," she says. "We were not meant, physically, for the indolent lifestyle that technology has enabled.

"I think technology is a wonderful thing," Leah continues. "I love knowledge. But, in general, we have made our lives so soft we're getting sick from it."

A healthy lifestyle isn't only possible—it's fully achievable for most of us. Even if we can't run a mile, simply being outdoors can enhance our mental well-being which, in turn, aids in our overall wellness.

"It's very good for your mood to be outside for 15 minutes each day," Leah says, "though some depressed people may need medication so their progress toward health will be significantly improved."

But not all who suffer depression need medication. Leah feels exercise can alleviate those symptoms for many. "Some people only need exercise. They need to make it a matter of course to be outside. I don't care if it's snowing or raining. Go outside every day. Experience the natural light. It does improve your mood.

"One of the best things you can do for a friend or loved one who is depressed is to get them outside every day—even if you're just working in the garden. It doesn't matter. Go outside. Take a walk."

Depression can wreak havoc on our bodies and our spirits. Prolonged emotional stress can be a killer.

"One of the things we know for a fact is that, when you are depressed or unhappy, not only does your personality change but the strength of your immune system also changes," she says. "Your mental status has a direct effect on your immune system, as does your nutrition, as does your level of exercise."

Leah emphasizes that our bodies love a dare. "It's a matter of nature. The body will respond to the stresses put on it. If you use weights, you'll get big muscles. If you don't, your muscles wither away. Why? Because you're giving that muscle a challenge and it grows stronger.

"Walking will make your bones and muscles stronger whether you are a five-year-old or an 85-year-old. The more you take to your bed or chair, the weaker you become."

According to the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA), choosing the right physician should not be taken lightly. AHMA's Web site ( lists these five key components for patients to keep in mind:

• The physician should be trained in holistic medicine.

• The visit should address the whole person, not just the symptoms.

• The appointment should be open, honest and comfortable.

• Medication is not the only form of treatment.

• Would the patient recommend this physician to a friend or loved one?

But there are preliminary measures that we can implement before searching for a physician. Leah believes that our attitudes—and our spirituality—are huge motivators.

"It's important to cultivate an attitude of gratitude," she says. "Every morning, I recommend spending just a couple minutes thanking God for what you've been given. In good times and in bad, thank God.

"We know that our thoughts affect the levels of hormones and chemicals in our bodies," Leah continues. "If you have an attitude where you are grateful, your body chemistry changes, just as it changes dramatically when you're angry, when you're frightened, when you're anxious. Gratitude addresses all of those things."

Good health involves more than physical exercise. Leah feels the entire entity must be cared for.

"The brain needs stimulation just as the body needs stimulation. And the soul needs stimulation, too. This is where prayer, meditation, spending some quiet time with God each day stimulates the development of the soul. And as we get older, it's important to read and remain active. When we participate in life, the brain remains sharp."

The holistic approach seeks to do more than treat a damaged or diseased body. It also aims to mend a broken spirit. Leah poses a series of questions that she keeps in mind when working with patients holistically.

"How can we effectively pray for your recovery? How can we deal with the damage done to your psyche? How can we keep the rest of you well cared for while whatever is broken in you is being healed? Much of what you find in holistic health is looking at this, looking at your mind," she says.

Leah and other professionals within this form of care aim to remedy the entire person. "Perhaps you've been hit by a truck and, by golly, you feel bad about it. Or you're facing a divorce and your heart is broken. You could use some help with these stressors. What we can do is help you deal with those issues while you're healing."

Leah paraphrases a story of Jesus Christ, a model of holistic care.

"Jesus said, 'When someone is ill, take him to the elders and they will lay hands on him.' He said this because prayer of healing is a transferring of energy from healthy people to those who are not.

"This is not anti-Christian," Leah says. "If we begin to look at who and what we are and put it all together, holistic care is one of the most stunning things in the world."

The 10 Commandments of Holistic Health

1. Buckle up. Always wear seat belts.

2. Put it out. Don't smoke—anything!

3. Waist management. Keep your weight under control.

4. Food for thought. Avoid fast, fatty foods and lots of food additives.

5. Get movin'. Even a little bit of exercise helps.

6. Get out. Be outside at least 15 minutes every day.

7. Pray each day. Take time every morning to speak to God.

8. Lots of love. Good relationships, family and friends have been proven to help extend life, improve health and increase happiness. Jesus told us, long before the researchers proved it, to love one another, to honor our parents, to avoid at all costs calling our brother a fool.

9. Believe. Study after study confirms that those who have a deep faith live longer, healthier lives.

10. Good upkeep. Treat your body like the temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught us that we are one with him: "On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you" (John 14:20).

—Leah Curtin, R.N., ScD(h), F.A.A.N.

Christopher Heffron is the assistant editor of this publication.

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