About four or five years ago I began to notice that in the health and wellness field of which I am professionally a part, there seemed to be an incomplete understanding of a frequently used word. That word was “holistic.”
What does “holistic” mean?
Holistic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” In simple terms it means everything and everyone is linked. In the health and wellness field, we use this term to distinguish ourselves from conventional healthcare by signaling we’ll view you as more than a body part, we’ll view you as a whole person.
That commitment to view you as a whole person is a good thing! Many of you have found your way to the Autoimmune Wellness site and resources, because the conventional system was failing you. You probably had the common autoimmune patient experience of basically only being considered through the lens of the organ or system your disease impacts. For instance, instead of seeing YOU, the doctor may have viewed you as just a thyroid or just an intestine or just a liver. It is a frustrating and often demoralizing experience.
The thing is, our incomplete understanding of “holistic” means that even in the health and wellness field, seeing YOU, is still too narrow. You are part of a community, and that community is part of a country, and that country is part of a planet. How can you achieve wellness if we ignore the threats to the safety and security of your community? How can you achieve wellness if the leadership in your country undermines your access to food, shelter, healthcare, or education? How can you achieve wellness if the planet you live on is experiencing a climate and pollution crisis? The incomplete understanding prevents us from incorporating social justice issues, which impact health and well-being, into our work.
What does “root cause medicine” mean?
That brings us to another term used frequently in the health and wellness field that requires a more comprehensive approach: root cause medicine. Dr. Rebecca Freese does a great job defining root cause medicine by comparing and contrasting it with conventional healthcare. She writes, “The current conventional healthcare system is reactionary – waits for you to get sick and then deal with the problem, diagnosis-focused – focuses on determining “what” the problem is and giving it a diagnostic name, and emphasizes symptom management with drugs . . .” In contrast, she defines root cause medicine as preventive, aiming to identify and correct potential issues that can lead to illness before illness occurs, as root cause-focused – not asking ‘what’, but instead ‘why?,’ and as emphasizing correction of the multi-factorial issues that underlie illness.
A limited interpretation of root cause medicine leads to resistance or even outright rejection of tackling “political” (human!) topics in our messaging, teaching, or on our platforms. If we apply a truly holistic lens to Dr. Freese’s definition of root cause medicine, it’s not hard to identify issues like inadequate living conditions, food insecurity, or income inequality as issues that can lead to illness. We can move beyond asking “what” those issues are and into “why” they exist. We can include in our work an emphasis on addressing them to help those we serve truly heal.
Community Care Defined
Okay, so far this article has had a focus on those working in the health and wellness field and how we need to address our incomplete understanding of what it means to have holistic practices and how a more comprehensive approach to root cause medicine better supports our communities. But what about your role? How do community members come into play here?
We can answer these questions by exploring a third term: community care. The first time I was exposed to this term I saw it in a tweet by Nakita Valerio, a Canadian Muslim woman, following the terrorist attack on a mosque in New Zealand in March of 2019. Valerio wrote, “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who actually need community care is how we fail people.” I remember reading the quote and holding my breath, because it hit me so hard. “She’s right,” is what I immediately thought.
Later, Valerio wrote an article where she expanded on her thoughts and helped define community care. She wrote, “ . . . community care is focused on the collective: taking care of people together, for everything from basic physical needs to psychological and even spiritual ones. Community care is a recognition of the undeniable cooperative and social nature of human beings and involves a commitment to reduce harm simply through being together.” At it’s most basic, Valerio says, “ . . . community care is a commitment to contributing in a way that leverages one’s relative privilege while balancing one’s needs.” She contrasted community care with self-care to further define things. “Self-care is about the individual caring for their own basic physical needs . . . [it] only offers temporary relief to the deep-rooted structural challenges many of us face.”
So, there’s a place for self-care and it is important for each of us to tend to our basic needs and take time for recharging our own batteries, but we need a course correction that emphasizes a community care model. We need this, because it addresses the holistic nature of our human connections and because those structural challenges that Valerio refers to, require the “root cause medicine” only an entire community can deliver.
Does Community Care Work?
There’s proof that community care really can improve our health. You’ve probably heard of the “Blue Zones.” The Blue Zones are five regions around the world where people live much longer, and objectively much better, lives than average. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author, has studied the people in these zones and found that a commonality among all of them is very strong community, often with an explicit purpose to support one another through anything, including hardships. For example, in Okinawa, Japan, one of the Blue Zones, people are “assigned” five friends at birth who are intentionally committed to them the rest of their lives, providing social, health, spiritual, and even financial support. These groups are called “moai.”
Moai are examples of community care on a micro level. You might be thinking that’s not enough to address the structural inequities that lead to illness. I would argue that if we all formed moai type groups the ripple effect would help address structural inequities, but community care doesn’t have to be only at a micro level. It is also possible to organize at a much higher level to address these deep-rooted systemic problems that lead to health disparities. More structured and targeted community care can be led by neighborhood groups, support groups, nonprofits, or activist alliances focused on specific policy change. If you want to learn more about this higher level of community care, try researching “community organizing” to understand the types, traditions, and important principles that people use when addressing structural issues.
And if you need a successful example of what higher level community care looks like, look no further! Autoimmune Wellness is an example of this higher level organizing for community care. Mickey and I built this platform as a place to pool information and resources with the purpose of advancing a new standard of care for those with autoimmune disease. The current healthcare model is not enough to address the complexity of autoimmune disease management, so this community exists to address that problem. And based on how many of you are sharing your successes with us and reporting that your doctors are beginning to embrace and even recommend this protocol, it’s working!
Practicing Community Care
Now we have thorough understandings of terms like holistic and root cause medicine, what community care is, and how holism and root cause medicine are related to it. We also have examples of community care working to improve health at the small group level and higher levels. The next obvious thing to address . . . how do we actually practice community care?
The first thing to know about practicing community care is that it doesn’t always need to be a “big lift.” The things we can do can be incredibly simple and chances are you are already doing many of them. For example, community care can look like:
- Checking in on friends regularly
- Listening, deeply
- Supporting someone who is faced with an accessibility issue (like picking up groceries for an elderly neighbor during the pandemic)
- Donating money
- Sharing resources you already have (like a family member who needs a car ride)
- Volunteering with existing community organizations
- Cooking an AIP meal for a friend with autoimmune disease
- Making a care package or sending a real letter to someone
- Investing time to strengthen your key relationships
- Reaching out online to grow new friendships
- Hosting a virtual get-together
- Using your talents or skills to help others address specific problem
- Offering recognition and acknowledgement to the people improving your community
- Speaking out for the marginalized
- Joining political advocacy efforts toward systemic changes
- Being a cheerleader (like joining your local AIP group and cheering others on in health wins)
- Expressing a willingness to be uncomfortable in order to learn and improve (this is a specifically important act of community care for white people)
This isn’t a comprehensive list and clearly it’s possible to practice a much, much higher level of community care if you are called to that kind of work. It doesn’t have to be complex though and it should be relatively easy to figure out how to do it. The simple truth, as recently shared on Instagram by Sara Weinreb, an herbalist, writer, and community organizer, is “If you can figure out how to set up your Peloton, become a reiki master, and/or turn cauliflower into pizza, you can figure out how to care for your community.”
If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of caring for your community, it can be helpful to recognize that ultimately community care IS self-care. It is a kind of investment, paying dividends into the future. When we understand holism and root cause medicine, we naturally understand community care as the undeniable connection between our own health and happiness and the health and happiness of those around us.
Now tell me, what does community care look like in your life right now?