What Is Health?

Whole Systems Healthcare

For many people, health is simply the lack of disease. This has been the definition in the wider medical community for a long time, though it is starting to shift as health professionals begin to embrace a broader definition of health. In conventional medicine, the issue of health is only briefly touched upon, and the majority of the focus is on disease. Conventional medicine has an amazing number of different diseases categorized, each with its appropriate treatment. The most important element of treating a patient is to make the correct diagnosis, e.g. identify the disease. Then the doctor treats the disease, eradicates the disease, and then the person is healthy again.

In more holistic approaches, the emphasis moves towards health and away from disease. It is still necessary to identify what is wrong (the disease) but it becomes less important to place the disease in a category. Health is seen less as a static state (the absence of disease) and more as a dynamic process. People are always moving, and they can either move towards health, or away from it. The focus moves towards treating the person and helping to guide them in the right direction, with the identification and treatment of the disease becoming less of a priority.

However, this still hasn’t answered the question: “What is health?” If health is more than the absence of disease, then we need to explain it better. Different traditions have different explanations. In Chinese Medicine, health in the broadest sense is when a person lives in line with the Dao (the Tao) and their Heaven-given destiny (their ming). From a medical perspective this means living according to the constitution we are born with, and not pushing ourselves beyond what our minds and bodies are capable of. If we work too hard, if we are exposed to harsh environmental conditions, if we don’t eat well or sleep enough, then we will suffer ill-health. Living in line with the Dao means eliminating the inner tension that occurs when what we desire doesn’t match the reality of our experience. This is not an admonishment to simply lay down and passively accept what happens to us, rather it is cultivating an ability to accept what “is” even while working to make change. The simple message is that living in harmony with oneself and with the world is the definition of health.

In homeopathy, health is defined as freedom. For most of us the concept of freedom revolves around our circumstances in life: whether we can pursue the job we want, live in a house we like, be free from oppression and judgment, have enough money, etc. Of course, these are important elements of freedom, but from a medical perspective most of these are beyond the purview of a doctor. At the level of health freedom means that we have the flexibility and adaptability to respond appropriately to all the situations we find ourselves in. At the physical level we are able to move our bodies and use them to do the various tasks that need to be done, without pain. We are able, perhaps with training, to hike, to bike, to climb, to lift heavy objects, or even to sit long hours without suffering. And we are able to quickly and easily heal when we get injured, without suffering lingering effects, chronic pain, or long-term dysfunction. At the emotional level we have the freedom to feel any emotion when it is appropriate. We can feel fear, anger, joy, sadness, disgust, and all the nuances of these emotions, when the emotion is congruent with the situation. And when the situation changes, our emotions change as well. We do not remain stuck in an emotion, but are able to fluidly move from feeling to feeling. And at the mental level, we have freedom of thought. We are able to consider new ideas or beliefs, let go of thought patterns that no longer serve us, and find flexible solutions for the problems that confront us on a regular basis.

Though there are surely other equally valid and comprehensive definitions of health these two, coming from Chinese Medicine and homeopathy, are ones I know and practice.


  • Dr. Kye Peven, ND, DSOM, EAMP, earned a B.S. from UC Berkeley in Materials Science and Engineering, with minors in Nuclear Engineering and Energy Management, believing that applying his interest in technology would help make the world a better place. He then completed a Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine (ND) and a second Doctorate of Science in Oriental Medicine at the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM). Dr. Peven serves as Director of the WSHC Clinical Care Initiative and is the founder and Clinic Director of the WSHC Seattle Clinic.