The 4 Pillars of Health: An Introduction

Health is a state of complete physical, emotional, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

World Health Organization (WHO)

It may be worthwhile to read that definition a second time and let its scope sink in.

It’s OK, I’ll wait, this is really important.

Did you notice the definition has two components? The first part states emphatically that health comprises complete well-being in the four categories together. The second part says that health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The reason this is so imperative to get across is to remind us of the human condition, a condition that, whether you like to admit or not, is deteriorating and terminal by nature. With this in mind, we can then accept that disease and infirmity are part of life. Nevertheless we can still, despite disease and disability have health, because health is a state of well-being: physically, emotionally, mentally and socially (The four pillars).

Modern medicine is extremely effective at creating, categorising and addressing disease ‘entities’. In saying this I’m not in any way undermining the efficacy of modern medicine in acute disease, emergency, surgery and diagnostics. (Trust me, if I’m badly injured, severely ill with an infection and/or in excruciating pain, I want a doctor and the antibiotics that go with it.) However, if this avenue is all there is for every ill, then the healing process is nothing more than disease ‘entities’, chemistry and surgery. Modern medicine has its place, but that place is alongside a Holistic framework, not instead of it.

Holistic medicine, doesn’t deny the existence of a disease entity, but it does deny its independence as a  sole indicator of health or illness. Holistic medicine has a long tradition of seeing the human being as more than the sum of its parts. The person is a mini-version of the natural world. It has seasons (Age), tides (Circadian rhythm), rivers (Blood and Vessels), fauna (bacteria), weather (temperature, moisture content) Government Departments (Body systems), Department Divisions (Organs), and like its external equivalent the internal environment will be exposed and vulnerable to attack or disarray if not kept in balance. I’ll elaborate further on these points in future posts) Therefore, Holistic Medicine sees suffering, the lack of well-being, as a sign that the person is not balanced, and therefore the practitioners aim is to identify what area of their internal AND external environment is deficient or excessive in. Sometimes balancing the one area rectifies the others, sometimes it doesn’t, life is like that, but the goal is to find our individual balance which may lead to complete well-being and therefore health. Let me illustrate this further. (The examples outlined in each of the following sections are not statements of yours or mine actual personal characteristics, they are purely for ease of illustration)

The Physical

PYes, fundamentally we are biochemical machines and I’m assuming this to be a self-evident truth for you. However, this biochemical machine, as opposed to a regular machine, has a continuous feedback/response loop operating with its internal and external environment. The biochemistry alters and adapts to sensory and mechanical information based on your unique signature. My signature, the way my biochemistry alters to a stimulus, is likely very different to yours.


  • I feel best with protein and salads but you need fats
  • I thrive on skill-based exercise but you love team sports
  • I don’t have any allergies but your immunity is over-reactive
  • I feel more awake at night but you are a morning person
  • I feel better in cool weather and you prefer the feeling of heat

The Point: Even though we are indeed biochemical machines, whether through genetics or environmental conditioning, these machines have very different needs, strengths and weaknesses. The holistic way is to help you discover what makes you strong and how to avoid what makes you weak.

The Emotional

EThe emotional aspect apart from being neurochemical events themselves, are what drives us. Anything we do has an emotional driver behind it, and anything we do also creates a further emotion which leads on to the next action, and so on. By action I’m including both a physical act or an intellectual thought. Everything is interconnected and inseparable. Again though, your emotional habits and drives are different to mine.


  • I’m easily irritated but you’re easily depressed
  • I may feel indifferent at the death of an acquaintance but you’ll feel deeply affected
  • you may carry an undercurrent of perpetual anxiety (which leads to binge eat) and I of despair or anger or bitterness (which leads me to substance abuse
  • I may cope with stress well but you fall apart
  • I may feel joy too little and you could feel it too much

The Point: Emotional signatures and habits are motivational, they are what drives us to avoid or pursue a course of action. Since we also know that emotions are neurohormonal events influenced by the internal and external environment, any chronic emotion can be a pointer to where the imbalance lies

The Intellectual

The intellectual deals not only with our capacity to learn new information but also our ability to synthesize and use that information in an effective way. It also covers our interests, which invariably is tied to our emotional sphere and in turn determines our actions. Intellectual capacity and focus varies widely across people.


  • I may love philosophy but you may love gossip
  • I may be better at the written word but you’re a genius with numbers
  • I think better with stimulants like coffee but you do better with chamomile tea
  • I think creatively but you’re rational
  • I may need proof but you’re willing to believe on faith

The Point: Our intellectual environment is paramount because what we know determines possible choices. For example, knowing about Herbs and Complimentary medicine means you have a wider choice of options and potential for success in healing a chronic illness than someone who has their lifelong GP as their only plausible option. Intellectual development is important to know what to do and when.

The Social

SThe Social sphere is possibly the most powerful determinant of success in well-being. Being social animals we need a strong social pillar to carry us through when we don’t have the strength, desire or resolution to go on or even to get started. The opposite is also worth considering, whereby the people around us don’t support a different way of medicine or health venture. Furthermore, the Social influence on well-being isn’t confined to health but is vulnerable from various areas of our lives.


  • I may be introverted but you’re extroverted
  • I may grown up in an abusive environment and you in an unstable one
  • I may have a supportive family but you have supportive friends
  • I may have useless friends and you a useless family
  • I may be individualistic but you may need to conform.

The Point: Our social environment can place a huge strain on our lives which can detrimentally affect our well-being choices through pressures, duties or habits. It’s like that old saying goes: “Show me who you spend time with and I’ll tell you who you are.”

In an increasingly faster western society the habit of requiring a quick fix for everything seems pandemic. This mentality is most evident in our modern medical system where the body is seen as a biochemical machine and therefore usually requires a 15 minute consult to determine the right drug to fix a chemical disease. In some cases this is appropriate or downright necessary, but when did patient responsibility cease to be a priority? Eg., When did consumption of cholesterol lowering drugs for life become primary treatment over diet and exercise?

In the past before modern convenience, people had to change their lifestyles and be more actively mindful of their choices and environment because if they didn’t the very real possibility of suffering or death was an everyday reality. Somehow the myth of modern medicine has brainwashed us into believing if something goes wrong, the doctor will help, so we can just keep doing what we do and it won’t matter: because there’s a pill for everything. That is until you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness. Then you’ll quickly learn modern medicine doesn’t have all the answers and those drugs you’re now on for the rest of your life may stop one symptom but create three others which make a feeling of well-being impossible.


Holistic living IS Holistic medicine. Your health and well-being is dependent on the four pillars of health as defined by the physical, intellectual, emotional and social spheres which are intertwined and inseparable. They influence and are influenced by each other to maintain or disrupt balance. Well being, happiness, contentment in all areas of our lives is the true measure of health, not the absence of disease. We can have a disease but have well-being; as we can also be free of disease and be miserable. Life is a mix of luck and choice. Lady Fortune has smiled on some of us more than others in life, and although we can’t change the nature of our birth (genes, environment, innate health), we can choose what we do with what we have.

What can you do to balance each pillar in your life?

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