What Is It?
Naturopathy is a distinct system of medicine that is based on a belief in the healing power of nature–and especially in the body’s innate ability to fight disease and heal itself. Practiced by naturopathic doctors (also known as naturopaths or N.D.s), it uses a wide range of natural treatment methods, rather than drugs or surgery, to stimulate the body’s own healing powers. Among the therapies many naturopaths frequently prescribe are diet and lifestyle modifications, nutritional supplements, homeopathy, acupuncture, hydrotherapy, detoxification, spinal manipulation, and more.
Although the term “naturopathy” wasn’t coined until the late 19th century, it is one of the oldest forms of medicine known to mankind, tracing its roots to the healing traditions of ancient China, India, and Greece, and to Native American cultures.
The therapy became a formal profession in the U.S., when German emigrant Benedict Lust (1872-1945), a naturopath, osteopath, chiropractor, and M.D., founded the first school of naturopathic medicine in New York City in 1902. A primary focus at Lust’s school was hydrotherapy; this was because Lust had been a devoted disciple of Father Sebastian Kneipp, the famous Bavarian hydropath, before coming to the U.S. Students were also taught herbal medicine, nutrition, physiotherapy, psychology, homeopathy, and many other techniques to the exclusion of what the founder termed “poisonous drugs and non-adjustable surgery.”
Naturopathy had a growing following in the early part of the 20th century, with 22 colleges of naturopathic medicine operating in the U.S. But by mid-century, with the introduction of “miracle drugs” such as antibiotics, and a campaign by the American Medical Association to discredit alternative forms of medicine, interest in the profession declined and most schools closed their doors. Since the early 1970s, however, there has been a rapid resurgence in this healing technique.
How Does It Work?
Naturopaths have a different approach to symptoms than conventional doctors. In their view some symptoms are actually evidence of the body’s self-healing abilities, and thus should not be suppressed with drugs. A fever, for example, is seen as the way a healthy body reacts to a virus or bacteria. To treat the fever, a naturopathic physician believes in supporting the body system involved in producing it–in this case, the immune system.
A symptom that doesn’t respond to self-healing would be explored by the naturopath for its underlying causes. A headache, for example, would not be treated with an aspirin. Instead it would be evaluated in terms of musculoskeletal imbalances in the neck and upper back, or looked at as the possible result of a nutritional problem, such as low blood sugar, or an emotional problem, such as stress or poor sleep.
In general, naturopathic doctors are taught to follow six basic principles when treating patients. These help to distinguish their profession from other approaches. These principles are:
1. Nature has the power to heal. According to naturopathy, the body has the inherent ability to establish, maintain, and restore health. It is the naturopath’s role to facilitate the self-healing process by removing obstacles to a person’s health and recovery.
2. Treat the cause not the effect. Rather than suppress symptoms, the naturopath should treat the underlying causes of disease.
3. Treat the whole person. Illness rarely has a single cause, so every aspect of the patient–mind, body, and spirit–must be brought into harmonious balance.
4. Do no harm. The naturopath should utilize methods and substances that are as nontoxic and noninvasive as possible. Methods that suppress symptoms without removing underlying causes are considered harmful and are to be avoided or minimized.
5. Encourage prevention. A naturopath should help “create” health as well as treat disease.
6. Act as a teacher. Part of the naturopath’s task is to educate the patient and encourage lifestyle habits that promote good health. The emphasis should be on building health rather than on fighting disease.
Because naturopaths prefer to evaluate the whole person rather than just the disease itself, special consideration is given to the patient’s mental, emotional, and spiritual attitude, as well as to their lifestyle, diet, heredity, environment, and family and community life.
Significantly, in naturopathy, every patient is regarded as unique–as someone with self-healing potential. Because the naturopath’s emphasis is on the person, the first question often asked is, “What were the circumstances in this patient’s life that set the stage for this illness?” In contrast, a conventional doctor views all patients as essentially alike (allowing for some variation in susceptibility). In conventional medicine the focus is on the disease itself.
What You Can Expect
A consultation with a naturopath begins with the practitioner taking a very detailed medical history, as well as asking you about your diet, exercise regimen, lifestyle, stress, sleep patterns, bowel habits, and mental and spiritual outlook.
The N.D. will then conduct a routine medical exam, just as a medical doctor would, but with more emphasis on the musculoskeletal system than a conventional exam. If needed, X rays may be taken and laboratory tests recommended (these may be done through a hospital).
If a problem requires immediate medical treatment or surgery, the naturopath will suggest that you contact an general practitioner or specialist.
Although some of the diagnostic tests used by naturopaths are the same as those used by conventional medical doctors, others are quite different. Naturopaths often order a series of tests measuring how well a particular system may be functioning within the body. For example, the Comprehensive Stool Digestive Analysis is a lengthy examination of fecal material that evaluates the whole process of digestion. The Liver Detoxification Capacity Test measures how efficiently the liver clears toxins.
Depending on the naturopath’s individualized training, other tests may be used as well. These might include an evaluation of the tongue and pulse, common in traditional Chinese medicine; or iridology, which tracks how an illness within the body manifests itself in the irises of the eyes; or applied kinesiology, which tests how the muscles respond to a variety of potential allergens. These alternative methods of diagnosis generally fall outside the purview of mainstream medicine.
With exam and test results in hand, the naturopath then devises a totally natural treatment program unique to you. This is definitely unlike conventional medicine in which two patients with a headache receive the same basic tests and drugs. Your individualized treatment program will be gradual and can be adapted as your health improves.
Indeed, because naturopathy involves lifestyle changes (such as exercise, stress reduction) and changes in eating habits, as well as the use of supplements and herbs, the therapeutic plan requires much more patient involvement in the process of getting well. Again, this is unlike mainstream medicine, in which prescription drugs–and sometimes surgery–are by far the dominant therapeutic tools.
The initial session with a naturopath is generally about an hour long, and follow-up sessions typically last 30 minutes. The number of sessions needed depends on the seriousness of the ailment. If you have a chronic condition, you may require treatment for six months or more.
If you have a referral from your primary-care physician, some health insurance companies cover certain aspects of naturopathic care, such as massage and acupuncture treatments.
Although few controlled clinical trials exist proving the efficacy of naturopathy as a system of treatment, many respected studies have been done on the individual therapies often recommended by naturopathic doctors. For example, diet and lifestyle changes have proved extremely valuable in treating heart disease, chronic digestive illnesses, and joint problems. And the use of acupuncture to treat pain is also widely accepted. There are also many reputable studies showing that nutritional supplements can be useful in treating a variety of ailments.
Even though most conventional physicians find naturopathy fairly harmless, more long-term research is needed to determine whether naturopathic treatments can actually cure chronic illnesses. Because considerable funding is required for such studies, many naturopaths are currently pursuing federal grants from the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health.
Already anecdotal evidence, along with studies published in naturopathic medical journals, have demonstrated the effectiveness of naturopathy in helping many acute and chronic diseases. These include chronic digestive disorders, musculoskeletal problems, migraine headaches, hormonal imbalances, urinary and prostate disorders, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
In states that license naturopaths (see How to Choose a Practitioner, below), you can use your N.D. as a primary-care physician. In these states, N.D.s are also allowed to prescribe certain classes of drugs and to do minor surgery. Some N.D.s also perform natural childbirth in the home or at a birthing center.
See the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for more information on specific nutritional supplements and individual therapies.
How To Choose a Practitioner
The training for a naturopathic doctor is not the same as that for an M.D., although both conventional physicians and naturopathic physicians are required to do four years of medical school. In order for an M.D. to become a specialist in orthopedics, rheumatology, or some other discipline, the physician must also serve a minimum of three years of residency in a hospital after medical school.
Naturopaths, in contrast, obtain their postgraduate specialty training at accredited schools of naturopathy in such disciplines as traditional Chinese medicine, functional medicine, advanced manipulation medicine, psychotherapy, and the like. Upon completion of postgraduate training, they receive certification.
Although both M.D.s and naturopaths undergo rigorous examinations to verify their competence, only M.D.s with specific training are eligible to take specialty board examinations. Naturopaths readily acknowledge this and compare their education to that of a typical primary-care general practitioner (G.P.). When specialty care is called for, a good naturopath will send the patient to a surgeon, internist, cardiologist, and so on, as the situation requires.
At the present time N.D.s are licensed in 11 U.S. states: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont, Utah, and Washington. They also have the legal right to practice in Idaho and the District of Columbia.
Unfortunately, in states where there is no licensing, individuals with little or no formal education can still proclaim themselves N.D.s. For this reason it is important to look for a practitioner certified by naturopathy’s professional organization, the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), located in McLean, Virginia. The AANP recommends that you contact their organization to verify a practitioner’s certification.
Today there are approximately 1,500 naturopathic doctors in the U.S., although the number is growing as interest in alternative therapies increases. It’s always a good idea to carefully examine the credentials of your naturopath to verify graduation from an accredited school of naturopathy (Bastyr College in Kenmore, Washington, is one institution that has such a program). In the states where licensing is required, make sure the naturopath’s license is current.
If you are seeking naturopathic treatment, beware of inadequately trained and unlicensed practitioners. It is important to know that in states that don’t license naturopaths, there is absolutely no monitoring of the quality of care.
Naturopathy uses noninvasive techniques, and is therefore considered generally safe when practiced by qualified practitioners. However, you should always consult your doctor before seeking alternative medical treatment of any kind. The greatest hazard is that by using naturopathic therapies without any conventional advice you could allow a serious medical condition to go undiagnosed. If you have symptoms that may indicate a serious disease, consult an M.D. before seeing a naturopathic practitioner.
Although most naturopathic eating programs are healthful, some (such as fasting), may initially cause unpleasant symptoms. If you are experiencing any anxieties about the diet a naturopath recommends, discuss it with your conventional doctor before starting the program.
Some herbal preparations can interact with conventional medications. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any nutritional supplement if you are already on medication for an ailment.