What is naturopathy?
Naturopathy, or “natural medicine,” is one of the most important branches of alternative medicine, exerting an influence far beyond the actual numbers of its formal practitioners. Popularized by medical practitioner Benedict Lust at the beginning of the twentieth century, naturopathy’s immediate roots go back to the spa treatments of nineteenth-century Germany, but its founding principles are in the writings of Hippocrates and other healers of the ancient world.
The defining principle of naturopathy is vis medicatrix naturae, or “nature’s healing power.” From this perspective, disease is caused by departing from the natural way of living, and health is established by returning to it.
Much of conventional medicine’s current interest in diet and lifestyle came into being through the influence of naturopathic practitioners. There is little doubt that their general recommendations are health-promoting: Eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, maintain a healthful weight, and avoid toxic habits, such as smoking. It is less clear, however, whether the more specific dietary suggestions sometimes made by naturopathic practitioners will actually enhance health. Some of these suggestions include drinking sixty-four ounces of water daily, eating organic fruits and vegetables, and avoiding certain food combinations (such as starches and protein).
Herbal medicine. Naturopathic medicine is also largely responsible for the resurgence in interest in herbal medicine. Growing scientific evidence suggests that some herbs have real healing properties.
Vitamins, minerals, and supplements. Naturopathic practitioners are also known for emphasizing the use of vitamins and supplements. Ironically, early practitioners of naturopathy were quite opposed to the use of vitamins and supplements, considering them refined, processed foods (which they are). Matters changed in the 1960s when Linus Pauling promoted vitamin C as a cure for many illnesses, leading to the development of orthomolecular medicine. This approach, now incorporated into naturopathy, believes that the roots of many diseases may be found in a subtle form of malnutrition caused by a combination of the following factors: poor diet, inability to absorb nutrients, increased need for nutrients, and difficulties metabolizing or using nutrients. When nutrient levels in the body are increased, the theory goes, the body will have the means to heal itself.
On this principle, naturopathic practitioners often recommend that people take relatively high doses of certain nutrients in the form of supplements. In addition, they believe that many non-nutrient substances found in plants can contribute to health.
Detoxification. Another traditional naturopathic principle is the concept of detoxification. This term refers to the belief that modern life, with its chemical pollutants, poor lifestyle habits, and psychological stresses, causes toxins to accumulate in the body. These toxins are said to be a major cause of disease, and removing them from the body is believed to promote health. Detoxification methods include adopting a healthful diet, drinking large quantities of water, using cleansing herbs and supplements, and undergoing special processes such as colon-cleansing, liver-flushing, and removal of mercury fillings. There is little scientific evidence that any of these methods enhance general health.
Immune support. Immune support is another characteristic naturopathic interest. Based on the indisputable fact that the body’s susceptibility to illness is at least as important a factor as its accidental exposure to microorganisms, naturopathic practitioners utilize a number of treatments that they believe will enhance immunity. These treatments include a variety of herbs and supplements and the elimination of certain foods from the diet, such as white sugar. However, it has proved difficult to establish scientifically that any treatment does indeed boost immunity.
Adrenal support. Adrenal support is also commonly recommended by naturopathic practitioners. This method is based on classic studies performed in the early to mid-twentieth century that found a relationship among stress, illness, and adrenal function. Naturopathic practitioners frequently recommend treatments they believe will help the adrenals, including removing sugar and stimulants from the diet while adding adrenal supplements and other herbs and supplements said to strengthen adrenal function.
Adrenal support is said to be helpful for a variety of conditions, including allergies, anxiety, fatigue, and stress. However, the theory of adrenal support has a limited scientific foundation, and it does not by itself justify the common therapies used with the diagnosis. Furthermore, there is little specific scientific evidence to indicate that methods used to support the adrenals are beneficial for any disease.
Other treatments related to naturopathic medicine. Various other treatments have gathered under the umbrella of naturopathic medicine more for historical reasons than for a close connection to vis medicatrix naturae. These treatments include emphases on the following: food allergies; the belief that low (rather than high) stomach acid is a cause of many illnesses; an interest in the yeast Candida and other intestinal parasites; an interest in certain animal-based hormones, such as thyroid supplements; and an attitude of caution toward many interventions recommended by conventional medicine (such as vaccinations).
Diagnostic techniques. Besides its unique treatment approaches, naturopathic medicine also makes use of a number of characteristic diagnostic techniques, such as hair and saliva analysis, and a more fine-grained analysis of standard blood tests than conventional medicine believes to be warranted.
Principles of naturopathic medicine are applied by holistic medical doctors (M.D.’s) and doctors of osteopathy (D.O.’s), chiropractors, massage therapists, herbalists, and nutritionists. However, the premier practitioners of this form of medicine are naturopathic physicians (N.D.’s). Several states offer the N.D. licensure, and most major Canadian provinces also license N.D.’s. In states where the N.D. license is not granted, N.D.’s may still practice, although in something of a legal gray zone.
Also, some accredited colleges in North America grant the N.D. degree. These include Bastyr University (Kenmore, Washington), Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine (New Westminister, British Columbia), Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (Toronto, Ontario), National College of Natural Medicine (Portland, Oregon), Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine (Tempe, Arizona), and the University of Bridgeport, College of Naturopathic Medicine (Bridgeport, Connecticut).
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