Naturopathic Medicine: Not Just for Hippocrates and Hippies

Author:  Belinda Ongaro

Institution:  University of Alberta

Have a headache? Pop an Advil.

Back pain? Pop an Advil.

Existential crisis? Pop an Advil.

 Jokes aside, this seems to have become the mantra of modern medicine. But how often do we take the time to investigate the causes of our ailments before hastily suppressing them with pharmaceutical drugs?

 This is where the field of naturopathy comes into play. The first account of natural medicine dates back to 400 BCE to Hippocrates who touted the healing power of nature. In the modern era, naturopathic medicine is an alternative approach to healthcare that aims to nip illness in the bud by promoting overall wellness and balance without the aid of pharmaceutical drugs. According to the American Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges, the last ten years have seen the number of practicing naturopathic doctors (NDs) triple, with approximately 5,000 licensed NDs practicing in North America today.

 In an interview for Natural Health Magazine, Peter Bongiorno, a licensed ND, was asked what the biggest obstacles are when it comes to assisting patients in their transition to naturopathic treatment. Bongiorno provided the following insight:

 “People have been trained to take a pill to heal them. Many patients still want something to take, like an herb. But, it’s ultimately bringing about a full change in lifestyle, how to change their sleep schedule, their spirit, working out and sweating, changing your foods. Our bodies are made of very natural structures and we need to eat natural food to feed them.”

 Under this overarching theme of holistic thinking, NDs integrate modern diagnostic techniques into individualized natural therapy plans. These therapy plans account for personal details including family and individual medical history, lifestyle, stressors, intolerances, and dietary limitations.

 An initial appointment with a naturopath involves an extensive interview, typically ranging between one and two hours. Follow up visits are generally less extensive in comparison. Modern diagnostic testing may include laboratory analysis of bodily fluid samples and physical examinations such as checking vitals and reflexes. Additionally, naturopaths perform techniques including Chinese Tongue and Pulse Diagnosis, both of which serve as gauges for detecting imbalances and abnormalities in traditional Chinese medicine.

“The word doctor comes from the Latin, ‘to teach,’” Bongiorno says, “and I see my job as really about explaining the condition to my patient. If a patient comes in to see me, at some level they want to change.”

 To better understand the naturopathic approach to treating patients, consider the following case study:

 Janice feels cold when others are warm, is frequently in low spirits, and is chronically fatigued regardless of how much sleeps she gets. She has also experienced sudden weight gain despite maintaining her usual diet.

 A. Pharmaceutical approach:

Janice is sent for blood work by her doctor to have her thyroid levels checked. She tests positive for hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid condition) and is prescribed Synthroid – a synthetic thyroid hormone on which the body becomes dependent. She may be required to take Synthroid daily for the rest of her life to effectively regulate her hormone levels.

 B. Naturopathic approach:

Janice has her thyroid levels evaluated in the lab and a low thyroid function is confirmed. Her naturopath/alternative physician inquires about her dietary habits and performs a tongue diagnosis to deduce that Janice has been unknowingly depriving herself of some essential nutrients for thyroid function (e.g. B vitamins). Furthermore, she has a history of social anxiety, which had taken its toll on her gland health. She is recommended a combination of nutritional supplements and dietary modification, and is offered anxiety management advice to help her cope with her constant stressors. These cause-oriented approaches, in combination with homeopathic, botanical, or Chinese Medicine, aim to restore thyroid health

 On one hand, there are many supporters of the naturopathic approach, namely individuals with an aversion to clinical pharmaceuticals and treatments, and those who prefer to take a holistic approach to disease rather than resorting to a quick fix. A Harvard Medical School survey concluded that sixty eight percent of adults have used a form of alternative medicine in their life; its popularity and acceptance is undeniably growing.

 On the other hand, pharmaceutical medicine has some obvious advantages over naturopathy. The problem can be solved efficiently and the cost may be covered under a healthcare plan. Furthermore, naturopathic naysayers often question the reliability of herbal drugs, especially those that are not FDA approved.

 A common misconception about naturopaths is that they are not medically trained physicians. On the contrary, licensed NDs attend a four-year graduate-level medical school, where they are educated in all the same core sciences as an MD. Additionally, they study a vast array of relevant subjects including clinical nutrition, homeopathic medicine, botanical medicine, psychology, and counseling. Students of naturopathy must also pass professional board exams to be licensed as a primary care general practice physicians.

 Unfortunately, the costliness of naturopathy cannot be dismissed as a misconception; the first visit alone entails a $150-$300 fee, not including the cost of treatments and naturopathic medication. For some patients, however, this may be a worthwhile investment in quality of life, given that naturopathy aims to intervene in the debilitating process of a health condition earlier in the chain of events rather than merely rectifying an end condition.

The Canadian College for Naturopathic Medicine’s Website lists some common ailments naturopaths treat and manage.

  • Digestive complaints such as GERD, IBS, IBD, constipation, food intolerances

  • Stress management

  • Respiratory complaints, such as allergies, asthma, colds and flus

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia

  • Hormone problems, for example, acne, infertility, menstrual complaints

  • Pain management, for example, arthritis, and sports injuries

  • Diabetes (Type 2)

  • Cardiovascular diseases such as cholesterol and blood pressure

Naturopathy may not provide an immediate solution in every medical situation, but everyone can certainly take a page out of Hippocrates’ book when it comes to maintaining his or her health and wellness. In keeping with the attitudes of the naturopathic approach, being proactive and striving for a natural balanced lifestyle are keys to longevity and vitality.