The Nature of Naturopathic Medicine
( Click here to download the free full PDF e-book)
In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in all things natural. From the “green” initiatives to reduce ozone depletion, to increased awareness of the harmful effects of certain synthetic materials, to an overall desire to unplug and return to one’s more “natural” roots—nature is a hot commodity today perhaps more than ever before. Not surprisingly, this interest has expanded into the realm of medicine. People are becoming sceptical of and disillusioned with conventional medicine, and are looking for new ways of healing that seem, for lack of a better descriptor, more natural.
Given that you are reading this, you probably have an interest in what we might call natural medicine. But natural medicine is a non-scientific term, and has no distinct definition. So how do we know that we’re talking about the same thing when we say natural medicine? What do you suppose natural medicine is, anyway?
Many individuals and groups have tried to define the mission and ideology of the naturopath at large. But the truth is that each naturopath—like each conventional physician—has a unique outlook and personal preferences. So while there are some generalizations that would be true of many naturopaths most of the time, there are fewer unanimous agreements.
That said, I do happen to agree with this list of principles that has been passed around throughout the naturopathic community, none of which would likely raise much contest among naturopaths generally. Many of these principles would also appeal to conventional physicians, but others go largely ignored by mainstream medicine.
Recognize that the human body wants to make itself well. When you rip a sweater, it stays ripped until you mend it. When you tear your skin, it will mend itself over time. These facts seem obvious, but we often forget. Your body is constantly being damaged and repaired right under your nose (literally!), without you having to make any special arrangements. The trouble comes when your body’s natural abilities are impaired, or it is faced with an injury or illness that it isn’t equipped to repair alone. As a naturopath, my goal is to remove any obstacles impeding the body’s ability to heal itself, and provide further assistance when needed, in harmony with a conventional physician when applicable.
Minimize risk to the patient. Many treatments, pharmaceutical or otherwise, have associated risks, like harmful side effects or potential injury. While all doctors are responsible for educating patients about risks and helping them weigh out the odds, naturopaths tend to be more cautious. Sometimes this means taking the “long way” when the short cut is too treacherous. And sometimes it means using the centuries-old proven treatment rather than the cutting edge experimental drug. We don’t believe that your health is something to gamble with. The less invasive, the better.
Educate patients about healing, which provides them with optimism and self-empowerment. The decisions we make every day have a tremendous effect on our individual states of wellness. Naturopaths recognize that promoting wellness is about more than fixing what is broken: it’s a matter of changing the way people think. We want to show patients the power and potential of the human body. We don’t want them to rely on us—we want them to feel empowered to prevent illness and have confidence in their nature.
Always aim to deal with the cause of an illness, rather than the symptoms. While symptom control has its place, we always want to trace back the illness to its source. True wellness is not just the absence of symptoms, but rather a body that is acting as it is designed to. We aim to make patients both comfortable and truly well, in mind, body, and spirit. We won’t put a band-aid on a bullet wound. Prevention plays a large role in this as well. Preventing disease deals with the cause of the disease—not just the infection, for instance, but the conditions that allowed the infection to occur. This mindset gets to the root of illness. See my free e-book on preventing cancer for one example of this.
Treat each patient as an individual, recognizing the complexities that we each carry. While we all have a lot in common, considering we’re all human with human bodies and brains, we each react to treatment in a way entirely unique to ourselves. As naturopaths, we keep this on the forefront of our minds. We pride ourselves on adaptability and individualized care and attention. You are not just a number to your naturopath—you are a community member, a real person, a friend.
Aim to prevent disease by promoting wellness on all levels, from the individual to the global community. Wellness must be protected and encouraged on a large scale. The states of our communities, countries, and the world at large have complex interactions with each other. Just treating individual cases as they come along is like treating a symptom and not the underlying cause. As naturopaths, we make it our goal to promote wellness of the global community, the environment, and the collective conscious of all people. We will never say, “That’s not my job.” Every aspect of wellness in the world falls under our jurisdiction, and none should be ignored. […]
The Terms of the Trade
You may have encountered any number of terms that you equate with “natural medicine” without knowing exactly what each term denotes. I’d like to demystify some of these terms and practices so that you may better understand my own perspective on health and treatment, as well as the perspectives and practices of any number of other naturopaths. Language is deceptively ambiguous. Unless we confirm that we both agree on a definition of a word, all may be lost in interpersonal translation.
Alternative Medicine: This is the broadest category. In some ways, alternative medicine is a more accurate term than “natural medicine,” although it still isn’t very descriptive. Basically, any medical practice that falls outside of “conventional medicine” is considered alternative medicine. So it is defined by what it is not, which is certainly not the best kind of definition. There are no other stipulations in this definition. Alternative medicines do tend to have other elements in common, however. They are often based on widespread historical usage and anecdotal evidence. While some of these treatments lack extensive scientific studies proving their efficacy, this is not always because they don’t work. It may instead have to do with problems funding studies, bias against alternative medicine, and the limits of our current scientific understanding.
Complementary Medicine: Also called integrative medicine, complementary medicine is simply the use of both conventional and alternative medicines together. This is based on the belief that each can complement the other—that it’s not necessary to choose one or the other, but that both should be regarded as tools in the same toolbox. I believe strongly in this approach. The key is to find the right tool for the job. If that tool is a conventional pharmaceutical, I will not hesitate to utilize it for the sake of dogma.
Naturopathy: From the Greek words for “nature” and “disease,” naturopathy is defined quite differently depending on whom you ask. I think it’s important to note that, by most definitions, the “nature” in naturopathy doesn’t imply that all naturopathic treatments are plants or even natural elements in general. This “nature” actually refers to the nature of the human body to be a machine of healing. Naturopaths wish to aid the body’s natural healing abilities and potential rather than pursue more convoluted and invasive measures. We don’t want to work in spite of the body, but rather help the body to do what it is made to do. Most naturopaths utilize medicines derived from plants, but that is not exclusively what defines naturopathy.
Holistic (Wholistic) Medicine: Based on the idea that the whole of a thing is more than the sum of its parts, holistic medicine takes the perspective that one must understand the complex interplay between the human body, mind, and state of existence in order to treat a patient. It is not as simple as one element affecting another, but is rather a web of interactions, with each patient possessing a unique system to work within. Holism is a key characteristic of naturopathy.
Homeopathic Medicine: While some people tend to think this is just another word for alternative medicine, these terms are absolutely not synonymous. Homeopathy is a type of alternative medicine, in which very dilute mixtures in water or alcohol called “remedies” are given to patients to cure illness. It works on the principle that if a high dose of a particular material can cause the symptoms of an illness, a low dose can alleviate those symptoms. You might think of it in terms of how vaccines or antivenins work, although the actual mechanics of how homeopathy works may be different. While homeopathy doesn’t have a firmly scientific basis or proof, its widespread use and high anecdotal acclaim give it merit with naturopaths.
To read more, download the free full version of this short PDF e-book.