Naturopathic medicine has a long history of safe and effective practice. It is not as popular as it once was, but it is gaining back popularity by the day as Western medicine fails us in preventing and treating chronic disease, which is plaguing our society. Naturopathic medicine is currently licensed in twenty U.S. states, five Canadian provinces, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Naturopathic physicians are capable of effective diagnosis and, depending on the location, able to treat with nutrients, botanical medicine, acupuncture, physical manipulation (like chiropractic or osteopathic manipulations), intravenous medicine, hormones, pharmaceutical medicine and even some minor surgery, since we are all highly trained in every one of those modalities. Since you may not reside in one of these areas and/or may not be familiar with naturopathic medicine, what follows is an explanation of my point of view on the principles of naturopathic medicine, the guiding philosophies of our medicine.
Naturopathic medicine is built upon six guiding principles that form the foundation of our practice. These principles are in place to give us direction when treating patients, and every patient treatment plan should be based upon these principles. The first principle of naturopathic medicine is: “the healing power of nature”. This principle means that the human body has an inherent ability to heal itself. For example, when you get cut, your body heals the wound. When you get an infection, the body fights off the infection and you regain homeostasis. This is easy enough to understand, but let’s take this a couple of steps further.
When the body gets sick, or in a state of dis-ease, and does not heal in an acceptable and expedient amount of time, it means that there is what naturopaths refer to as an obstacle to cure. An obstacle to cure is a hindrance that is in place and preventing the body from healing itself. This could be an improper diet not giving the body the nutrition it requires to function and heal. It could be a misaligned vertebral joint placing pressure on a nerve root or it could even be a traumatic experience that the mind has not dealt with effectively and thus has not allowed itself to heal. There are as many different obstacles to heal as there are disease states, and it is the naturopath’s responsibility to discover what those are in the patient and to aid them in removing them from their lives so that the body can heal properly and return to a state of healthy function.
Another important aspect of this first principle is that all healing is self-healing. What this means is, as a physician, my job is to discover what the obstacle to cure is, to educate the patient, to prescribe any nutritional, herbal or pharmacological support and to council and provide emotional support. However, the actual healing process is all done by the patient, by the healing power of nature. For instance, in the case of rickets, the practitioner identifies a deficiency of vitamin D in the patient and prescribes sunlight and vitamin D and mineral supplementation. The patient’s body then creates vitamin D from the sunlight and/or uses the vitamin D and mineral supplements to reverse the rickets and heal the bones. The practitioner does not perform any healing. We simply advise how to eliminate the obstacle to cure. It is the patient’s job to follow through with the changes and the body’s job to execute the healing process. It really is an amazing thing.
In my opinion, the only exceptions where a doctor partakes in the healing of the patient are in some physical medicine and in some surgical intervention situations. For example, in the case of a radial head subluxation (nursemaid’s elbow), the obstacle to cure is that the head of the radius has come out of the annular ligament. The human body has a great ability to heal, but it cannot simply put the head of the radius back in place without assistance. Therefore, without the aid of a doctor, the wound would never heal, and in this instance, healing means correct placement within the ligament, which is exactly what the doctor does. Granted, there will still be healing on the side of the patient in regards to some inflammatory reactions and strengthening of the ligament. However, my stance is that in these types of cases, healing is shared by the practitioner and the patient. This shared healing is more the exception than the rule as the vast majority of cases do not involve joint manipulation (though if every patient was given a postural assessment these numbers might change).
The second naturopathic principle is: “treat the cause”. The absurdity of the avoidance of this principle by the conventional medical field is exemplified every day in television commercials for prescription drugs. The pharmaceutical companies have created a pill for every symptom and quirk that a human can have. These advertisements tell of the promise to alleviate your symptom without ever addressing what caused that symptom to begin with. To add to the insult, they even list the added bonuses of side effects at the end of every advertisement, which are very often worse than the actual symptoms they are treating!
Naturopaths are taught to take the opposite and logical path. We investigate what are creating these symptoms (obstacles to cure), and we address the causes so that your body can heal and eliminate these symptoms of dis-ease that it created to tell you that something is wrong in the first place. We don’t cover up the symptoms. Only treating the symptoms is akin to placing a sticker over the low fuel light in your automobile. Yes, the troublesome light will be gone, but it didn’t actually fix anything, and very soon something much worse is going to happen.
“First do no harm” is the third naturopathic principle. Simply stated, this means that the naturopath takes no action that would bring harm to the patient. We accomplish this principle by always prescribing in order from the least invasive to the most invasive appropriate treatment. I use the word appropriate here to mean that sometimes the least invasive treatment skips ahead a few steps to avoid the potential health ramifications of not taking immediate drastic action, as in not prescribing acupuncture in a patient with an acute angina attack and jumping strait to aspirin/nitroglycerin and a trip to the emergency room. We are always doctors first, no matter what the treatment.
However, naturopaths should attempt to treat something like a mild hormonal issue with diet, exercise, counseling, herbs and nutraceuticals, as these can often be very effective. Only if all else fails do we move on to prescribing hormones. Similarly to the previous principle, this one also includes not suppressing symptoms. We understand that symptoms are the body’s cry for help and are clues into the true nature of the problem at hand. Of course, there are exceptions where symptoms can be life-threatening, extremely unpleasant, interfere with healthy function, etc. and actions need to be taken to reduce those symptoms. Naturopaths will take note while doing so, stabilize the patient, and then get back to the source of the problem.
“Doctor as teacher” is an important principle of naturopathic medicine. The actual word “doctor” has an original Latin meaning of “teacher”. So, the two should go hand-in-hand. Educating the patient empowers them to make the changes they need to regain their health. It is our job to make sure that the patient understands what is causing their illness, how it came to be and what they can do to remove the obstacles to cure and allow their body to return to a healthful state. This principle also recognizes the therapeutic effects a doctor-patient relationship can have on the patient. I believe this is delving into the mind/body relationship and the importance it has on health. Just the act of talking about health concerns with a physician who is supportive, open- minded and positive can be healing to a patient. After all, we don’t have to limit our teaching to diet plans and exercise. We can also teach by example and show patients that it is healthy to openly talk about any emotional problems that may be burdening them, which leads me to the next principle.
Treat the whole person is a principle that means much more than paying attention to the entire body as a physically functioning unit, though we do that as well. Naturopaths are trained to investigate physical (including genetic), mental, emotional, and even spiritual aspects, leaving no stone unturned. All of these portions comprise who we are and what we believe, which is a reflection of our being. Any one of these aspects that are in disharmony can cause disease. I believe that there are basic requirements for life such as food, clothes, shelter, air and water. I also believe that there are requirements for a healthy life which include: clothing, healthy food, clean water, clean air, sunshine, family, personal relationships, limited stress, and in many, spirituality. So, there are a lot of pieces that factor into the state of our health. Our job as naturopaths is to ensure that each of those are being addressed by our patients.
One aspect of our condition that I feel deserves special attention is the emotional health of the person. This is not because mind-body medicine is something that I have always been interested in, but rather it is something that is often neglected by most health professionals and patients. The mind and the emotions are directly tied into our body and our health. Many people can recognize this when they get too stressed out at work and their sleep quality suffers or they start to show increased signs of aging. How about when you get angry and you experience a rapid heart beat and a sweaty body? However, many people disregard the importance of this and other types of emotional stress such as the effects of loss of a loved one, a neglectful parent, or even, and especially, much worse incidents such as abuse and rape. These things shake the very core of our being and have a strong effect on our state of mind and our physical health for decades to come. Often times these types of incidents will simply fester for years, and if not dealt with effectively, will manifest as physical symptoms that look very much like fibromyalgia, for example.
I like to use the example of breaking a leg in an accident and allowing it to heal on its own without attention. While it is possible the leg could heal on its own, the situation could quickly go downhill and the leg would likely never have the full capabilities as it would had it been X-rayed and placed in a proper cast. Both in physical and mental trauma, it often takes the assistance from someone who is qualified in treating the issue. However, in our society, and in many other societies, we have not yet transitioned into treating emotional trauma as we would physical trauma. If we did, the world would be a much better and happier place. I hope that someday this will become a reality, and I will do my part to ensure that this part of our health is not ignored.
Prevention is our final naturopathic principle and to me is all about education and action. After all, to prevent disease you must first know what it takes to be healthy and what causes disease and you must also commit to your health. Just like with the previous principle, this one entails much more than healthy eating and must address all of the requirements for living a healthy life. This is our opportunity to shine as physicians, and not only educate on what causes illness or states of dis-ease, but how to adhere to the requirements of healthy living and avoid further illness. It is not always an easy task to accomplish in our modern life of convenience, where we often live quite a distance from family and in a polluted environment, surrounded by fast food. It definitely takes commitment to continuously lead a healthy life, but the reward is worth the struggle.
It is not unlike many other commitments one makes in their life. For example, I have made the commitment to be the best husband and father I can be. I have made the commitment to live a healthy life. I made the commitment to become a naturopathic physician. These decisions were not taken lightly. Much delegation occurred for all of the previous things, as they are all life-long commitments. To me, commitment means making a decision and sticking with it no matter the obstacles encountered along the way. It’s about having steadfast, unwavering dedication to your chosen path and goals. It means having pluck, because achievement is not for the weak. It takes a strong constitution and moral compass to avoid the enticements along the way. Are there times when being a father and husband is challenging? Of course there are. Every father, mother, wife and husband knows this. Is eating that favorite dessert tempting when provided at a luncheon? Of course it is, but living a healthy life means avoiding it much more often than giving in. A dedicated person makes a decision at the onset that the few difficult times will pale in comparison to the greatness of their choices. The person with commitment gets to reap the benefits along the way and solely has the distinct pleasure of looking back to say “I made it.”
My commitment to you is to continue to be a doctor in the truest sense of the word, as a teacher. Hopefully, I can help you, or someone you care about, before they encounter disease that can’t be cured by the principles of healthy living and naturopathic medicine.