Tired of feeling like assembly-line widgets when they go to the
doctor's office, many North Americans are turning to a form of
health care that relies on natural medicines that have been healing
humans for centuries.
Known as naturopathic medicine or naturopathy, the field was
born some 100 years ago, though many of its practices can be traced
back to the dawn of both Eastern and Western medicine. Naturopaths
rely on an amalgam of herbs, nutritional supplements, dietary
advice, physical manipulation, counseling, and homeopathy (the use
of extremely diluted solutions to cure what the same substances in
concentrated form would cause). Their philosophy holds that 'nature
cures,' and that addressing the underlying causes of a disease --
not just its symptoms -- allows the body to heal itself.
'Naturopathic philosophy [recognizes] that before treating a
disease you have to establish the basis for health,' explains
Pamela Snider, a naturopathic doctor (N.D.) and co-investigator on
the North American Naturopathic Medical Research Agenda, funded by
the National Institutes of Health. 'That's what allows the
self-healing process to work. You establish healthy habits and
provide the body what it needs naturally, and many conditions
A typical first visit can take an hour or longer as the doctor
gathers health information and performs a thorough physical
examination. Those details help the naturopath form a clear picture
of the patient and get ideas for treatment. For instance, many
doctors will question patients extensively about their diet, on the
theory that the body can't fight (or prevent) disease without the
right biochemical tools.
In the United States and Canada, a licensed naturopathic doctor
must complete both a bachelor's degree and a four-year training
program at an accredited naturopathic college. Students take many
of the same core science classes offered at allopathic medical
schools, including microbiology, anatomy, and physiology. Depending
on state laws governing the scope of their practices, some
naturopaths can prescribe medications such as antibiotics, order
and read blood tests, perform minor surgery, take x-rays, and do
gynecological exams. Though naturopathy prefers medicines more
directly from nature, practitioners differ in how strictly they
draw the line on pharmaceuticals.
An N.D. does the job of a primary-care physician. But unlike
M.D. family practitioners, who often refer patients with
intractable or chronic conditions to specialists, naturopaths
routinely treat such cases. For instance, a naturopath might help
asthmatics reduce their reliance on inhalers or other drugs, and
some cancer patients look to naturopathy as an adjunct to the
harmful radiation or chemotherapy they may need to stay alive.
Similarly, people turn to naturopaths for help with pain and other
problems that mainstream medicine fails to diagnose or relieve.
In the 1920s, more than 10,000 naturopathic physicians attended
professional conventions, more than 20 medical colleges trained
them, and most U.S. states granted them licenses. Those numbers
plummeted in the 1940s and 1950s as pharmaceutical drugs and
surgery rose in public favor -- and as the medical establishment
tried to brand other approaches as quackery. Between 1956 and 1979,
the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon,
was the lone training ground for the profession, graduating only 70
doctors in its first two decades.
Critics say there's little scientific evidence that naturopathy
works, despite a long -- if undocumented -- history of clinical
success. In fact, until recently, there's been little effort to
test naturopathic therapies in a rigorous scientific way. With the
new interest in exploring complementary and alternative medicine at
the National Institutes of Health, that seems to be changing. The
next big challenge to naturopathic schools may be from allopathic
medical schools potentially siphoning off students and support for
One thing is certain: With managed care limiting medical visits,
consumers are looking for alternatives.
'In this day and age, with insurance requirements, an M.D.
doesn't have more than five minutes to stay with you,' says
Kathleen Warren, media director at Bastyr University north of
Seattle. 'That's the way of the world.'
Today, there are four fully accredited naturopathic colleges in
the United States and Canada: Bastyr, Portland's NCNM, Southwest
College in Tempe, Arizona, and the Canadian College of Naturopathic
Medicine in Toronto. According to Snider, the number of people
studying to join the profession jumped 500 percent between 1990 and
2001, when 1,523 were enrolled in U.S. schools. Thirteen states,
five Canadian provinces, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
now license naturopaths; they work without licenses in many other
Naturopathy isn't for everyone. Although some cures can be quick
and dramatic, natural healing methods generally work slowly and
subtly. Serious or emergency conditions may require drugs or
invasive procedures such as surgery or chemotherapy. And with
naturopathy, healing ultimately depends on the patient, not the
'Natural medicine requires more of you,' Warren explains. 'It
says to you, 'You have to eat right, you have to exercise, you have
to have a lifestyle that is more conducive to helping your health.'
You can't just eat crap and take something for your heartburn. You
can't just lie on a couch and ignore your body's need to move.'