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    The Naturopathic Way

    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
    resolve themselves.’

    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
    N.D. programs.

    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.’

    Published on May 1, 2004


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