The Naturopathic Way

A popular form of alternative healing begins with the belief that nature cures


| May / June 2004



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.