What Is Naturopathy?
Naturopathy, or “natural medicine,” is one of the most important branches of alternative medicine, exerting an influence far beyond the actual numbers of its formal practitioners. Named by Benedict Lust at the turn of the century, its immediate roots go back to the spa treatments of nineteenth century Germany, but its founding principles can be found in the writings of Hippocrates and other healers of the ancient world.1
The defining principle of naturopathy is vis medicatrix naturae, or nature’s healing power. From this perspective, disease is caused by departing from the natural way of living, and health is established by returning to it.
Much of conventional medicine’s current interest in diet and lifestyle came into being through the influence of naturopathic practitioners. There is little doubt that their general recommendations are health-promoting: eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, maintain a healthful weight, and avoid toxic habits, such as smoking. It is less clear, however, whether the more specific dietary suggestions sometimes made by naturopathic practitioners will actually enhance health. Some of these suggestions include drinking 64 ounces of water daily, eating organic fruits and vegetables, and avoiding certain food combinations (such as starches and protein).
Naturopathic medicine is also largely responsible for the resurgence in interest in herbal medicine. Growing scientific evidence tells us that some herbs have real healing properties. The considerable evidence for and against the use of herbs for various conditions is discussed in the herb articles in this database.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Supplements
Naturopathic practitioners are also famous for emphasizing the use of vitamins and supplements. Ironically, early practitioners of naturopathy were quite opposed to the use of vitamins and supplements, considering them refined processed foods (which they are). Matters changed in the 1960s when Linus Pauling promoted vitamin C as a cure for many illnesses, leading to the development of "orthomolecular medicine." This approach, now incorporated into naturopathy, believes that the roots of many diseases may be found in a subtle form of malnutrition caused by a combination of the following factors: poor diet, inability to absorb nutrients, increased need for nutrients, and difficulties metabolizing or using nutrients. When nutrient levels in the body are increased, the theory goes, the body will have the means to heal itself.
On this principle, naturopathic practitioners often recommend that people take relatively high doses of certain nutrients in the form of supplements. In addition, they believe that many non-nutrient substances found in plants can contribute to health. For more information on the evidence regarding the health-promoting effects of various food supplements, see the supplement articles in this database.
Another traditional naturopathic emphasis revolves around the concept of detoxification. This term refers to the belief that modern life—with its chemical pollutants, poor lifestyle habits, and psychological stresses—causes toxins to accumulate in the body. These toxins are said to be a major cause of disease, and removing them from the body is believed to promote health. Detoxification methods include adopting a healthful diet, drinking large quantities of water, using cleansing herbs and supplements, and undergoing special processes such as colon-cleansing, liver-flushing, and removal of mercury fillings. As yet, there is little scientific evidence that any of these methods enhance general health.
Immune support is another characteristic naturopathic interest. Based on the indisputable fact that the body’s susceptibility to illness is at least as important a factor as its accidental exposure to microorganisms, naturopathic practitioners utilize a number of treatments that they believe will enhance immunity. These include a wide variety of herbs and supplements, as well as elimination of certain foods from the diet, such as white sugar. However, it has proved difficult to establish scientifically that any treatment does indeed “boost” immunity.
Adrenal support is also commonly recommended by naturopathic practitioners. This method is based on classic studies performed in the early- to mid-twentieth century that found a relationship between stress, illness, and adrenal function. Naturopathic practitioners frequently recommend treatments they believe will help the adrenals, including removing sugar and stimulants from the diet while adding adrenal supplements and various other herbs and supplements said to strengthen adrenal function. Adrenal support is said to be helpful for a variety of conditions, including allergies, anxiety, fatigue, and stress. However, the theory of adrenal support has only a limited scientific foundation, and it does not by itself justify the common therapies used in conjunction with the diagnosis. Furthermore, there is little in the way of specific scientific evidence to indicate that methods used to support the adrenals are beneficial for any disease.
Other Treatments Related to Naturopathic Medicine
Various other treatments have gathered under the umbrella of naturopathic medicine more for historical reasons than for a close connection to vis medicatrix naturae, including an emphasis on the following:
Besides its unique treatment approaches, naturopathic medicine also makes use of a number of characteristic diagnostic techniques, such as hair and saliva analysis, and a more fine-grained analysis of standard blood tests than conventional medicine believes to be warranted.
How to Choose a Qualified Naturopathic Practitioner
Principles of naturopathic medicine are used by “holistic” medical doctors (MDs) and doctors of osteopathy (DOs), chiropractors, massage therapists, herbalists, and nutritionists. However, the premier practitioners of this form of medicine are naturopathic physicians (NDs). Several states offer the ND licensure; they are listed in the table below. Most major Canadian provinces also license NDs. In states where the ND license is not granted, NDs may still practice, although in something of a legal gray zone.
There are some accredited colleges in North America granting the ND degree. These include 2:
1. Murray, M. Pizzorno, J. A Textbook of Natural Medicine. Seattle, WA: John Bastyr College Publications;1993.
2. Licensed states and licensing authorities. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians website. Available at: http://www.naturopathic.org/viewbulletin.php?id=118. Accessed May 16, 2008.
3. Naturopathic medical schools. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians website. Available at: http://www.naturopathic.org/viewbulletin.php?id=118. Accessed May 16, 2008.
Last reviewed September 2014 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last Updated: 9/18/2014
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