When Keith Jackson limped into the office of a naturopathic doctor, he had nearly lost hope in finding relief for his debilitating arthritis. Conventional medicine had little to offer him: a handful of prescriptions for anti-inflammatory drugs, each fraught with its own side effects and a gloomy long-term prognosis.
"My feet hurt so much I couldn't stand for more than a few minutes," Jackson said. "My toes and fingers were swollen and painful. And I just kept thinking that this can't be happening, I'm only 35-years-old!"
Angry and discouraged, Jackson began to explore other options. "I wasn't ready to accept that I was stuck with this disease for the rest of my life," he said.
Over the next year, Jackson embarked on a "healing crusade," visiting acupuncturists, chiropractors and massage therapists, and sampling dozens of vitamins and herbs.
Although his pain dissipated, Jackson was spending a fortune and still felt the underlying causes of his arthritis were not being addressed.
That's when, at the suggestion of a friend, he agreed to try naturopathy — a science that treats health conditions by using gentle, natural substances and therapies that rely upon the body's innate ability to heal itself.
Under the care of a naturopathic physician, Jackson began a new diet emphasizing nutritious foods and eliminating those that were causing inflammation, along with a regimen of nutritional supplements designed to restore immunity.
Now, at the age of 37, Jackson enjoys excellent health. "I still can't believe how much better I feel," he said. "My naturopath brought so many skills to the table. His treatment regimen really worked, and it's still working."
Just what is naturopathic medicine?
Although naturopathic medicine has been practiced since the late 1800s, its philosophical roots extend back several millennia to the healing traditions of China, Greece and India.
In recent years, increased awareness about the relationship between nutrition, lifestyle and disease has helped popularize this science.
So too have the failings of mainstream medicine. Although naturopathy doesn't have all the answers, so great is its promise that many traditional M.D.s are studying natural therapies.
Practitioners see themselves as teachers and partners, empowering and motivating patients to take responsibility for their health and well being.
"The primary goals of naturopathic medicine are to establish and maintain optimal health and to promote wellness," say Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno, authors of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, and two of the nation's most notable N.D.s (doctor of naturopathic medicine).
The Holistic & Integrative Approach
A holistic (whole-istic) approach
This distinctly natural approach to wellness differs from conventional or allopathic medicine by emphasizing the whole patient when treating illness, not just the symptoms.
"Allopathic physicians usually look at the patient's chief complaint and try to treat that directly with medication or by other means, but very rarely look at the person in totality," according to Dr. Marian Small, a Seattle-based naturopathic doctor specializing in family practice and oriental medicine.
Naturopathic physicians, she noted, search for the underlying physical, emotional, environmental, genetic and social factors that contribute to dis-ease or imbalance. They then select treatments that stimulate and enhance the body's natural healing mechanisms.
Much like detectives, naturopaths follow a series of clues (a patient's symptoms, history, etc.) to unravel the mystery of illness. This approach — combined with a variety of diagnostic techniques — has enabled practitioners to better understand some conditions that have long vexed mainstream medicine.
Some N.D.s theorize, for instance, that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — a common condition that plagues children and adults alike — may stem from an inability to absorb omega fatty acids.
Likewise, food allergies have been implicated in illnesses from schizophrenia to arthritis to sinus congestion and chronic infections may be triggered by low-grade allergic reactions. In some cases, the solution is as simple as making dietary modifications.
"Often times, even though the problem is one place, we might focus our therapies in another area," said Dr. Small. "For instance I have good success with stubborn sinus problems, and I almost always find that treating the digestive organs is the key to resolving those problems."
What conditions do naturopaths treat?
Naturopaths are trained as primary care doctors. In other words, they are the first doctor a patient would see for non-emergency care. N.D.s are skilled at diagnosing and treating a broad spectrum of ailments and illnesses, including fatigue, allergies, menopausal/PMS symptoms, gastrointestinal problems, headaches and migraines, musculo-skeletal complaints, depression and anxiety, respiratory ailments, sinus infections, fibromyalgia and more.
"Most of my patients first come to me for a specific problem or complaint," according to Dr. Small. "But after we get that cleared up and they get a glimpse of the scope of this medicine, they begin to recognize what it can do. They learn to recognize when something starts to get out of balance and want to prevent it from taking hold."
An integrative approach
In many instances, people are seeking a more integrative approach — that is — a combination of naturopathic and traditional medical care. "This is especially true," say doctors Murray and Pizzorno, "with more severe illnesses that require pharmacological or surgical intervention, such as cancer, angina, congestive heart failure, Parkinson's disease and trauma."
Traditions and Advancements
Naturopathic treatments can be tailored to complement those of conventionally trained medical doctors. N.D.s are knowledgeable about possible contraindications between naturopathic remedies and traditional medications. They can work in partnership with conventional physicians and make referrals for treatment when appropriate. Emergency, or acute conditions such as heart attacks or broken bones, however, should always be handled by a traditional M.D.
A myriad of healing traditions
Depending on the individual needs of each patient, practitioners draw upon a repertoire of age-old and modern therapies including:
- Clinical nutrition (whole foods and nutritional supplements as medicine)
- Botanical medicine (plant medicines)
- Homeopathics (gentle medicines based on the principle of "like cures like")
- Chinese medicine (acupuncture and other oriental modalities to stimulate the flow of energy)
- Hydrotherapy (an ancient treatment involving the use of water to maintain health [whirlpool, sitz bath, poultice, etc.])
- Physical medicine (the manipulation of muscles and bones through a variety of techniques)
- Psychological medicine (counseling, stress management and other therapies to help patients heal psychologically).
Many naturopathic doctors also perform minor office surgeries, such as removing cysts and treating superficial wounds. Most offer obstetrics services, including prenatal and postnatal care outside of the hospital. Practitioners are also trained in modern methods of diagnostic testing and imaging techniques such as X-ray and ultrasound.
Side effects to naturopathic treatments are rare. The emphasis on gentle, non-toxic remedies and non-invasive therapies has helped earn naturopathic medicine an excellent safety record.
What to expect from a visit to a naturopath
Generally, an office visit lasts about an hour. During the first consultation, the practitioner will record a thorough health history, gathering information about past surgeries, family illnesses, diet, stress factors and work environment. He or she may then use a combination of standard (blood test, urine analysis, physical exam) and holistic diagnostic techniques to evaluate a patient's health.
Following the exam, the N.D. determines the appropriate treatment. Since each patient is unique, treatment regimens are too "One of the most valuable things my N.D. did was to help me understand the connection between my pain and the stress in my life," said Jackson.
"He supported me in making some attitude and lifestyle changes that have been incredibly rejuvenating. Naturopathy has forever transformed the way I treat my body."
The future of naturopathy
Today, naturopathic physicians are enjoying success in a number of realms. Some are playing leading roles in medical research.
Others are developing nutritional supplements and botanical medicines. Some naturopaths are prominent authors, while others are exerting influence in the political arena. The future looks promising.
Society's reawakened interest in natural medicine represents a paradigm shift in healing, particularly as health care costs soar. In this new model, prevention is paramount and patients take responsibility for staying healthy.
Surprisingly, even as early as 1990, some 425 million people visited naturopathic physicians, acupuncturists and other "alternative" specialists, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993. In comparison, there were 388 million visits to primary care M.D.s that same year.
If the current popularity of herbal and nutritional supplements and the prevalence of natural health care books and magazines are any indication, natural medicine is ever more in demand.
With its patient-centered approach, gentle treatments and clinical successes, naturopathy's growing popularity is well deserved.
Finding the Best Naturopathic Care
If you are interested in seeking the services of a naturopathic physician should take some precautions. Here's what you need to know:
- Health Insurance More than 90 insurance companies cover naturopathic treatment in the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, many cover naturopathy for the treatment of specific conditions rather than for preventive care.
- Naturopathic Training Naturopaths take standard premedical courses at the undergraduate level, followed by four years of graduate level medical studies that include approximately 4,500 hours of academic and clinical training. For the first two years, they study basic medical sciences, including anatomy, biochemistry and physiology, just like traditional M.D.s. Years three and four stress clinical training in a wide range of naturopathic treatments.
Currently, there are three accredited naturopathic medical colleges in North America: Bastyr University in Seattle; Southwest College in Scottsdale, Arizona; and the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon. The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto is a candidate for accreditation.
A word of caution about naturopathy
Naturopathic medicine is not yet licensed in all 50 states. The 12 states that currently license N.D.s are: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington. However, legal provisions allow naturopaths to practice in several other states, and efforts are underway to extend licensure to additional states.
If you live in a state that does not license N.D.s, check the credentials of the doctor you choose to see. Unlicensed states do not mandate that the education and credentials of those who call themselves N.D.s meet AANP standards. Beware of practitioners who claim to be licensed N.D.s, but are graduates of correspondence courses rather than accredited naturopathic medical schools. Membership in the AANP provides some quality assurance that those identifying themselves as N.D.s meet the educational criteria for licensure. However, it's best to check credentials for yourself.