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What Is Naturopathic Medicine?

Naturopathy, or Naturopathic Medicine, is a distinct, integrated system of primary health care offered by licensed physicians.  It consists of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of human disorders by the therapeutic use of natural methods and materials.  These might include Clinical Nutrition, Herbal Medicine, Hygiene, Homeopathy, Naturopathic Manipulation, or ancient medical systems like those of China or India.

Naturopathic Medicine in practice considers the fundamental components of health - biochemistry, biomechanics, and the emotional predisposition - in order to help a person restore the balance that we describe as good health.  This philosophy empowers the individual as being responsible for the level of health they experience.  Naturopathic Medicine offers safe, cost-effective solutions for many of our nation's healthcare problems.  Competance and respect for tradition, the scientific method, and innovation are hallmarks of a naturopathic medical practice.

How Did Naturopathy Begin?

Naturopathic treatments originated as the use of herbs and foods for medicine, exposure to fresh air and sunlight, and hydrotherapy (the use of hot and cold water application) as steam or sauna.  These techniques and methods have long been respected throughout the world.  While modern allopathic medicine is a youngster of less than 200 years old, Natural Medicine has been the primary medicine used by most of the human community even into the 21st Century. Herbal and traditional medical arts remain the primary medical choice of over 65% of humanity.

Naturopathic Medicine was first established as a distinct profession in North America at the turn of the 20th century by Benedict Lust, a German immigrant.  Lust had been a student of Father Sebastian Kneipp, famous in Europe for being involved with a movement known as "Nature Cure."   That was the system of employing clean  food, water, air, sun, and exercise with hydrotherapy as healing agents to restore health.

Lust and his wife founded the Yungborn Nature Cure Health Resort in New York state.  There they incorporated other disciplines and therapies compatible with the basic principles of "Nature Cure."  In 1902, Lust began using the term Naturopathy to describe the mixture of disciplines and therapies he used to treat illness.  Three years later he founded the first school of Naturopathic Medicine under the laws of the State of New York.

Throughout North America in the early 1900s, this movement blossomed with the opening of more than 20 schools offering programs in Naturopathic Medicine.  In 1925, Ontario formally recognized Naturopathic Medicine under the Drugless Practitioners Act. Arizona followed with their act in 1935.  British Columbia enacted the Naturopathic Physician's Act in 1936, followed by Alberta and Manitoba in the 1940s.  After World War II, antibiotics and advanced surgical techniques created a growing belief that medical science and technology would soon cure most if not all known sickness and disease.  Naturopathic profession, with its emphasis on self-healing and independence from profitable drugs and heroic procedures, declined rapidly in post WWII America.

A renaissance in Naturopathy began in North America and Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  People and governments became aware of the limitations of science and medical technology.  A growing public interest in alternative or complementary medicine to maintain and restore health has led to a resurgence of belief in the importance of diet, lifestyle, personal choice to ideal health.  This validated the original principles and teachings of the Naturopathic profession.

The Philosophy of Naturopathic Medicine

Living things have an innate ability to heal themselves.  Our vital force promotes self-cleansing, self-repair, and therefore self-healing.  This process can be achieved by focusing on the immune, hormonal, nervous, and detoxification/elimination systems of the body.  Once these systems are in balance, restored health is a probability.

Naturopathic doctors treat their patients holistically, taking into consideration the individual's biochemistry, biomechanics, and emotional predispositions.  The body's self-healing ability can be better understood if one takes into account the fact that homeostasis, or biological balance, is the main characteristic of any healthy system.

A good example is fever.  When the body is invaded by a pathogen (a substance capable of producing illness or disease), the body will usually respond by producing a fever to fight the invader.  If the body is properly supported through nutrition and rest, the fever will turn up the immune system and permit the recovery of health. 

Other examples are the immune system, hormonal system, nervous system, and detoxification/elimination pathways, which all work as a unit to ensure our survival.  If given the proper support, care, and the chance to function freely without suppression, they can bring the system back to a state of balance or "ease" (as opposed to "dis-ease").

There are no panaceas or magic bullets.  Each individual has his or her own unique set of symptoms and reactions which will, in turn, dictate the approach the Naturopathic doctor takes to treat them.  This is why each person seeking help from a Naturopathic doctor will receive an individualized treatment protocol.  Naturopathic medicine is practiced either as a primary system of medical care, or as a complementary adjunct to conventional medical treatment.

The goal of Naturopathic Medicine is to develop optimal wellness for each patient, and to teach the principles of ideal health.  Although Naturopathic doctors are educated and trained to treat acute and chronic disease, prevention is the ultimate goal.  This is based on the Naturopathic philosophy of wellness enhancement -- not disease management.

What Types Of Treatments Do Naturopathic Doctors Offer?

Clinical Nutrition

The dynamic relationship between disease and nutrition is well known.  Many conditions can be improved through changes in diet alone, and others respond well to proper supplementation of specific nutrients.  In most cases of disease or wellness, nutritional counseling and support are a major component of Naturopathic treatments.

Botanical Medicine (Phytotherapy)

Botanical medicine, or phytotherapy, was a cornerstone of traditional medicine long before the development of synthetic pharmaceuticals.  Most of today's drugs were derived from medicinal plants.  Modern scientific investigations have substantiated many of the early uses of medical plants, and have increasingly found ways to use them in treating modern diseases.

The World Health Organization has encouraged programs in herbal medicine, especially in developing countries, as a means of providing affordable primary health care and of creating agricultural markets for those economies.  Herbs are characterized by their low toxicity and lack of accumulation in the body.  When appropriately selected, botanical medicines offer powerful, safe, and effective approach to healing, with few side effects.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy is a holistic form of treatment that has been integrated into naturopathic medicine.  Virtually all homeopathic medicines are produced from natural sources-plants, animals and minerals.  The success of homeopathic treatment has been recognized in many countries around the world including France, Germany, India, Latin America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and North America.  Traditional Chinese and herbal medicine are often confused with homeopathy, but in fact, they are all different systems of holistic medicine.

Homeopathy was standardized in 18th century Germany by Samuel Hahnemann, MD.  This chemist and physician discovered that when quinine, an effective treatment for malaria, was taken by a healthy individual, it produced symptoms similar to those found in people stricken with malaria.  This was noticed with other medicines, too.  That is to say, he noticed that:

"Substances that are specific for certain illnesses, cure or aid the body because they actually cause similar symptoms to the disease process they are being employed to treat."

This in turn stimulates the patient's vital force to help resolve the disease.  The true mechanism behind this phenomenon is as unknown today as it was then.  This process is referred to as the Principle of Similars.

It is important to note that homeopathy is not based on the same principle as immunization, which uses substances that cause the same disease, not similar symptoms.  Immunization is based on isopathy -- giving a substance known to cause the exact disease in question.  Also, immunization has an immunological bases to it;  that is, the production of T-memory cells.  The mechanism of action of homeopathy is unknown at this time.  There are several models that try to explain it, but none are sufficient.  In short, homeopathic medicines have no relationship to the disease in question, but rather the symptoms in question.

The skilled practitioner finds a substance that causes similar symptoms to that of the patient's, physical or emotional.  This therapy is nontoxic and can be safely be used with pregnant women, infants, and children.

Hahnemann also noted that after treatment, many of his patients' conditions worsened for a short period of time before improving.  He termed this phenomenon aggravation.  Through systematic experimentation, Hahnemann learned that this process could be avoided by diluting the medicines.  When used in a homeopathic context;  that is, when the substance in high doses causes similar symptoms to that of the disease in question, the diluted medicines were surprisingly more effective than full-strength medicines.  This led Hahnemann to further experiment with dilutions until he learned that surprisingly small amounts of the active ingredient in a remedy resulted in treatments free from side effects but also increased their effect.  This phenomenon he called the Principle of Infinitesimal Dose.

What is the difference between a Naturopath and a Homeopath?

In brief, homeopaths use only the homeopathic approach, whereas Naturopaths train in several forms of diagnosis and treatment, one of which is homeopathy.  Training in homeopathy varies from a several-hundred-hour correspondence course to a three-year course for which candidates need not be university graduates.  In contrast, Naturopaths must complete a minimum of three years of university training prior to beginning their four-year residential medical school training in Naturopathic Medicine.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Tongue and pulse diagnosis, Chinese herbs, nutrition, and acupuncture comprise the ancient practices of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  Although this medical system dates back some 3,000 years, it was only introduced to North America at the turn of the century.  TCM has even more recently become a respected alternative therapy in the West during the last decade.

A TCM diagnosis is holistic in nature.  The practitioner trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine will take into consideration all the aspects of the individual, including special observation of the tongue and the wrist pulses.  These two areas (among others), according to TCM, tell the practitioner about certain characteristics of the person regarding their overall constitution.  These findings tell the practitioner what treatment is needed.

Acupuncture involves the insertion of fine needles through the skin and tissue at specific points on the body.  There is no injection of any substances, and the treatment itself causes minimal discomfort.  Acupuncture has been found to be effective in treating a variety of painful disorders, both acute and chronic.  The World Health Organization in 1979 drew up the following provisional list of disorders that lend themselves to acupuncture treatment.  The list is based on clinical experience and not necessarily controlled clinical research:

  • Digestive disorders such as gastritis, hyperacidity, spastic bowl, constipation, and diarrhea.

  • Respiratory disorders such as sinusitis, bronchitis, asthma.

  • Neurological and muscular disorders such as headaches, neck and back pain, neuralgia, frozen shoulder, tennis elbow, sciatica, and arthritis.

  • Urinary, menstrual, and reproductive disorders.

  • Addiction and substance abuse.

  • Sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea.

According to TCM, acupuncture works due to its effect on the essential substance that makes up the human body and enables it to sustain life activities and functions.  This "substance," for a lack of a better word, is known as Chi or Qi (pronounced "chee").  Western biomedical research has learned that acupuncture works in certain situations by stimulating the body to produce endorphins, a morphine-like chemical that helps block pathways that relay pain messages.  The result is relief from pain, general relaxation, and restoring the body's own internal regulatory system.

Naturopathic Manipulation (Bodywork)

Often in conjunction with other treatments, bodywork uses a variety of systematic movements to help heal musculoskeletal and neurological conditions.  Manipulation of bone alignment is used, similar to both osteopathic and chiropractic adjustments.  One technique in particular, "strain/counter-strain," is very gentle and effective, especially for pain and injuries of the neck and upper back.

Lifestyle Counseling and Modification

The cornerstones of Naturopathic philosophy are prevention and responsibility for one's own health.  Naturopathic treatments often are based on assessing risk factors connected to the patient's lifestyle, diet, and environment.  Each of these factors is taken under consideration when developing a treatment plan with a client.  The goal is to remove obstacles to the patient's own state of optimal health.

What Can I Expect During My First Visit To A Naturopathic Doctor?

Once the patient's history has been taken, the Naturopath may do a screening physical, which is a standard physical examination supplemented by in-depth questions, and may seek laboratory testing or diagnostic imaging of the complaint.  After the intake and physical are completed, the Naturopath will discuss the treatment plan or protocol with the patient.

If needed, the patient will be referred for laboratory or other diagnostic tests, or to their medical doctor for further consultation.  Follow-up visits are scheduled from one to four weeks after treatment has begun.  If a chronic illness is being addressed, the patient can expect to undergo at least one month of treatment for every year of illness.

What Conditions Can Naturopathic Medicine Treat?

There is a wide range of conditions that Naturopathic doctors treat, either alone or in combination with other complementary or usual medical treatments.  These include:

  • Acute conditions such as headaches, sore throats, ear infections, intestinal upsets, colds and flu, etc.

  • Chronic illnesses such as migraines, musculoskeletal pain, gastrointestinal, gynecological, arthritis, heart disease, etc.

  • Inherent tendencies before they become a serious illness or degenerative disease.

  • Mental and emotional problems to reduce the effects of recent stresses and long-term patterns of anger, depression, or anxiety.

  • Physical injury and trauma, including possible referral to appropriate specialists.

When Can I Expect Results?

Naturopathy does not offer a magic cure, although many report very rapid results.  Truly great results come from positive behavior changes and the persistence it  requires  to maintain these changes long enough for the body to respond..

The Naturopathic physician is trying to stimulate and support the patient's own system to address the imbalance(s) that have damaged their health.  Often, long-term underlying disturbances such as nutritional deficiencies or excesses, rather than the presenting health problem, must be corrected in order to allow the body to reassert its natural state of optimal health. Our elders called these "Impediments to Cure."

How Are Naturopathic Doctors Trained?

There are five Naturopathic colleges in North America, one of which is located in Ontario, Canada.  The U.S. schools are located in Seattle, Washington;  Portland, Oregon;  Tempe, Arizona;  and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Each program enrolls students who have completed at least three years of university study with a minimum of one year-equivalent in pre-medical studies.

The institutions providing these medical programs are given in our Links section.  Those medical schools' websites list their curricula, location, and contact information.

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Other articles on naturopathic medicine:

 

Principles of Natural Medicine

About Naturopathic Physicians

About Naturopathic Education

Words of Classical Thinkers

The Origin of Natural Law

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