Unlike conventional doctors who generally address and treat the specific symptoms of disease with pharmaceuticals or surgery, naturopathic doctors seek to find and treat the cause of ailments using a variety of therapies, botanical-based medicines, some conventional prescriptions and behavior modification. Is natural medicine right for you?
In 1902, Dr. Benedict Lust introduced the practice of naturopathic medicine to North America when he established the first school of naturopathic medicine in the country in New York. Lust believed in the human body’s inherent ability to heal itself, a belief that has since become the cornerstone of naturopathic medicine in which doctors treat the whole person by addressing environmental, lifestyle, dietary and emotional aspects of an individual’s health.
“One of our principal foundations for what we do is prevention,” according to Dr. Elizabeth Yori, president of the Maine Association of Naturopathic Doctors who practices in Belfast. “Another is we work with a person to treat the whole person and treat the whole cause behind a medical issue.”
The big difference between seeing a naturopathic doctor — or ND — versus an MD is the amount of time spent working directly with a patient, according to Yori.
Working with and being treated by a naturopathic doctor, Yori said, means spending a lot of one-on-one time with that doctor and a willingness to make some lifestyle changes to manage and improve your health. That, in turn, she said, means making a real commitment to playing an active role in managing your health.
“Knowing if natural medicine is right for you means knowing if you are in a place where you want to make some changes,” Yori said. “As NDs, we ask [the patent] a lot of questions, so if you are someone who does not like answering a lot of questions about yourself, naturopathy might not be the right choice for you.”
At the same time, Dr. James Jarvis, MD, senior vice president and senior physician executive at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, cautioned that any decision on individual health care should be made only after weighing the risks and benefits of any treatment — natural or conventional.
“All of medicine should be continuously reviewed,” Jarvis said. “As science and technology — as well as our understanding of the complexities of the human body — evolve.
According to the American Association for Naturopathic Physicians, naturopathic doctors are trained through accredited naturopathic medical colleges where they learn to diagnose, prevent and treat acute and chronic illnesses by working with an individual’s inherent self-healing abilities and immune systems.
That post-graduate training takes place over four years at one of seven accredited naturopathic colleges or university in the United states.
While not commenting directly in the quality or quantity of that training, Jarvis said out that MDs and osteopathic physicians go through a longer training period — a minimum of seven years of postgraduate medical training and residency programs.
“Many [medical doctors] have longer residency programs and additional experience in fellowship programs,” Jarvis said. “This training is focused on providing evidence based medicine, meaning the treatment plans, medications and procedures have undergone rigorous clinical study through the scientific method and are based upon significant outcomes, such as preventing death or decreasing hospitalization.”
How does natural medicine work?
Rather than suppressing symptoms, Yori explained, NDs work to identify underlying causes of illness and to develop personalized treatment plans to address them.
“So many chronic conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure, can be successfully treated through diet and lifestyle changes,” she said. “We work with the whole person, not just the disease.”
Many MDs also take those factors into account, Jarvis said.
“As a family physician I always take into account the entirety of an individual,” he said. “Not just their body and mind, but also their spirituality, their family and community and their environment.
NDs also work very closely with medical doctors to design treatment plans and to gather diagnostic information, Yori said.
“Most people have a primary care physician and [as NDs] we complement that and help people get the best care possible,” said Dr. Dennis Godby, a naturopathic doctor in Sacramento, California. “We really want to work for what is best for the patent.”
Jarvis believes that proven safe alternative and natural treatments do have a place in treating patients.
“The medical profession has embraced certain alternative treatment modalities, such as acupuncture for certain pain syndromes, which have been shown through research to be safe and effective,” Jarvis said. “Preventative medicine is paramount to both philosophies, including healthy diet, exercise [and] smoking cessation.”
What do naturopaths treat?
According to the American Association for Naturopathic Physicians, naturopathic medicine can be used to treat ailments including allergies, chronic pain, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances, obesity, respiratory conditions, heart disease, fertility problems, menopause, fatigue and cancer.
Naturopathic doctors are also trained in minor surgeries including removal of cysts and treating superficial wounds. As part of their formal pharmacology curriculum, NDs learn medical and clinical pharmacology. However, the regulations covering what pharmaceutics an ND can prescribe and under what conditions vary by each state, according to a publication written by Dr. Amy Rothenberg, ND, of Naturopathic Health Care in Connecticut.
“We treat people who want to get healthy and stay healthy,” Godby said. “So we help patients build up and maintain their health.”
Yori said the idea is to help the patient identify the obstacles to their good health and then work to overcome them through changes to diet, lifestyle, sleep patterns and, if necessary medication.
It’s a method she said that puts a great deal of responsibility onto the patient.
“If you are someone who just wants a quick treatment and a prescribed medication and be done, natural medicine may not be for you,” Yori said. “We are going to work to adjust things a little at a time over time and see what works for you.”