August 16, 2017
Fresh herbs on top of a doctor

What's a Naturopath?

by Berkeley Wellness  |  

Of all the “alternative” theories of medicine, naturopathy is the most difficult to define, because it can be almost anything. It is based on ancient, pre-scientific theories—for example, that being out of harmony with nature and relying on reason rather than “natural” inclinations cause disease. Naturopathic philosophy can be traced back more than 200 years. At least partly, it grew out of the American health reform movement of the 1830s led by Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg, who believed (among other things) in water cures, fresh air, and whole grains.

In recent times, as some people have grown impatient with the high cost and seemingly slow progress of scientific medicine, naturopathy has had a rebirth. It hasn’t hurt their cause either that dietary supplements were largely deregulated by Congress in 1994, as were homeopathic preparations back in 1938—naturopaths recommend such products and often sell them. Though naturopathic doctors don’t have medical degrees, several accredited naturopathic colleges in the U.S. offer four years of training and a diploma. Licensed naturopaths can prescribe conventional drugs (which they are theoretically opposed to). Eighteen states and the District of Columbia license naturopathic doctors. Some medical insurance covers their services, and some hospitals have naturopaths as residents or on staff. Still, anybody can set up as a naturopath with no training whatsoever. An aspiring naturopath can get a diploma off the Internet.

What if you find a good one?

If you happened to go to a licensed, well-trained naturopath—say one on the staff of some reputable hospital—the advice you got may be good. You may be told to eat less fat, take a daily vitamin supplement, stop smoking, limit alcohol use, eat whole grains, and get regular exercise (advice we endorse and promote in countless articles). You may receive some form of psychological counseling. Some research suggests that naturopaths generally spend more time taking histories and listening to their patients than the average M.D. Some are willing to work with internists, cardiologists, and other physicians.

. . . or a bad one?

On the other hand, the naturopath you visit might recommend and sell useless or potentially harmful herbs and supplements. You might be advised to try homeopathic remedies, hydrotherapy, ice-water baths, colonic irrigation (via enemas), magnet therapy, fasting to “cleanse” your body, therapeutic touch, ozone therapy, copper bracelets for arthritis, crystal healing, bogus diagnostic tests, and other pseudo-scientific treatments. Some naturopaths believe that nearly everything in the modern environment is toxic, that all synthetic drugs are harmful, and that immunization is dangerous. All this, and more, can be part of naturopathy.

Bottom line: If you’re referred to a naturopath by your physician for counseling on nutrition, exercise, relaxation, post-operative diet, or similar matters, you might find the advice helpful. But a nurse practitioner or physician assistant often provides this kind of advice—you don’t need a naturopath. Don’t consider replacing your primary care physician with a naturopath. (If you don’t like your doctor, find another doctor.) Don’t go for a naturopathic consultation just because your health insurance might cover the visit. The licensing system is too lax, and in most states and provinces, nonexistent. It is easy to fall into the hands of an untrained practitioner who might do you harm.

Also see The Chiropractic Conundrum.