What follows is my description of Naturopathic medicine including a short history, training/educational requirements, state of the research, and philosophy. It is important to note that this is how I see and wish to present Naturopathic medicine, and for a more official description, see naturopathic.org.
Contemporary to a strong influence from hippocrates, galen, and other early fathers of western medicine, the “modern” Naturopathic roots extend to the early 1800’s with Father Kniepp and his nature-cure practices including primarily herbal therapy and hydrotherapy (described below) along with lifestyle recommendations such as exercise, nutrition, and sanitation (before sanitation became the norm). Currently, we have a truly amazing mixture of traditional roots and cutting-edge research and technology.
For example, in learning botanical medicines, students are taught the traditional/indigenous uses, uses by traditional herbalists and midwives, information on active ingredients and lab science, case studies, and clinical research literature, all side-by-side. If “evidence” is defined as primarily “double-blind randomized placebo controlled trials”, we strive for “evidence informed” practice rather than a practice, which is entirely based on that information alone. Clinical decisions are made based on the whole picture of the individual patient, including relevant biomedical research, traditional medicinal indications, and the clinical experience of that physician and her colleagues.
A true Naturopathic degree requires graduation from an accredited 4-year post-graduate program. Some “Naturopathic Doctors” graduate from online programs, however, as state licensing of Naturopathic Doctors continues to be implimented, these practitioners will be less able to pose as the same entity as the highly trained Naturopathic physician. The accredited naturopathic colleges meet and often exceed credit hour requirements of conventional medical school programs in subjects such as biochemistry, ethics, anatomy & physiology, organ systems, histology, etc. We receive rigorous training in conventional pharmacology, though many Naturopathic Physicians choose to focus on other treatment modalities in their practice.
On top of a conventional medical education, naturopathic physicians have education on patient communication, nutrition and nutritional counseling, physical therapy and manual joint manipulation, botanical medicine, homeopathic medicine, and hydrotherapy.
For more information on Homeopathic medicine, see my note on Homeopathic research, or feel free to write to me.
The primary focus on hydrotherapy is to use contrasting hot and cold water treatment to increase circulation and detoxification, immune stimulation, and generally act as a health tonic. While the research has not yet been completed, preliminary research suggests that hydrotherapy stimulates the immune system via heat-shock proteins. Other whole system hydrotherapy research seems to provide some validation to this therapeutic modality. However, like many alternative medicines, hydrotherapy could certainly benefit from more research. Generally, with hydrotherapy and other alternative therapies, safety seems fairly well established. There are still specific aspects of treatment, i.e. optimization of methods for certain cases and desired outcomes, that need fettering out the most.
Well done natural medicine research is a topic in and of itself. For now I will just mention that in addition to needing more funding, we require research methodology that reflects clinical practice. These methods must take into account prescription methods, which are not solely based on biomedical diagnoses and lab tests, but often also involve physical and emotional characteristics of individual patients. For now, a lot of our research is comprised of collections of case studies. Case studies are little better than anecdotal evidence for strongly scientific minded researchers. However, to the unbiased, critical thinking observer, the naturopathic modalities have already proven their general safety and efficacy when in the hands of the kinds of physicians trained in accredited Naturopathic colleges. Thus, we both have sufficient evidence for use of our natural therapies, and could surely benefit from further study.
I personally was initially attracted to naturopathic medicine for its philosophy and tendency to spend up to 90-minutes with the patient per visit. I look forward to communicating with and forming healing doctor-patient relationships with each patient that walks in the door.
My favorite aspect of the philosophy was a strong focus on treatments which aide the body’s own natural healing mechanisms. Thus, we not only address the current cause of symptoms, but the individual’s general state of health as well. This feature of general health is called the “vital force” in Naturopathic philosophy. The vital force is certainly a spiritual concept. However, if you prefer, the concept can be approximated as a capacity to self-heal when one’s immune system, microbiotic flora, organs of detoxification, digestion, metabolism, and circulation, are all functioning optimally. While sometimes palliative or emergency treatment is appropriate, the majority of our treatments or lifestyle recommendations are focused on the goal of strengthening one’s life-force so that one is free of disease, truly happy, and truly healthy.
>Thanks to Dr. Heather Zwickey for editing part of this post.