What is Naturopathic Medicine?
The basis of naturopathic medicine is to treat medical problems without drugs or surgery. In the state of Washington, naturopathic doctors—also known as naturopathic physicians, naturopaths and NDs—are licensed as primary care physicians. Being licensed as primary care physicians also allows naturopathic doctors some prescriptive rights. Naturopathic doctors must first earn a pre-medical undergraduate degree before applying for the doctorate of naturopathic medicine program. There are only four schools in the United States that offer a doctorate of naturopathic medicine:
- Bastyr University in Washington
- National College of Natural Medicine in Oregon
- Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences in Arizona
- University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine in Connecticut
The doctorate program takes a minimum of four years to complete. Then to become licensed physicians, naturopathic doctors must pass comprehensive board examinations regulated by the Department of Health.
During their rigorous doctorate studies, naturopathic doctors learn the same diagnostic skills as conventional medical doctors such as physical examinations and laboratory testing. In addition to learning conventional medical treatments, therapy education includes nutrition, exercise, counseling, detoxification therapies, hydrotherapy, naturopathic manipulation, nutritional supplementation, botanical medicine and homeopathic medicine. Naturopathic doctors also earn clinical experience through each school's naturopathic teaching clinic, such as the Bastyr Center for Natural Health, as well as by shadowing with established naturopathic doctors.
The Philosophy of Naturopathic Medicine
Naturopathic medicine is a philosophy-based medicine. This allows naturopathic doctors to personalize medical care and promote health rather than only treating disease symptoms with limited modalities. The principles of naturopathic medicine are:
First Do No Harm — Primum Non Nocere
Primum non nocere comes from Hippocrates, the ancient Greek doctor known as the father of modern medicine. In naturopathic medicine, "first do no harm" means a doctor first should listen to and observe a patient before deciding on any treatment. For naturopathic doctors, "first do no harm" also means to treat patients with the least invasive means possible to avoid adverse effects. Furthermore, suppression of symptoms is often avoided because symptoms frequently are the body's attempt to rid itself of disease. For example, a person may cough up phlegm when he or she has a common cold. The productive cough is actually the body's attempt at removing the virus, bacteria or fungus that is causing the cold. Suppressing the cough can lead to a longer recovery time or re-infection. A naturopathic doctor would first observe the person and think about how a productive cough actually can help a person recover more quickly. He or she might encourage the person to continue coughing as well as provide supplements to increase mucous production.
The Healing Power of Nature — Vis Medicatrix Naturae, "The Vis"
Naturopathic doctors as well as other alternative practitioners believe that the body is intelligent and has the inherent ability to maintain and restore health. The naturopathic doctor's role is to facilitate the body's healing ability by identifying and removing obstacles to recovery. For example, a person can feel fatigued during the day if he or she chronically does not get enough sleep. The body communicates that it is not getting enough sleep by producing fatigue as a symptom. The naturopathic doctor identifies this lack of sleep as the obstacle, and works with the patient to get more sleep. Increased sleep time will eventually lead to more energy during the day.
Identify and Treat the Cause — Tolle Causum
Symptoms are the body's way of dealing with diseases; they are not the diseases themselves. Therefore, treating only the symptoms without treating the disease itself does not lead to a cure. Causes of diseases often are multi-factorial and can involve many organ systems. The underlying causes of diseases can be physical or mental/emotional/spiritual. For example, chronic stress can make a person more susceptible to common colds. The causes of the common cold in this case include exposure to a virus, bacteria or fungus (physical) and reduced immune function from chronic stress (mental/emotional).
Treat the Whole Person — Tolle Totum
Disease in a person depends upon a complex interaction of many factors including physical, genetic, environmental, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, dietary, lifestyle and other factors. An insult to one factor can lead to complications in other factors. Treating only one or two factors does not usually lead to a complete cure. Addressing all factors of health and disease can create short-term relief as well as promote long-term health. For example, keeping blood sugars low in type-II diabetic patients is necessary to prevent cellular damage and organ malfunction. However, there are many other factors, especially dietary and lifestyle, which can cause type-II diabetes. Therefore, altering certain dietary and lifestyle factors can help cure the disease. Diet modifications should include avoiding foods that cause blood sugar to spike and lifestyle modifications should include adding exercise to help regulate blood sugar.
Doctor as Teacher — Docere
The Latin root for doctor, docere, means teacher. Naturopathic doctors believe that educating people about their health encourages people to be more proactive and health-conscious. Strong doctor-patient relationships are also important in naturopathic medicine because the relationship itself can be therapeutic. For example, a doctor simply can tell a patient that he or she should exercise to lose weight. However, if the doctor explains the benefits of exercise, suggests different types of exercise and gives encouragement, a patient will more likely to be motivated to exercise.
The ultimate goal of any healthcare should be the prevention of chronic and degenerative diseases. In addition to treating these diseases, naturopathic doctors strive to help patients gain optimal health. If a person has optimal health then he or she is not only able to deal with the occasional acute disease, such as a common cold or an injury, he or she is also able to prevent chronic and degenerative diseases. By promoting healthy dietary and lifestyle habits, understanding each patient's individual healthcare needs and educating each patient of these needs, naturopathic doctors provide the foundation for preventing more serious diseases.