What is a naturopathic doctor? Part 1

I’ve been asking people about their views on naturopathic medicine and the overwhelming response is, “I don’t know what that is.”  I’ve been looking for a good reference that defines naturopathic medicine in an easy to understand article but I haven’t found one.  All of the explanations I’ve found are, in my girlfriend’s words, “a real snore-fest”.  I’ve decided to write my own explanation of naturopathic medicine.

I think it is very important to first address another question:  Who am I to explain naturopathic medicine?  The answer is, I’m nobody.  In reading this, it is extremely important to realize that I am not a naturopathic doctor, or a doctor of any type.  This is the Internet and I am quite possibly an idiot who has no idea what he’s talking about.  I’m a guy with a strong passion about medicine and health.  I’ve read some books, I’ve watched some documentaries but I am in no way worthy of your trust.  I strongly advise anyone reading this to conduct your own research and come to your own conclusions before taking any action based on this article.

That being said, I really hope I’m right, or at least almost right, because I’m about to drop $150,000 and dedicate the rest of my life to the study of this type of medicine.

I would also like to note that I would much rather do the right thing than be right.  If you have a different opinion, notice any inconsistencies or realize that I’m just plain wrong, please leave a comment below.  I am not attached to being right and am more than willing to change my views based on facts.

My explanation of naturopathic medicine comes in an exciting two-part series.  This first part addresses the philosophy and the second part will address the philosophy in practice, complications and controversies.

It is easier to see the philosophy of naturopathic medicine when it is compared to allopathic (conventional) medicine.  To compare the two, I’m going to use a ridiculous analogy.

Imagine that your body is the garden in your backyard.  Beyond your backyard is a vast, grassy field with gophers running around wildly.  The gophers pose a problem when they get into your garden.  They dig holes and eat the plants.

When there’s a gopher in your garden, you call the allopathic farmer.  He checks it out.  He first determines what type of gopher it is and then decides how to deal with it.

In one case, the allopath may say that this type of gopher normally just goes away after a few days.  After he leaves, the small amount of damage he did will be corrected fairly quickly.  However, if you’re worried about it, we can shoot it right now.  He’ll die, there will be a lead bullet in your garden and his dead body might get a little stinky.  The smell isn’t usually much of an issue and we haven’t found any evidence that a lead bullet in your garden is a problem.

In a different case, the allopath may say that this type of gopher will come back every day.  If you don’t do anything, he’ll eventually eat your entire garden.  It’s not a problem now, but it will be if left untreated.  I’m going to give you a gun.  Every morning, come out here and shoot the gopher.  You’ll have to do this every day for the rest of your garden’s life.  There will be dead gophers all over the place and sometimes they end up smelling really badly, but some people don’t even notice.  We don’t know the effects of having lots of lead bullets in your garden, but it shouldn’t be a problem.

In another case, the allopath may say that this type of gopher is ravaging your tomato plants, but isn’t touching anything else.  I’m going to come in with a bulldozer and remove the tomato section of your garden.  That should eliminate the problem, but driving a bulldozer through your garden causes damage.  It will be a while before it’s back to normal but in some cases, the garden never completely gets back to normal.  And you’ll never have another tomato again.

In one final case, the allopath may be blown away by how many gophers are in your garden.  If you don’t do something drastic, your garden will be completely gone very soon.  I’m going to shoot the gophers with a bazooka.  The bazooka itself may destroy the garden but it’s our only shot if you want any chance of saving it.

A naturopathic farmer would handle things very differently.  Ideally, the naturopath comes over before there’s even a gopher in the garden.  My goodness!  You don’t have a fence!  You have to build a fence or there will be gophers all over the place.

The naturopath will teach you how to build a fence.  If there’s a gopher in the yard, he’ll spray it with the hose until it leaves and then he’ll look for the hole in the fence where the gopher got in.  If spraying it with the hose doesn’t work, maybe he’ll walk out there and set a little trap.  There might be some footprints in your garden but there won’t be a dead-gopher smell.

If there are gophers running around all over the place, the naturopath will be convinced that there is a severe problem with your fence.  He’ll desperately try to find and fix the problem.  At that point, it might even be necessary to shoot some gophers.

In the case of emergency medicine, imagine that your naturopath has helped you build a quality fence.  You haven’t seen a gopher in years and your crops are flourishing.  One day, from out of nowhere, a herd of big, hungry goats leaps over your fence and starts trampling your garden and eating everything.  The naturopath will say, “Call the dude with the bazooka and bulldozer quick!” while he’s hiding behind a lawn chair throwing rocks at the goats.

To totally simplify it, allopaths are experts in disease while naturopaths are experts in health.  Allopaths eradicate disease, naturopaths maximize health.

A more solid example is the condition of high blood pressure (hypertension).  It is definitely a gopher that could eventually destroy the garden.  Allopathic medicine relies on prescription medications to lower the blood pressure of patients.  It’s extremely effective.  It’s scientifically and clinically proven to work.  But it makes no claim to cure hypertension.  If, at any point, you stop taking the medication, your blood pressure will go back up.

The naturopathic doctor is not as interested in treating the high blood pressure as he is in treating the cause of the high blood pressure.  For example, one common cause of hypertension is chronic dehydration.  A naturopath will ask how much water you drink each day.  If it’s not enough, he will reasonably assume that chronic dehydration is the cause.  He’ll tell you to increase your daily water intake, solve the problem and the high blood pressure will decrease.

However, this is where the controversy begins.  Naturopathic remedies are often accused of not being evidence-based.  Well, that’s partially true.  If you have hypertension and you take a prescription medication for it, your blood pressure WILL decrease.  It’s absolutely proven.  There are side effects, the cause of the problem is not addressed but your blood pressure will be decreased.  It is an evidence-based outcome.

On the other hand, if you have hypertension and you increase your daily water intake, your blood pressure may not decrease.  The reason for this is that increasing water intake does not lower blood pressure.  It solves chronic dehydration, a cause of high blood pressure.  But what if you aren’t chronically dehydrated?  There are many potential causes of hypertension.  Chronic dehydration is only one of them.  Water is not an evidence-based cure for hypertension.  All the naturopathic doctor can say is that your hypertension is LIKELY caused by chronic dehydration.

This is the criticism of almost every naturopathic remedy.  It is not a guaranteed cure.  Some cases are simple.  Other cases are far more complicated.  Maybe chronic dehydration combined with another pathology is the cause of the hypertension.  Drink water, stay hydrated and the blood pressure stays the same.  Further intervention will be necessary but the increased water intake has absolutely no negative side effects.

If you have hypertension caused by chronic dehydration and you take a pill for it, your problems will only be starting.  The pill isn’t fixing anything.  The chronic dehydration will cause many other symptoms, all of which will need to be treated with medications that have side effects.

I should note that there are times when medication is necessary.  Contrary to what this example may have implied, I am not anti-pharmaceutical at all.  Medications are invaluable resources.  They save countless lives.  But they should be a last resort.  A reasonable solution is to take medication while the cause of the issue is being identified, but if they are taken in lieu of solving the actual problem, they can cause more harm than good.

This is only one overly simplified example (and remember, this is the Internet and I might be an idiot) but it serves as an illustration of the focus of naturopathic medicine.  It also illustrates a major criticism of naturopathic medicine.

A good naturopathic doctor will have a solid handle on what is causing your disease but he cannot say with absolute certainty that THIS is the cause and THIS will completely cure it.  Neither can an allopathic doctor.  However, it can be said that THIS drug WILL lower your blood pressure.  But is that always helpful?  That is for you to decide and a good doctor, naturopathic or allopathic, will educate you so you can make a well-informed decision on how to deal with your illness.

This article makes naturopathic medicine seem completely wonderful and noble.  In philosophy, it is, but in practice there are some extremely serious issues.  If you read this and still don’t really understand what a naturopathic doctor is, come back and read part two to see how this philosophy translates into the medical world and why there are so many reasonable skeptics.

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5 thoughts on “What is a naturopathic doctor? Part 1

  1. Love your posts so far, and the analogy about naturopathic medicine and the yard is great! You asked for feedback; the main thing I’d add is that NDs are also expected to be very good shots with the guns. You’ll find that reflected in your training. Yes, you mainly learn a lot about fence mending, hose shooting and trap building, but now that NDs are filling more roles in the primary care world (there’s a national shortage – many professions are stepping up!), we see more and more patients with the serious “goat” problems you mentioned. We need to be able to provide ourselves cover fire while the fences are built and traps are set. It takes quite a flexible thinker to be able to keep both agendas in mind – working on the acute problems and the precipitating causes all at the same time, but if you are right for the profession, you’ll probably get a kick out of it. Plus, when you are in practice, having a DEA license helps with the street cred.

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  2. I am so happy to have stumbled upon your blog!! I have been searching for some ND support for ages!! I am interested in becoming one, but all I see on the internet is that ND’s are quacks…I am so sick of seeing that. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. It has refilled my hope and excitement for the profession. Now all I have to do is apply and pray that I get in! Was it very difficult for you to enter ND school?

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