It suggests eating healthy foods, exercising, and giving up smoking. Hardly revolutionary, but at least sound advice. That’s where the positive traits end.
The field, which eschews drugs and surgery, is an umbrella term for techniques that purport to set the body on a course to healing. The overarching idea behind the practice is that the body will heal itself if given the right prompting. These prompts can include sunlight, fresh air, and a smorgasbord of alternative medicine techniques, be it acupuncture, applied kinesiology, iridology, reflexology, or something else. Venturing further from the mainstream, some practitioners embrace St. John’s wort to combat HIV positivity, increased grain intake to cure mental illness, and wet compresses to halt a stroke.
The ancestors of today’s naturopaths were the spa healers of the 19th Century, who touted bathing in the Danube as a cure for tuberculosis. Naturopathy went virtually extinct with the advent of Germ Theory and vaccination, but rebounded with the New Age movement. It now embraces ideas such as Goldenseal as a cure for Strep throat, homeopathic onion pills to conquer lupus, and the belief that excess sugar will concentrate in the ear.
There are no standards or agreed-upon practices, so depending on which naturopath your arthritis-riddled Aunt Mae sees, she may be treated by being wrapped in wet towels, poked with needles, or given either a coffee enema or the decidedly more pleasant scalp massage.
While the standards vary, the two constants are the use of alternative medicine and the belief that body, mind, and soul must be treated as a unit. For instance, Whooping Cough might be treated with Ayurvedic medicine for the body, Ravi Shankar music for the mind, and yoga for the soul. Common in the field are use of undefined or misused terms such as balance, harmony, energy, and qi. Most naturopaths believe people possess an unexplained energy which is the key to their health.
Naturopaths gloat that they listen to their patients, get to know them, and encourage them. This may make the patient feel special, but if the idea is to be cured, not loved, naturopathy is only of value if the condition is loneliness.
Besides, it’s not as if mainstream doctors don’t do the same. In a column for Skeptic Magazine, Harriet Hall notes that she and fellow doctors, when constructing a health care plan, consider a patient’s history, psychology, genetics, lifestyle, and environment. It’s also a myth that mainstream medicine only treats the symptom. Hall wrote, “If you are coughing and have a fever, we don’t just treat your symptoms with cough medicine and aspirin. We take an X-ray, diagnose pneumonia, figure out what specific bacterium is responsible, and choose an antibiotic effective against it.”
Many naturopaths are fond of claiming they can boost the immune system, through iris exams, foot massages, or biofeedback methods. In reality, it is rare for the immune system to be compromised, and this is a potentially fatal condition that only a medical specialist could diagnose and treat.
Referencing terms like immune system is a common ploy of naturopaths, says Britt Hermes, who trained and worked as one. “Naturopathic medicine … borrows loosely from medicine when convenient,” she said. Furthermore, she adds, “What matters in naturopathy is not what science says, but belief in an alternative, magical healing force. No medical system can be built and sustained on beliefs, hunches, conspiracy theories, and notions supported by glaring biases.”
Meanwhile, Hall says naturopathy is philosophical and not scientific. She criticized the nonexistent standards and lack of prerequisites of a field that purports to be medical. She related a study in which 60 percent of naturopaths failed to realize that a fever in a two-week-old requires hospitalization. She also reported that a Seattle girl died after naturopath treated her severe asthma attack with B-12 and acupuncture. “They invoke simplistic and unproven causes such as toxins…and qi imbalance,” Hall wrote.
This sat poorly with a Naturopath who identifies herself as Oryoki. This was Oryoki’s response to Hall’s claims that the field lacks standards and science: “Your head is buried in the sand and your ass is waving in the air. Naturopathic medicine is not universally recognized because the AMA has at its core a mission to wipe it from the professional field. Last year I was at a conference on hormone replacement and anti-aging and many of the MDs looked pale and aghast. If you don’t believe in Qi, you probably should not be in patient care.”
Oryoki seems a little stressed. Maybe she could find a naturopath to recommend she unwind with a little peanut butter and crack.