What is Naturopathic Medicine?
Naturopathic Medicine is a newly re-acknowledged but timeless form of healthcare. It seeks to understand every unique individual as a whole, complex, and miraculous being. Currently, Naturopathic Doctors are regulated in 21 states. A licensed or registered Naturopathic Doctor (ND) must attend a 4-year post-graduate accredited medical program, as well as pass 2 sets of National Licensing Board Exams. Being able to call oneself “licensed” or “registered” is state dependent. There are currently 5 accredited schools and 6 campuses in the United States, as well as 2 in Canada.
Naturopathic medical education is fairly similar to conventional medical (MD) school, because naturopathic schools train their students as Primary Care Physicians, focusing education on a foundation of how the body works from an anatomical and biophysical perspective.* ND students are required to pass all of the same basic sciences and biomedical classes as MD students – these include anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, embryology, pathology and all of the various specialties (Cardiology, Gastroenterology, Urology, Gynecology, Gerontology, etc). NDs are also trained in Pharmacology, and have prescriptive rights in some states. This is important to our education because as health care providers, we need to understand the various effects that different drugs may be having on the patients we see, as well as be able to understand how those pharmaceuticals might interact with our more natural treatments.
Our schooling then takes us further into the many treatment modalities of Naturopathic Medicine. The curriculum is dense with nutrition and lifestyle management, naturopathic counseling, botanical medicine, homeopathy, supplement education, and physical medicine (musculoskeletal assessment, body work, hydrotherapy, therapeutic ultrasound, cold laser treatments, etc). Before graduation, students complete a minimum of 1200 clinical hours, where they work face-to-face with patients under the guidance of a supervising physician, and are also required to complete at least 120 preceptorship hours, in which they shadow various doctors in their private practices.
Many patients use naturopathic medicine as their primary form of healthcare, while others choose to use it as a complementary therapy to conventional medical practices. Regardless of what part naturopathic medicine plays in a patient’s life, NDs see them as unique and work diligently in a partnership with the patient to bring about the body’s own innate healing abilities.
*It is important to note that the state in which a particular ND practices will determine their title, scope of practice, and insurance recognition.
The Philosophy of Naturopathic Medicine
Naturopathic philosophy is based on the following main ideas: Every person is unique and should therefore be treated as such; the body has an innate ability to heal itself; and there is a healing power in nature that can be utilized to support human vitality. From this recognition, one can understand how Naturopathic Medicine is practiced and how disease and symptoms are perceived in the patient.
The Naturopathic Principles
The six Principles of Naturopathic Medicine guide every Naturopathic Doctor in our pursuit of helping patients achieve wellness. They are at the core of Naturopathic philosophy and remind us how medicine should be practiced with each individual patient.
Vis Medicatrix Naturae – The Healing Power of Nature
Nature is central to Naturopathic Medicine. Not only is it a perfectly provided panacea, but it is also the vital life force that connects us all. The Naturopathic Doctor recognizes the undeniable and intricate relationship between each person and the environment around them. The goal is to reunite the human spirit with the source that constantly provides for it.
Primum No Nocere – First Do No Harm
In the practice of Naturopathic Medicine, doctors strongly adhere to the concept of using the least force possible that is needed to support the body in making positive changes toward wellness. In doing this, we reduce the risk of causing adverse or unwanted side effects that can often be brought on by using a therapy that may be negatively overpowering the person’s vital force. It is the doctor’s goal to support health and avoid causing undue harm at any cost.
Tolle Causam – Treat the Cause
The Naturopathic Doctor, in many ways, is also a detective. She works to uncover the many layers of symptoms that seem to distract from the initial cause of the problem. It is believed that by treating the root cause, rather than the symptoms themselves (which often leads to suppression, or quieting, of the symptoms without solving the actual problem), one can bring about a cure. It is in this way that Naturopathic Medicine often differs from conventional medicine.
Tolle Totum – Treat the Whole Person
Naturopathic Medicine recognizes that a person is not just the sum of his/her parts, but rather a complex “whole.” In a world where health is primarily seen as our physical state of being, the Naturopathic Doctor understands that health is, in fact, comprised of our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, environmental, and occupational health. A change in one of these areas affects every other, so in order to fully treat a patient, the doctor will consider all of these aspects in unison.
Preventir – Prevention
The goal of the Naturopathic Doctor is to support the body in healing itself when threats to our health arise. The best way to do this is through prevention of dis-ease (the state of being unwell). There are many modalities that may be used to assist with this, but regardless of whether it’s through diet and lifestyle modification, supplementation, or physical medicine, this approach fortifies the body’s defense systems so it is prepared to take on any challenges it may come up against.
Docere – Doctor as Teacher
The term “doctor” comes from the Latin word “docere,” which means “to teach.” Naturopathic Philosophy recognizes that the doctor is not a dictatorial figure, but rather a partner and advocate in health. The Naturopathic Doctor must be able to recognize illness and understand how to manage it, but must also empower the patient through education. Naturopathic appointments are often much longer than those with conventional doctors because NDs take the time to explain what’s going on in the body and why a given treatment plan has been prescribed. Successful advances in health are only obtainable when both the doctor and patient understand what is going on and are involved in the healing process together.
The Determinants of Health
Health is seen as a product of those things that influence, or determine, our ability to cope with illness and disease. This includes a landscape of factors that vary from genetics, experiences while in the womb and in birth, emotional stresses and traumas, spiritual connectedness, our relationship to others and the environment, physical challenges and physiological state, as well as nutrition and lifestyle choices, illnesses, and medical interventions. Essentially, it is how we live. And how we live determines how well we live.
Disease is an Understood Process
In Naturopathic Medicine, doctors recognize that disease takes place in a step-wise sequence of events. Throughout life, the healthy patient encounters various stressors or challenges to their health, also called a “disturbing factor.” This could be a virus, bacteria, emotional trauma or physical injury, for example. Our interaction with these factors causes alterations in normal body function and in response our bodies, innately equipped with healing mechanisms already in place, undergo specific protocols in order to re-establish the status quo. The body expresses these internal healing mechanisms by way of symptoms (i.e. fever, inflammation, rash, etc). At this point in the process, the result can go two ways: if we encourage the body to do its job it will most likely overcome the threat and discharge the disease; however, if we instead suppress the symptoms and thereby interfere with the body’s ability to heal, the disease can gain the upper hand and take hold of the body, settling into a more chronic and eventually degenerative state.
Discharge is Desirable
In Naturopathic Medicine, we strive to bring about a “discharge process” in any case of illness, disease, or imbalance. The discharge is the body’s way of eliminating a disturbance to health and is often experienced by the patient as uncomfortable signs and symptoms. A discharge may be felt in the form of a fever, head cold, bowel disturbance or a skin reaction, for example. The longer the disease has been hanging on in the body, the more unpleasant this experience may be. This makes sense as the vital force must surmount an even greater recovery assault. While people often think about suppressing these discomforts and see them as signs that things are getting worse, Naturopathic Doctors believe that these are instead representations of the body doing what is is meant to do – take care of itself! So while uncomfortable, we are excited by these events and encourage patients to be present to this process and really feel their bodies work through them.