Writer’s note: This is an opinion piece based on experience and research, I am not a medical professional nor a naturopath.
I’ve always been a natural pessimist, maybe because I’m British, but probably because I question everything. When I first moved to Australia a few years ago, I didn’t even understand the word naturopath, until a respected no-nonsense friend recommended me to hers.
“Six foundational principles underpin the practice of naturopathy: The healing power of nature, First do no harm, Find and treat the cause whenever possible, not only the symptoms, Treat the whole person, Education and Prevention. These six principles are kept in mind when a naturopath takes your case, develops a treatment plan and also offers maintenance for long term good health.”- Australian Naturopathic Practitioners Association Inc.
When I went to my first appointment, I was really apprehensive and felt a bit embarrassed telling my friends that I might end up rubbing basil into my head to solve my issues. What actually happened, however, was that I felt listened to and hopeful. My health problems that weren’t life-threatening were real and someone was actually listening.
Seeing a naturopath finally led me to be diagnosed with Endometriosis (by a medical doctor) after ten years of complaining to GPs about my health problems, a naturopath pointed me in the right direction and strongly suggested I get tested due to my symptoms. Since diagnosis, I’ve been back and currently attempting to manage my issues with diet, lifestyle and some supplements such as iron and zinc based on blood test results. Now, all of it could have been coincidental, but I’ve since become fascinated with the idea of naturopathy.
I’m definitely a strong advocate for modern medicine, however, I think the holistic approach is lacking in mainstream healthcare that could perhaps be helped by integrating other services. Clearly, I’m not the only person that has strayed into using alternatives, at least two out of every three Australians use some form of complementary medicine. Naturopathy, however, is still not a registered health profession with the Australian Department of Health and there are many claims from the medical world that it’s a pseudo-science.
The medical pushback
Natural (herbs and minerals) and alternative medicine have been ingrained in human history across all cultures, from the use of leaches in medieval medicine to herbs in Chinese medicine. The history of traditional medicine is long and extensive, so long in fact that it’s too difficult to detail in one article – you can read more here. The summary of traditional medicine in the western world is that some of it worked, a lot of it didn’t. The introduction of modern western medicine such as vaccines has ensured better healthcare and longer lives, alongside improved sanitary living and access.
The main argument against naturopathy is the lack of scientific evidence for supplements alongside a lack of scientific knowledge and therefore misguided information to patients. Naturopaths offer their patients supplements based on their diagnosis, which some in the medical world have suggested don’t have enough valid evidence. Naturopath ‘doctors’ in Australia are required to attend a four-year qualification from a natural medicine college such as Endeavour College of Natural Medicine. During this time they learn some biology, alongside psychology and counselling, nutrition and dietary planning, botany and herbal medicine studies, diagnostic techniques and clinical skills. It’s an entirely different course from a highly regulated medical degree.
In terms of naturopathy prescriptions, which involve plant-based supplements and minerals, there are varied claims and regulations. Medications from a General Practitioner go through strict regulations and approvals from the Food and Drugs Administration, submitting extensive amounts of scientific evidence for claims. Since alternative medicine is less regulated and based on nature, “manufacturers can sell these products without submitting evidence of their purity, potency, safety, or efficacy”. According to a USA Today article, The National Institutes of Health has spent more than $2.4 billion since 1999 studying vitamins and minerals and no sufficient supporting evidence has been found so far.
There have also been cases where people have turned their back on modern medicine, turning to natural ways of healing using naturopathy, which can be dangerous and misguided. This is all down to the particular naturopath, if they are experienced and well educated, they should be respectful and accepting of modern medicine. The argument could be stated however that if people are turning their backs on modern medicine, the health care systems need to find out why.
“One of the largest risks from naturopathy comes not from what practitioners will do to you, but rather what they don’t do – namely referring to another practitioner when the condition is serious, beyond their scope or they are not getting results. Recognising these red flag situations requires minimum standards of education.” – ABC News ‘Unregulated naturopaths putting lives at risk‘, 2010
It can’t all be that bad
There definitely seems to be some beneficial aspects of naturopathy that could have a positive improvement to people’s health and wellbeing. Firstly, naturopaths are taught to look at the body as a whole system and treat the cause long-term, rather than treat symptoms. Without encouraging the use of pharmaceuticals for non-life threatening issues, which can sometimes just mask an issue or make it worse, there’s a potential for prevention and discovering more. Naturopaths also look extensively at people’s lifestyle and diet choices, which do have scientific evidence that shows they can influence your health dramatically. Naturopaths typically spend an hour with patients and have more time to discuss issues compared with medical doctors who seem to spend little consultation time. Even if there are claims that supplements don’t work, some patients seem to claim they feel better once they see naturopaths, which could be put down to a placebo effect.
“Time is key in a system that rewards volume and procedures, time is only worth what you can bill for it and there are no billing codes for building rapport.” – Medium article, ‘Naturopathy is 99.9% bull$hit but here’s what the 0.1% can teach us‘
Modern medicine still relies on nature rather than chemicals for commonly used drugs however. The original antibiotic penicillin, for example, is derived from mould. The commonly used drug Aspirin was also originally found in plants and then replicated in a lab to be mass produced. There is an extensive list of other modern drugs from natural sources here. There are some varying levels of success in supplements and minerals and to learn which supplements are supposedly better, check out this Telegraph article.
A single approach is not the answer
There is a place for alternative health practices for non-life threatening illnesses, to a certain degree. I agree with the claims from the medical world that having an unregulated alternative health professional that can call themselves a type of doctor, is potentially dangerous and confusing to consumers. There is, however, a plentitude of reasons for why people are turning to alternative medicine for help. I know I’ve done it. For alternative medicine to have a seat at the mainstream table, there need to be further regulations put in place and claims should be backed by extensive research. Naturopathy also needs to have more distinct terms and transparency for consumers to reduce confusion and help them understand how ‘alternative’ and modern medicine can work alongside each other for a holistic approach to healthcare.
The World Health Organisation clearly believes integrating traditional medicine is beneficial, with its Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023 stating on its website:
The strategy aims to support Member States in developing proactive policies and implementing action plans that will strengthen the role traditional medicine plays in keeping populations healthy.”
To learn what Australia is doing in terms of regulating alternative medicine check out the health department’s website here.