Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Is Naturopathy?

A lot of people have asked me about naturopathy and what I think of it. I've usually said that some of it might be okay since it's based on herbs and things that might actually contain real medicine. In fact, I really don't know much at all about the differences between "naturopathic medicine" and quackery.

So I decided to look at an authoritative source, the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine right here in Toronto. The college, "offers a rigorous four-year, full-time doctor of naturopathic medicine program."

Here's how CCNM describes naturopathy.
Naturopathic medicine is:

... a distinct system of primary health care that addresses the root causes of illness, and promotes health and healing using natural therapies. It supports your body's own healing ability using an integrated approach to disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention that includes:

o acupuncture/Asian medicine
o botanical medicine
o physical medicine (massage, hydrotherapy, etc.)
o clinical nutrition
o homeopathic medicine
o lifestyle counseling
Good. Now I know the difference between naturopathy and other forms of non-evidence based medicine (i.e. alternative medicine, quackery).

There isn't any.

[Hat Tip: Respectful Insolence: A highly revealing quote from a naturopath]


  1. Last night backstage, shortly after poo-pooing a friend who was waxing enthusiastic about alternative medicine, a rap singer came up to me and said "You ain't as intelligent as I thought. What you sayin' is just common sense!"

    I think it was a compliment?

  2. Natural healing is a way of thinking about healing. What the word naturopathic means has nothing to do with quackery or acting in the absence of evidence. Even if most naturopathic doctors use ideas and techniques there is no evidence for, that is a problem separate from the philosophy and it's validity!

    There are plenty of naturopathic techniques that work and are evidenced based. People around the world get off their medications for diabetes, depression and pain using natural therapies and this is well-documented. I owe natural therapies my sanity!

    I'm frankly sick and tired of this rationalist witch hunt. The natural healing word needs better science and more critics, but it doesn't need out of hand dismissal, it needs research. It needs to have the bad stuff flushed out and the good stuff maximized.

    You call it "quackery" and "alternative medicine" when there aren't piles of data on it. Take a look what happened to EMPowerplus in this country! The studies continue to mount in it's favor but it was called quackery and alternative medicine from the get go by the "quack hunters"... so lame.

    The research that doesn't get done because of bigotry and a lack of profit motive! The last thing we need is the science community actively being anti-scientific by dismissing something for lack of evidence without encouraging the research.

    Naturopathy is the future. They're getting schizophrenics to do exercise and take fish oil with amazing results, and that's only two therapies you can do in conjunction, no one has commissioned a study looking at a giant protocol of dozens of techniques and rules at the same time in the history of science.

    I'm all about the evidence-based evidence, but posts like this shock and confuse me. Aside from homeopathy there is much we can use and learn from those practices.

    Furthermore there is tons of evidence to support their use, as long as you're not dismissing techniques there is better evidence for, such as chemo.

    So seriously, can you honestly look back and say yeah, there's nothing to learn about natural healing we don't already know in modern medicine? *Scoffs* EMPowerplus rules buddy!

  3. anonymous says,

    What the word naturopathic means has nothing to do with quackery or acting in the absence of evidence.

    I copied word-for-word the description of naturopathy from the website of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. The list includes some known examples of quackery and some others where there is no evidence to support the treatments.

    You lose.

    I owe natural therapies my sanity!

    I think you should ask for a refund.

  4. I'm a highly critical and skeptical person with regards to science and religion.

    While I agree with the gist of it, I must say that your conclusion based on your evidence is unhelpful at best, and at worse amounts to bigotry.

    Aside from homeopathy, all other techniques have proved to have therapeutic effects.

    Ok, a massage is not going to cure your cancer, but to label it quackery is just plain ignorance.

    If naturopaths claim that a massage is going to cure your cancer, then fine you can label it quackery.
    But I don't believe they do. And your article certainly hasn't provided any evidence to suggest that.

    Instead, your article makes an inflammtory claim in a totally unscientific manner.

    We should be stimulating debates through critical reasoning.

    Your article did little more than name callingn, and your response to your challenger is nothing shy of childish.

    And excuse for the formatting, I'm on my BB.

  5. anonymous says,

    Aside from homeopathy, all other techniques have proved to have therapeutic effects.

    Let's not quibble.

    We agree that homeopathy is quackery. We agree that homeopathy is listed as part of naturopathic medicine on the website of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.

    What's the obvious conclusion? It's that "professional" naturopaths associated with, and graduating from, a naturopathic college don't know the difference between real medicine and quackery.

    I don't know about you but this doesn't give me confidence that the other procedures they teach are any better.

    One of the other treatments listed is acupuncture. The scientific evidence is in on that one. Aside from a placebo effect, it doesn't work. If naturopatic medicine claims differently then naturopaths are quacks.

    Hydrotherapy is also on the list. This procedure can range from simply taking a soothing bath to the worst form of quackery. If it's the former, then it's a trivial part of effective therapy practiced by real physicians as well. In that case, there's nothing special about naturopathic medicine. If it's not that then ....

    Some of the herbal remedies promoted by naturopaths are effective. But some aren't. You may be absolutely confident that naturopaths know the difference but I ain't.

  6. As a medical student, and a researcher I have realized that medicine is more of a business than a science.

    Many techniques in naturopathic medicine have an evidence base- although not the gold standard randomized clinical trial. Most of the techniques are based on extrapolations from scientific observation. For instance a naturopath may prescribe exercise for treating mental health issues or a diet change to treat infertility, or a massage therapy to treat fatigue.

    But since I am an allopathic medical student, I should call it quakery to help my financial situation after medical school. Imagine if everyone were told they can change their health with properly prescribed exercises regimes and diets and not drugs! I'd be broke in the future.

  7. Huey,

    As a physician for over 30 years, including 17 years in successful private practice and now as clinical faculty educating medical students and residents, I think you will find that medicine is like any profession. There are teachers coasting on tenure, attorneys padding their billable hours, etc. Hopefully you will find that the practice of medicine can be both personally and financially rewarding by conscientiously providing the best care for your patients. Rational evidence based care is very often not a pill or a knife, does not require unnecessary care, and it never needs to employ pseudoscience or quackery.

  8. I just re-read my post... I was being very caustic while writing it. I only wanted to convey that naturopathic medicine kind of has an evidence base, and overall I respect their philosophy, although I do not condone many of their practices- especially the prescription of unproven remedies

    Also I wanted to express my disdain toward the corporatization and politicization of current medical research.

    My apologies if it came out the wrong way the first time.

  9. Huey,

    It is the Internet and you are forgiven. However, the problem of Naturopathy is not that it utilizes natural methods, but that its practitioners uncritically embrace false premises and pseudoscience. Reading pronouncements of Naturopathy is painful if one is holistic, inclined to health promotion and minimizing medical/surgical interventions, and yet scientifically literate. The problem is that in Naturopathy the pseudoscience is inseparable from the useful.

  10. naturopathy is a practice of the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease that relies on natural remedies. as a biologist, a critical thinker, and the daughter of an m.d., i am not foolish enough to trust that pharmaceutical companies have my best interests at heart when synthesizing and promoting their chemical cocktails.
    i feel good taking medicine that i can call medicine, not drugs. and i'll stop believing in it when it stops working for me.

  11. Hey prof,
    I feel sorry for you. Someone such as yourself should be open minded and thinking critically about topics such as these and you're jumping to a conclusion after reading a page on a stupid website?

    Unfortunate for both you and your students :(

  12. @Kate,

    Feel free to offer a better definition of naturopathy. When you've done that we can think critically about it and discuss it with an open mind.

    Until then, I think I'll stick with the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine as a better authority than you.

    Thanks for playing.

  13. I bristle in particular at the commenter who said that naturopathy "will get people off their diabetes medication". I took 3 days of workshops for my diabetes and they said there was NO such possibility. To suggest this for a permanent condition is downright dangerous.
    Those who want to claim the pharmaceutical industry is some evil corporation not really interested in doubling our life-span are ignoring that it DID! Life-spans increased only as a result of scientific medication. We had folk-beliefs, naturopathy, endless beliefs under many names for thousands of years, but no comparable increase in longevity or protection from diseases. It was only when we took the scientific approach that we got more LIFE.
    Also, all the simple approaches to treatment with substances have been tried. Biochemistry is one of the toughest branches of science there is, grappling with how a chemical will actually affect a cell for health purposes. Naturopathy gives no clear or sound reasons for why any herbal remedy should work, based on the real physical cellular structure we are all made of. Instead they mix in some commonsense nutrition with a lot of nonsense, and give the patient "personalized attention" which is no better than a placebo effect. Remember: making a client "feel good" (and selling worthless mixtures at $5 a pop) is not consistent with actual cures and has just the same corporate motive. Pharmaceutical companies regularly face the music if something goes wrong with a medication. Naturopathic fraud doesn't lose its sting just because it is cheaper.

  14. Hello Professor,

    Thank you for your comments. Given that there is some strong evidence to suggest that particular herbs and nutrients can be used in the management of conditions should naturopathic medicine be replaced by medical degrees that include courses in supplementation and nutrition that is backed by scholarly literature? At the University of Newcastle (Australia: Teamed with Jhon Hunter Hospital), where I graduated in 2004, the Bachelor of Medicine, did not include any electives on nutrition or information concerning supplementation. Infact, colleagues completing their degree in nutrition and dietetics only completed 2 weeks of notes on supplementation. Newcastle University and Sydney University are the same and are considered world-wide greater medical teaching universities. Your thoughts?

  15. Wow. What an arrogant ass you are.

    I have used homeopathic techniques all my adult life and am widely known as one of the healthiest individuals in my circle of friends. I have people come to me asking for advice for their children because they have seen that my children do not ever need to go to the doctor. I have experienced the relief that massage, lifestyle counseling and diet/herbal supplements/exercise have to offer. I have also seen my share of friends/family get hosed by a "traditional" doctor who has "evidence" to back them up.

    I have seen the medical community waffle back and forth on evidential claims on more things than I can possibly recount simply because someone "authoritative" states that his theory is fact, then science spends a decade or two building cures around that individuals theory, only to have it disproved later.

    I have seen homeopathy cure my children's ear infections, my own strep throat, lessen or prevent flu smptoms, relieve back pain and headaches. I personally know people who have used it to rid themselves of lyme's disease and others who have seen their lupus cured. I could go on and on with personal examples, that you would not consider anything but anecdotal... but simply because you don't accept the evidence, or because people don't perform the experiments, does not mean the evidence does not exist. It simply means that you, in your arrogance, believe you already know the answers.