If defining a multi-factorial concept is terribly difficult, then defining naturopathic medicine is a fruitless task. Not because it is difficult to understand; more so because each person has their own preconceived ideas, whether based on fact or arrogant assumption. When something is deemed ‘non-mainstream’, it has a higher tendency to be disregarded by default, despite the available evidence. **Shot to your Ego Warning** This type of reasoning, called prereflective judgment (1), is the most rudimentary type of thinking, where a person merely assumes, as they are either unable to differentiate fact from belief, or they choose not to. Conclusions are based on what ‘feels right’, and have nothing to do with the actual evidence. Each truth is contradicted by a number of mistruths. Because of this, we cannot easily define naturopathic medicine based on what it is. So instead, I am going to define it based on what it isn’t.
I have heard naturopathic doctors described in many fashions—ranging from highly accurate to completely absurd. We are not witch doctors, quacks, hippies, or miracle curers. We do not have voodoo dolls, cauldrons, or potions. In actuality, we are rooted in science, requiring Bachelor of Science degrees as a prerequisite for entry in to naturopathic doctor programs. We have numerous peer reviewed journals that investigate our medical interventions, allowing us to use the latest natural evidence-based medicine with our patients. Natural medicine is not stagnant, grasping on the whim of historical findings—just like all branches of medicine, trusted therapies of old are refined continually as the evidence evolves—out with the old, in with the new.
Licensed naturopathic doctors do not receive their training on the internet.
Naturopathic medicine is full of fraudulent individuals lurking in jurisdictions unregulated by the government, giving the profession a bad name. These people have no real clinical training, and are dangerous to the public. Real naturopathic doctors graduated from a rigorous four year program at 1 of 7 naturopathic medical schools, accredited by the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges. Practitioners in regulated provinces and states are governed by a licensing body that serves to protect the public. If you live in an unregulated area, ensure your natural health practitioner received their training at an accredited institution, and is insured and licensed by a regulatory body.
Our education is not a joke, and in no way resembles Hogwarts. It may actually surprise you to learn that our clinical training is comparable to or exceeds that of influential medical schools (see comparison here). We are deeply trained in clinical sciences, as well as conventional and naturopathic interventions. We are primary care doctors with a defined scope of practice, and the ability to prescribe prescription drugs in many jurisdictions. Some medical doctors are negative critics of naturopathic medicine, despite zero training in our therapies (see prereflective judgments above). I personally would not take my car difficulties to my hairdresser; so be careful who you get your natural health information from!
Our medicine cannot reliably cure or even be directly beneficial to every disease process (obviously)—if you are being led on this way, you may be getting scammed or lied to. All branches of medicine have limitations, so be weary of practitioners who offer lofty medical promises. Despite this, natural medicine can help in most any situation. Who do you know, healthy or otherwise, that would not benefit from personally tailored nutrition plans, better sleep, or more energy?
Does naturopathic medicine have some controversial treatments?
Absolutely! Every treatment modality has differing levels of evidence and reliability. A good doctor will be very transparent about effectiveness from research and will not offer concrete promises. Likewise, a good patient does not blindly follow; they are inquisitive and prudent participants in the treatment process. While many practitioners report tremendous success with certain low evidence interventions, my personal philosophy is to only use interventions strongly supported by the peer reviewed evidence.
Does naturopathic medicine have some quirky/edgy practitioners? Absolutely! All professions do. I have met just as many quirky medical doctors as naturopathic doctors. And, as is human nature, these outliers tend to get most of the press because they are interesting. But in reality, they rarely represent the general consensus of the profession. Do not allow these people to dictate your overall impression.
Reflective judgement is considered the most advanced form of rational thinking (1). Here, opinions are critical assessments, formulated by weighing all available evidence before reaching a conclusion. When this is done, most of naturopathic medicine is of sound reasoning (some is not). I challenge you to use your reflective judgement when assessing naturopathic medicine, not falling for the false rhetoric based on uneducated prereflective ideations. Only then can we properly define naturopathic medicine for what it is, and not argue about what it isn’t.
1. Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. King, P and Kitchener, K. San Francisco : Jossey Bass, 1994.