Naturopathy: Prevention Before Cure
by Dr. Roger Gervais
A naturopath describes a system of health-oriented medicine that stresses
prevention of disease.
The term naturopathy was not coined until the 19th century, but its
philosophical roots can be traced back to Hippocrates. It is a system of
health-oriented medicine that stresses maintenance of health and prevention of
disease. The average westerner has an unhealthy, disease-promoting lifestyle.
The medical doctors' drugs and surgery methodology never addresses this
underlying factor. Naturopathic physicians, on the other hand, are trained to
find the underlying cause rather than treating or suppressing the symptoms.
Naturopathic doctors don't wait for disease to progress before they institute
appropriate preventive measures.
Hippocrates assumed that everything in nature had a rational basis; therefore
the physician's role was to understand and follow the laws of the intelligible
universe. They viewed disease as an effect and looked for its cause in natural
phenomena – air, water, food, etc. They used the term vis medicatix naturae,
the healing power of nature, to denote the body's ability to heal itself.
Vis medicatrix naturae — the healing power of nature. Fundamental to
the practice of naturopathic medicine is a profound belief in the ability of the
body to heal itself, given the proper opportunity. Naturopathic doctors use the
least invasive intervention that will have the desired therapeutic effect. This
philosophical approach necessitates a broad range of diagnostic and therapeutic
skills and accounts for the eclectic interests of the naturopathic profession.
Although the profession has evolved into a primary healthcare system
providing services from natural childbirth and family practice through to
preventive and therapeutic medicine, the principles are still the same –
education of the patient in the laws of healthy living, support of the body's
own healing abilities and the use of natural and non-toxic therapies. Key to the
success of naturopathic treatments is the high level of involvement of patients
in their own healing process.
Naturopathic medicine is holistic in its approach. Life is viewed as more
than just the sum of biochemical processes, and the body is believed to have an
innate intelligence that is always striving for health.
What is health? Health is a combination of genetics and environmental
stressors. Environmental stressors are a combination of structural, chemical,
electromagnetic, and mental/emotional/spiritual stress.
Health is viewed as more than just the absence of disease; it is considered
to be a vital dynamic state that enables a person to thrive in, or adapt to, a
wide range of environments and stresses. People who catch every cold that comes
along are not healthy when they are symptom free; they can be considered healthy
only when they stop being overly susceptible to infection.
Health and disease can be looked at as points on a continuum, with death at
one end and optimal function at the other. As the typical person goes through
life, s/he drifts away from optimal function and moves relentlessly towards
progressively greater dysfunction. Although such deterioration is endorsed by
our society as the normal expectation of aging, it does not happen to animals in
the wild, or to those few fortunate peoples who live in an optimal environment,
with no pollution, low stress, regular exercise and abundant natural, nutritious
food. Death is indeed inevitable, but progressive disability is not.
Many naturopaths choose to specialize in specific areas of therapy while
others choose to be eclectic. A wide variety of different types of therapy can
be employed by a naturopathic physician in the treatment of an individual,
including nutrition, botanical medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, physiotherapy,
counseling, and lifestyle modification.
The therapeutic approach of the naturopathic doctor is basically two-fold: to
help patients heal themselves (alas, most patients still come only when they are
sick, too few while they are still healthy); and to use the opportunity to guide
and educate the patient in developing a more healthy lifestyle.
A typical first visit to a naturopathic doctor takes one hour. The goal is to
learn as much as possible about the patient, using thorough history taking,
physical examination, laboratory tests, radiology and other standard diagnostic
procedures. The patient's diet, environment, exercise, stress and other aspects
of lifestyle are also evaluated.
Once a good understanding of the patient's health and disease is established
(making a diagnosis of a disease is only one part of this process), the doctor
and patient work together to establish a treatment and health promoting program.
Lifestyle modification is crucial to the successful implementation of
naturopathic techniques – health does not come from a doctor, pills or surgery,
but rather from the patient's own efforts to take proper care of him or herself.
Unfortunately, our society expends considerable resources inducing
disease-promoting habits. While it is relatively easy to tell a patient to stop
smoking, get more exercise and reduce their stress, such lifestyle changes are
difficult in the context of peer group pressure, habit and commercial pressure.
The naturopathic doctor is specifically trained to assist the patient in making
the needed changes. This involves many aspects: helping the patient acknowledge
the need; setting realistic, progressive goals; establishing a support group of
family and friends, or of others with similar problems; identifying the stimuli
that reinforce the unhealthy behavior; and giving the patient positive
reinforcement for their gains.
The education of the naturopathic physician is extensive, and incorporates
much of the diversity that typifies the natural healthcare movement. The
training program is very similar to conventional medical education, with the
primary differences being in the therapeutic sciences. To be eligible to enroll,
prospective students must first successfully complete a conventional
pre-medicine program. The naturopathic curriculum then takes an additional four
years to complete.
The first two years concentrate on the standard human biological sciences
covering anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, microbiology, etc. The
second two years are oriented towards the clinical sciences of diagnosis and
treatment. Although the standard diagnostic techniques of physical, laboratory
and radiological examination are taught, what makes the program unique is its
emphasis on preventative diagnosis, such as diet analysis, the early physical
signs of nutritional deficiencies, and on natural therapies, such as nutrition,
botanical medicines, homeopathy, acupuncture, natural childbirth, hydrotherapy,
fasting, physical therapy, exercise therapy, counseling and lifestyle
Some jurisdictions have specific licensing for NDs; in others, NDs practice
under a Drugless Practitioner Act. Most require at least four thousand hours
of training in specified subject areas. No matter the educational details,
naturopaths can be your holistic guides to health.
Roger Gervais is a naturopathic physician who lives in British Columbia,