Natural Life Magazine

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.

Therapeutic Approach

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 modification.

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, Canada.


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