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Naturopathy, or naturopathic medicine, seeks to identify the underlying causes of disease and activate the body’s own healing powers through natural therapies, herbs, vitamin and mineral supplements and nutrition.
Also referred to as “holistic medicine,” naturopathy looks at a person’s environment, lifestyle, emotional state, and mental attitude, as well as the condition of the physical body.
Your first visit with a naturopath is similar to a visit with a new family doctor. The naturopathic doctor performs a thorough physical examination and asks many questions about your symptoms, family history and lifestyle. He or she may order blood tests and other screenings.
Naturopathic doctors employ a wide variety of techniques and therapies, including massage, acupuncture, herbs and nutritional supplements, exercises, dietary changes, lifestyle counseling and guided imagery. Naturopathic treatment complements traditional medicine by promoting wellness and by empowering a patient to make lifestyle changes that improve health. A naturopathic doctor may prescribe natural remedies and teach about nutrition and stress management.
While natural medicine is becoming increasingly popular, it should be regarded as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, traditional medicine. We enjoy longer, healthier lives today because of modern scientific developments such as antibiotics, insulin and laser surgery. A naturopath knows when to refer a patient to a physician for traditional medical treatment.
Many people feel better about taking herbal medicine than prescription drugs, because it seems more natural and because it does not involve chemical manufacturing processes and animal testing. However, many modern drugs contain active agents extracted from herbs. The herbs that contain those agents have the same side effects as the drugs. Be aware of possible side effects associated with any herbs you are taking.
Some effective herbal remedies are not used as often as they could be, because people know so little about them. Primrose oil helps control hot flashes, fennel relieves nausea and reflux, and arnica is an anti-inflammatory. These herbs have few side effects.
A natural remedy is not automatically good for you just because it is grown in a field or found in nature. Many items found on the shelves of health food stores can cause serious harm if they are not administered in the right amounts.
For example, an excess of fish oil can lead to significant bleeding in a susceptible person. Red yeast rice, recommended for lowering cholesterol, has statin-like properties, which can result in severe muscle damage and impair the kidneys. Licorice root, used to treat infections and ulcers, can cause high blood pressure and death if too much is consumed.
Dietary supplements should never entirely replace drugs, but when used wisely and safely they can reduce or eliminate the need to take certain prescription drugs. Seek out a health care provider who is trained in the use of nutritional supplements and is willing to work with them. The clerk in the health food store knows all about supplements, but does not know enough about your medical conditions to give you sound advice.
Nutritional supplements and herbal medicines are not subject to the same rigorous testing as prescription drugs before they are released on the market. While medications are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, dietary supplements are not. A manufacturer of a nutritional supplement might claim it is effective based on a study done with 500 people.
A drug must go through three phases of laboratory testing before being subjected to multiple human trials involving up to 4,000 patients. This makes you responsible for researching nutritional supplements and making sure they are safe and effective. A naturopath is familiar with supplements and knows which ones are most appropriate for your medical condition.
Standards of purity and quality vary widely among manufacturers of dietary supplements. Know where your nutritional supplements are made, and buy the best quality. Look for products made by a laboratory that is “ISO 9001 certified,” meaning the manufacturer adheres to certain standards established by the International Standards Organization (ISO) and is regularly audited.
Do not expect your primary care physician or specialist to know all about the supplements you are taking. Always inform your health care provider about your herbs and nutritional supplements because some of their ingredients may interact with or duplicate the effects of prescribed drugs. A supplement may also affect your test results. Similarly, give your naturopath a complete list of all your medications.
Nutritional supplements, herbal formulas and homeopathic remedies are typically not covered by health insurance plans, but some naturopathic treatments are covered, particularly if you are referred by your primary care physician.
Ultimately, the responsibility for your health lies with you. A naturopath provides valuable services to help put you on the track to good health, and works alongside your physician to treat the “whole person.” Find a health care provider who looks at all the factors affecting your health and supports you in your quest for total wellbeing.
+ Further reading: American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (http://naturopathic.org).
Dr. Carlene Wilson is a board-certified internist and pediatrician in private practice in Crystal River. Call her at 352-563-5070 or visit www.IMPWellnessCenter.com.