Health Plans Less Traveled: Natural Medicine

By Tracy Morris,

Social tides have turned. Increasing numbers of women feel empowered to live single and independently. These strong, innovative women are also looking at non-traditional ways of staying healthy.

Naturopathic medicine is by no means new, but as more people struggle to find affordable health care, the growth of naturopathic practices is booming. Still, since most of us raised in the U.S. have been taught to look with a biased eye at alternative and even complementary practices as compared to our traditional “Western” forms of medicine, it’s easy to glean a lot of misinformed assumptions from the few (but increasing) media reports about naturopathy and other health care professions.

Convinced by some friends that naturopathic medicine is not snake oil, I went straight to the source for more details on just what it is — I interviewed Jane Guiltinan, N.D., Clinical Professor at Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle.

Dr. Guiltinan is the former President of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and in 1986 was the first Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND) to serve on the board of a U.S. public hospital (Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.)

TM: To begin with, what is naturopathy?

Dr. Guiltinan: Naturopathy, or more precisely naturopathic medicine, is a distinct system of health care that is founded on several principles. The primary premise is that nature has provided the human body with an innate and powerful ability to heal, restore, and maintain health.

Naturopathic physicians apply this premise with patients by providing treatments that are intended to stimulate and promote these innate healing capacities within the body. Most of these treatments are natural, non-invasive, and very safe.

Some common types of naturopathic treatments are nutrition, botanical medicine, physical medicine, body-mind therapies, and homeopathy. ND’s can also utilize and prescribe many conventional medications and will use them when appropriate.

TM: What is a naturopath?

Dr. Guiltinan: A naturopathic physician is a health care professional trained in the principles and practices of naturopathic medicine as explained above in addition to being trained in Western bio-medical sciences. Naturopathic physicians attend four-year in-residence doctoral level educational programs accredited by agencies recognized by the United States Department of Education.

In order to become a licensed naturopathic physician, one must obtain a degree from one of these accredited programs, take and pass a national board examination, and apply for licensure in a state or jurisdiction that licenses ND’s.

TM: How do these differ from the practice of medicine and the physicians that most Americans are accustomed to using?

Dr. Guiltinan:
Naturopathic physicians differ from MD’s in several ways. When diagnosing a person with a particular disease, in addition to the standard practice of accurately identifying the disease or condition, an ND will comprehensively evaluate and assess what the underlying causes of that disease are.

For example: a person might be diagnosed with migraine headaches. An ND will evaluate the whole person to determine what might be the underlying causes or contributing factors for the migraines. Some of those factors might be nutritional deficiencies like magnesium or B-vitamins, food sensitivities such as wheat or dairy, stress, poor diet, environmental toxins, etc.

The treatment approach the ND takes will also differ from that of most MD’s. All therapies recommended will be directed towards addressing the underlying causes such as removing obstacles to healing, correcting underlying deficiencies, and stimulating a healing response by the body.

Lastly, ND’s will emphasize patient education in order to assist the patient in understanding what is wrong and how they can take steps themselves to prevent recurrences and maintain their health. Emphasis will be placed on personal responsibility for prevention and wellness.

This, of course, all takes a lot of time, so one of the main differences between MD’s and ND’s is the time spent with the patient.

TM: Do a naturopath’s patients use a combination of types of medical professionals, or do they more often use naturopaths only?

Dr. Guiltinan: Patients who see ND’s may do either of these. Many patients choose ND’s as their primary care provider and see the ND for their routine care and preventive examinations. In this situation, if the patient has a serious problem requiring conventional medical intervention, the ND will refer them to an appropriate specialist.

Other patients see ND’s as specialists for a particular problem, such as arthritis, high blood pressure, back pain, menopause, diabetes, etc. In these situations, the patient is likely seeing MD’s and perhaps even other health care professionals as well, depending on their problems.

TM: Are there pediatric naturopaths?

Dr. Guiltinan: The naturopathic profession does not yet have board certification for most specialty areas of medicine, including pediatrics. That being said, there are many ND’s whose practices are focused on pediatrics as a specialty area.

TM: What would the benefits of naturopathy be for women?

Dr. Guiltinan: Naturopathic medicine is perfectly suited to manage many common women’s health conditions. These would include menstrual disorders, PMS, menopause, vaginal infections, fibroids, infertility, breast and ovarian cysts, urinary tract infections, fibromyalgia, and more.

For an excellent overview of the application of naturopathy, check out this article published in the Journal of Family Practice and presented on the website of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. In addition to a searchable database of ND's in your area, and details on the training and licensing of ND’s, there’s also a case study summary of a 39 year old female patient with physical complaints common to many of us.

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