Whenever I tell someone new that I am a Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD), I tend to get a blank stare, followed by a politely worded question along the lines of, “What does that mean, exactly?”  In response, I smile, and try to gauge how much he or she really wants to know.  It’s a loaded question.

When I first started naturopathic medical school, I thought that naturopaths were just like conventional doctors, except that they try not to prescribe medication if they can help it.  I had the vague idea that drugs were bad because they cause side effects, and natural substances don’t.  I believed, as a first year student, that the philosophy of naturopathic medicine was just to get to the root cause of a disease and treat that, rather than treating the symptoms of it.  But in the back of my mind, I thought, what MD could possibly disagree with that?  Of course, everyone would treat the root cause if they knew what it was. But more often than not, they don’t know… and isn’t that why they are relegated to treating the symptoms?  Wouldn’t I do the same thing in a similar situation?  And so, as a first year student, when I got into practice I intended to council my patients to make a few lifestyle adjustments while still prescribing drugs (or perhaps botanical medications) for the management of symptoms.  But then I discovered that everything I thought I knew about medical theory was wrong.

The current dominant school of thought in medicine adheres to a mechanistic philosophy: it views the body as a machine, and each part is considered separate, like a cog in a wheel.   In machines, sometimes things go wrong (for no apparent reason other than random error), and one must fix the parts that are broken. No higher order innervates the body; it is not intelligent, nor does it proceed from intelligent design. We, man, must therefore instruct Nature to behave the way she ought to, using force if necessary.

The opposite philosophy is called vitalism. From this point of view, there is an intelligent design in the body, and an intelligent force at work within it. In this model, each component cannot be separated from the others. If you change one aspect of the body, everything else has to adapt to that change, because the change did not occur in a vacuum. (We are aware of this principle in other areas: there’s a theory in physics called Chaos Theory that documents this very principle, in which a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can set off a chain reaction that escalates to a hurricane on the other side.  The book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt is devoted to applying these principles to society, documenting the affects of abortion on the crime rate twenty years later, to name just one example. The same ripple effects are evident in gun control, foreign policy, the economy, and so forth.) In vitalism the body is viewed as a single organism which behaves rationally in response to its environment. The physician’s job, then, is not to “make someone well,” but rather to remove the obstacles to health: given the right environment and the right tools, the assumption is that the body will be able to heal itself (provided it isn’t already so damaged that repair is impossible).

So, if we begin with the assumption that the body is smart and knows what it’s doing, then we must conclude that any symptoms are an adaptation necessary for survival. On one level, this is well understood: you drink too much, and your body responds by vomiting so that you don’t die of toxicity. You eat something contaminated with pathogenic bacteria and get serious diarrhea because your body is trying to purge it. A virus destroys your cells as it reproduces itself, and your body responds by raising its temperature in an attempt to render the environment unsuitable for the virus to continue replicating. In this light, symptoms must be viewed as the body’s language, telling the physician what the body is trying to do in order to correct a problem. According to Henry Lindhlar, one of the founding fathers of naturopathic medicine, “every so-called acute disease is the result of a cleansing and healing effort of nature.”

The word homeopathy is frequently used, although somewhat inaccurately, as a synonym for naturopathy.  Homeopathy refers to a specific treatment method within naturopathic medicine.  But in Latin, the word homeopathy means “same as the disease”: that is, the homeopathic treatment for a disease mimics the symptoms that the patient is already experiencing.  Thus, the homeopath responds by assisting the body in its efforts to rid itself of a pathogen or morbid process.  By contrast, the word allopathy (or the conventional medical approach) means to works against the body’s symptoms, attempting to counteract them. From the naturopathic perspective, this is worse than benign: it is actively harmful. If the body is unable to defend itself against attack, the problem invariably burrows deeper and reappears as something more serious later on. Eventually the allopathic approach ends up chasing the symptoms all over the body: suppress it in one place and it pops up somewhere else, until the patient is on a laundry list of drugs as stopgap measures, and chronically ill.  It’s like having a fire in your house, and instead of putting out the fire, you turn off the alarm.

But it gets even stranger than that.  From the naturopathic perspective, diseases do not exist – only individuals with specific susceptibilities.  They may have a collection of similar symptoms that enable us to give them a title, like Rheumatoid Arthritis, or Diabetes, but the origin of these symptoms may be drastically different in a given individual (and therefore the therapeutic approach would likewise vary).  Robert Vichrow, one of the scientists credited with discovering the existence of microorganisms, stated, “If I had my life to live over again, I would devote it to showing that microorganisms do not cause disease, but rather seek diseased tissue as mosquitoes seek stagnant water.” And if you want to get rid of mosquitoes, there are two ways to go about it: you can kill the mosquitoes one by one… or you can drain or oxygenate the water. Change the environment, and you make it impossible for the mosquitoes to thrive.

For instance, 37% of the population carries streptococcus bacteria in their throats at any given time, but certainly not all of them are said to have the collection of symptoms called Strep Throat. However, if one such individual visits the doctor with a sore throat, and the doctor takes a swab and discovers that it’s teeming with the streptococcus bacteria, he’s diagnosed with Strep. But it wasn’t the bacteria that caused the infection; that was there all the time. What changed was the environment: weakened or diseased tissue allowed the bacteria to thrive. The solution, then, is to fix the tissue, not to kill the bug.  This is not to say that killing the bug will have no effect, because of course we know that it does – but killing the bug using antibiotics may not only cause side effects in the individual and allow subsequent strains of bacteria to adapt and mutate, but it will also leave the patient with the same weak and susceptible tissue he started out with.

Anything brought to the body can act as either “food” or “poison”, as an agent for healing or damage, depending on how it is used. Pharmaceuticals can be used to suppress symptoms, or to restore balance, just as naturopathic remedies can be used allopathically (though at least they would presumably carry fewer side effects). It’s not what you do, but why you do it… and isn’t this true in every area of our lives?

When I first learned of the theory of naturopathic medicine, I was not so much skeptical as incredulous, because it was so different from the way I had thought before.  But it made perfect sense– and moreover, it had a ring of truth to it because the philosophies resonated so perfectly with my broader understanding of Truth. It makes sense that each person’s health would and should be treated individually, as each person’s genetic makeup and environment is, clearly, unique. Of course one body system influences every other – they cannot be separated.

And, turns out, it works.  One of the beautiful things about being an NMD is the fact that the principles remain true, even when I can’t figure out what’s going on in a particular case.  I have been privileged to see patients, even some very ill patients, respond to treatments based on these principles.  I have seen sleep patterns normalized, energy restored, and quality of life greatly improved.  The universe is intelligently designed, and so of course the body is smart enough to heal itself, once obstacles to cure have been removed and the body has been given the proper building blocks to do the job.

Turns out God knew what He was doing.