The following blog first appeared as a featured article for the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges in December 2017. We hope you will enjoy this up-close and personal account of what it means to choose naturopathic medicine as one’s calling and become a naturopathic physician.
In the early 1990s, when I was about to finish my undergraduate studies, I was becoming very interested in working in health care. But which area? Medicine perhaps. I was reading books such as "The Environmental Illness Syndrome - Are You Allergic to the 20th Century?" by Sherry Rogers, MD, because this type of book intrigued me. I also found it relevant, because I had numerous allergies and grew up in a very industrialized city where respiratory disease and cancer seemed commonplace.
One day, a sibling of mine was in a very serious automobile accident. In spite of her taking quite a bit of punishment in that car wreck, she told me that a naturopath had helped her. Although her symptoms would briefly intensify under this treatment, they would then start to diminish. The whole concept of the body healing itself captivated me - when I discovered there was a local College of Naturopathic Medicine I had to investigate. When I saw how many brilliant faculty and students were there, who had the same vision of the future of medicine as myself, I knew what I wanted to do: what I had to do. I hadn't just found something to work at; I had a direction in a field that called me to serve others.
When I first decided to study naturopathic medicine, I received different reactions from friends, family, and co-workers. Some people thought I was taking a lightweight course to learn to dispense nutritional supplements and herbs. Some people gave me an affirming nod and stated that they loved naturopathic medicine, having grown up using nature’s medicines complements of a parent or grandparent. Even today, with much more information available with a quick question to Google, Alexa, or Siri, I find that prospective students and potential patients really appreciate this discussion with an actual naturopathic doctor. My interns in the naturopathic medicine program where I teach do such a good job of this with their patients, that I learn something new all the time.
Simply put, a naturopathic doctor practices primary care, and uses mostly natural agents (food, water, herbs, hands on treatment, physiotherapy etc.) to remove obstacles to healing and support the body’s ability to self-heal. The ND takes a careful look at how the determinants of health, be it hydration, sleep or loving relationships are met well in the patient, or are deficient or disturbed. These disturbances, while perhaps tolerable in the short term, lead to dysfunction in the long term, changes to the body’s physiology. This in turn, generates symptoms, which are just that, an expression of some underlying disturbance.
So an ND is extremely adept at both supporting the body’s self-healing and rooting out and removing the underlying causes. Because NDs are primary care, they also are skilled at diagnosing, making an estimate of the outcome of treatment options, referring when necessary and using, when necessary, therapies that we describe as palliative. This might, in some jurisdictions, involve prescription medication, but this is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a step taken to preserve life when someone is simply overwhelmed with infection, pain, etc. Most of our patients have what we call chronic conditions, and are already on a host of medicines when they come to see us; they want to reduce the number they take to get through the day, not increase them! They want what Dr. Joseph Pizzorno has referred to as “Total Wellness.”
So, what about medical doctors?
This can vary as much as specialties of medicine differ. Some medical doctors work only with children, some deliver babies, some treat the heart, and others with patients in palliative care or hospice care in their final weeks of life. What medical doctors have in common is that they are focused on preserving life and extending life, and usually at reducing symptom intensity. They are not directly concerned with enhancing the body’s healing abilities, although they certainly want to see it happen and indirectly their therapies count on it.
Ask any surgeon who leaves a wound sutured together and checks it two days later to see the tissue restore itself. Medicine puts patient symptoms in to little categories; when the patient’s problem fits those categories neatly, and there happens to be a cure, such as using antibiotics to treat a flesh wound, everyone is happy. When the patient’s problems do not yield to this approach, such as many chronic pain syndromes, much allergy, constantly mutating conditions such as chronic Lyme disease and many, many other scenarios, this “messiness” of the condition frustrates medical doctor and patient alike. They need deep healing and a sweeping away of old habits, not necessarily an attack on one symptom or one manifestation of their underlying problems.
How about osteopathic medicine?
DOs are trained much like medical doctors and have the same scope. They were once more like NDs and some still use a form of joint and soft tissue manipulative therapy that is very powerful, but for the most part they are allegiant to the medical model. Still, many patients find that DOs have a more holistic approach to family medicine/internal medicine and rather like seeing them.
What does this all mean for students trying to place themselves in the world of medicine? It all boils down to this; “how do you most want to help people, day in and day out”. Do you want to become very technically proficient in one area and use a standard set of tools to fix problems of one kind – heart, lung, kidney, etc.? Or, are you fascinated by the connections between the various aspects of a human being and how disease can emerge? Do you see the health of patients interconnected with the health of the planet and of our society, and want to see truly deep healing take place?
People need all of these approaches and while some medical doctors are still slow to embrace naturopathic medicine (and many have already!), naturopathic doctors are trained to be aware of, and are supportive of the instances where the medical approach is best or temporarily needed.
Many North Americans have only known medical doctors as their care giver, and do not realize that across the globe, in advanced economies and developing economies alike, people by the billions use natural medicine. The percentage of the population can range from 30 percent to 70 percent in many cases, in China, India, Africa, and many European countries, to name a few.
Naturopathic medicine, as practiced here in North America and increasingly around the world, is using scientific advances and knowledge to update the practice. This is a trend that is accelerating, and yet its elements are simple. When an ND and a patient decide to partner together to bring out the healing that patient is capable of to the fullest extent, and make intelligent use of therapies and lifestyle changes, great things can happen.
National University's Naturopathic Program
National University of Health Sciences has set standards of educational excellence in health career education since 1906. With a steadfast commitment to integrative medicine, NUHS provides a dynamic atmosphere where students and faculty of diverse medical specialties can work together as colleagues.
National University’s naturopathic medicine program offers a rigorous and academically challenging curriculum that blends a thorough scientific foundation with comprehensive training in naturopathic treatments. The program brings a strong emphasis on naturopathic principles and philosophy together with a thorough study of contemporary, evidence-based treatments from a number of perspectives.
Offering the only naturopathic medicine degree program in the Midwest, NUHS boasts a beautiful 35-acre campus in a quiet suburb only minutes away from the academic, entertainment, and cultural resources of Chicago.
If you're interested in getting answers to all your questions about pursuing a career in naturopathic medicine, we invite you to download our resource — A Career Guide to Becoming a Naturopathic Doctor.
About the Author
Dr. Fraser Smith