What’s naturopathic medicine all about?
Gillian Flower, ND
Did you know that any health condition can benefit from the naturopathic approach? Heal the body, address the root cause of disease, and treat the whole person by harnessing the healing power of nature. Get to know a naturopathic doctor today!
What exactly is a naturopathic doctor or ND? If you were a game show contestant with $50,000 on the line, could you confidently distinguish between a naturopathic doctor, herbalist, nutritionist, acupuncturist, and homeopath? If you’d have to call a friend, you’re not alone. To be fair, this a trick question. The diverse practice of naturopathic medicine incorporates all of the disciplines above, in addition to physical medicine (massage, chiropractic, hydrotherapy) and lifestyle counselling. This seemingly endless therapeutic toolbox is, in fact, one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about my own practice of naturopathic medicine.
NDs are primary health care providers, diagnosing and treating both acute and chronic conditions. The principles of naturopathic medicine encourage addressing the root cause of disease and treating the whole person. Treatments work with the healing power of nature within the body.
In practice, this approach leaves NDs exceptionally well positioned to address a wide range of health concerns from chronic ailments such as digestive disorders, hormonal imbalances, and skin conditions to more immediate difficulties such as pain, infection, and mental health issues. Customized recommendations treat both the cause and effect of disease. Truly, any condition can benefit from naturopathic care.
Naturopathic education provides a solid foundation in basic medical and clinical sciences such as anatomy, pathology, diagnosis, and pharmacology. It also covers naturopathic modalities including botanical medicine, nutrition, homeopathy, and traditional Chinese medicine. The demanding curriculum includes a full 12 months of supervised practice.
Two Canadian institutions offer accredited four-year programs: the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine (BINM) in New Westminster, BC, and the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM) in Toronto, Ontario. Five additional sites in the US provide comparable training.
Training culminates in the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX), a gruelling series of international licensing exams. Finally, before hanging up their shingle, aspiring practitioners in licensed provinces may face exams administered by their regulating bodies.
Naturopathic medicine is a fully licensed and regulated profession in
Nova Scotia NDs have title protection through provincial legislation. No regulation exists in the remaining seven provinces and territories, leaving the public to evaluate the credentials of any given practitioner.
If you’ve seen more than one naturopathic doctor, you may notice distinct differences in individual style. Some NDs pursue additional training to offer treatments including intravenous (IV) therapies, reiki, and Bowen therapy, or advanced hydrotherapy treatments. As NDs may orient their practice to emphasize specific treatment modalities, or may focus on particular conditions or age groups, no two doctors practise in exactly the same way.
Drastic variations in provincial and territorial regulations lend local flavour to naturopathic practice. Some NDs facilitate profound health gains with counselling, hydrotherapy, and botanical tinctures. Others access pharmaceuticals and perform minor surgery to achieve similar goals. Despite the variable tools at our disposal, our guiding principles remain the same.
In unregulated provinces and territories, the onus is on the consumer to differentiate between appropriately trained NDs and those claiming this title on the strength of a short-term or correspondence course.
Inquire carefully about
Many legitimate NDs in unregulated areas will hold a licence from a regulated province (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario).
Inconsistent provincial regulations allow declaration of a specialty in some provinces but not in others. I can claim a “focus” in my Ontario-based practice, but not a specialization. Your choice of practitioner may be guided by a quick read through their website, where most will identify areas of focus.
My own clinical focus at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre (OICC) is somewhat self-evident. Patients and families affected by cancer receive care from nurses, NDs, integrative medical doctors, and an array of talented practitioners providing everything from acupuncture to yoga therapy. Practitioner meetings allow us to coordinate our endeavours in patient care. Consultation notes are frequently written to internal and external providers in a patient’s care circle, detailing their treatments at the OICC.
The majority of my time is spent in consultation visits, maintaining patient records, researching patient concerns, and responding to inquiries. On some days, I will administer IV vitamin C treatments, and on others I will lead public nutrition seminars in our demonstration kitchen. Working with a cancer-affected population is simultaneously inspiring, heartbreaking, engaging, and fulfilling.
Initial ND visits may last 90 minutes and involve in-depth discussion of your health history and current concerns. Goals, supplements, and relevant tests may be reviewed, and a physical exam is usually conducted. New tests may be recommended, depending on the provincial practice scope of your ND.
I focus on diet, sleep, digestive function, and exercise habits in the first visit, as these form essential pillars of health in every individual. Initial treatment recommendations routinely involve modifications to dietary and lifestyle practices. More often than not, I discontinue many current vitamin or botanical supplements while providing a few carefully selected additions.
Injections, acupuncture, or physical therapies may occur in the first visit while intravenous therapy may warrant further testing before initiation. I follow up shortly after an initial visit to ensure that patients are on track with my recommendations. I also try to see patients before they embark upon a new phase of their conventional care plan to prepare for surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. Your health needs and individual treatment plan will determine how often you see your ND.
In my field, highly specialized conventional treatments may effectively target cancer cells, but sadly, the whole person is often overlooked. People generally require additional support to address side effects or return to an optimal state of physical and mental health. While my patients may have a bevy of nurses, oncologists, and others at their disposal, naturopathic care offers perspectives and treatments that they don’t find elsewhere.
NDs in other settings, especially those in rural or remote communities, may take on more of a primary care role, being the go-to doctor when a disease or disorder is suspected. Other patients, unable to effectively address their concerns through conventional channels, may seek naturopathic care for additional or alternative solutions. Still others will see a naturopathic doctor to explore natural therapies before trying drugs or surgery, or to prevent disease before it starts.
In my early 30s, I decided to honour my life’s ambition to be an educator, but on my way to teachers’ college, I found naturopathic medicine. An innocent dinner with an ND friend inspired me to follow a different path as a naturopathic doctor where I could harmonize my diverse interests in the environment, nutrition, mental health, and cycling. The deal was truly sealed when my chronic eczema resolved with diet modifications guided by my trusted fourth-year student clinician. I was in with both feet.
In the years that followed, my passion for naturopathic medicine has only grown. While not every case has a happy ending, my patients tell me time and time again of friends who had a harder time with chemo than they did, or less energy, or more pain. I’m continually humbled by the power of the body to heal itself with just a bit of support in the right way.
The wide range of naturopathic treatment modalities and the core principles that guide their use put naturopathic doctors in a unique and privileged position to help you achieve your health goals. See one of us to find out more!
Seeing an ND for the first time? Use these tips to help us help you.
May 9 to 14 is Naturopathic Medicine Week. Check out the free healthy living events NDs are holding across Canada at cand.ca.