Well, it seems that every so often natural therapies take a bit of a beating in the media. While there will always be people who don’t have any faith in natural medicine, it is frustrating when incorrect information is being perpetrated, particularly by journalists who have not always done their homework on the very topic they are commenting on.
I also find that many people come to me not having visited a naturopath before, and really aren’t sure what to expect. One new patient remarked after we finished his appointment that he had a preconceived idea that he was going to be walking into an incense-filled dark room, with me chanting mantras and waving crystals! In my case, nothing could be further from the truth. This particular patient was quite surprised (and relieved, I think!) to learn differently.
What becomes apparent to me, in most of these articles in the media, or opinions of those who start throwing around words like ‘bogus’ or ‘pseudoscience’, is that these people are only opinionated, not actually informed. My question to someone who dismisses natural medicines as not having any evidence would be – have you actually looked? Because there is some great, fascinating, mind-blowing information out there, if you take the time to actually broaden your mind.
Here are a few myths I thought were just ripe for the busting
Myth #1 - Naturopathic medicine is unscientific hocus-pocus
This is probably the most common, and ironically the most blatantly incorrect statement that I commonly see in the news/on social media. The fact is, natural medicines are subject to much of the same scrutiny as pharmaceutical medications. Evidence from scientific research is a huge part of modern naturopathy, but we also don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by discounting traditional knowledge and wisdom. We also take into account the fact that YOU are the expert on your own body.
Scholarly articles regarding natural medicines can actually be found in many places that information on orthodox medicine is found - on PubMed, the Cochrane Library, and in many peer-reviewed publications from around the globe. You can look these up yourself. I performed a quick PubMed search on 28.01.2018, and 'turmeric' revealed 4314 results, 'magnesium' had 100506 results, and 'St John's Wort' (a medicinal herb used for the natural treatment of depression) had 3079 citations.
One thing that the evidence-based medicine movement seems to have forgotten, is that results from trials and studies only forms part of what actually constitutes ‘evidence’ – the clinical experience of the practitioner as to what works (and what doesn’t) also counts as evidence.
Naturopathy draws on both current scientific enquiry, as well as taking into account the traditional usage of herbs and nutrients. In many cases, when herbal medicines are researched using modern methods, they have been found to contain active constituents that can explain the historical use of that particular herb as a remedy. As the main driver of research is to look for new drug treatments, we do need to question whether there is less evidence for some herbs or nutrients because they aren’t likely to be made into drugs, and therefore there is not much profit to be made. Also, it pays to keep in mind that many herbs have yet to be studied in detail, simply because they are potentially of little value to pharmaceutical companies.
Lastly, I find it somewhat ironic that the definition of science is to have an open and enquiring mind – which means that all points of view and potential explanations should be considered, not dismissed without investigation.
Myth #2 - If you see a naturopath, you will be taken off your medications.
Not the case. In my clinic, I always ask for details of any pharmaceutical medications being taken, so that I can look them up in order to consider what side effects they may be causing, what nutrients they may be depleting from the patient, and in order to avoid any potential interactions between medications and herbs/nutrients I would like the patient to start using.
A good naturopath will NOT tell you to cease any medications. This is out of our scope of practice, and is a matter that is for discussion between you and your doctor.
A good naturopath will also not tell you they can cure cancer, perform miracles, or juggle 3 eggs and a cat. If someone does this – run for the hills (although make sure you see the egg-and-cat-juggling first)!
However, I am prepared to stand here and say that if someone comes to me looking for a safer alternative to what they are currently using, they are wanting to reduce the need for medications, or reduce side effects from their medications, then this is something that I am more than happy to help with, if I can. In many cases, improving nutrition and lifestyle can help reduce the need for pharmaceuticals, as well as specific (evidence-based!) herbs and nutrients.
Myth #3 - Naturopaths are anti-vaccination.
This is a big one, and it often gets dragged into media reports that actually have nothing to do with vaccination (I think it just makes for good headlines to link natural medicine and vaccine scepticism). There are a few naturopaths out there who do take an anti-vaccination stance, mostly due to their concerns regarding long-term safety of vaccinations, and their ingredients. You might be surprised to learn that some naturopaths are in favour of vaccination. However, you will find that most (including myself) support sourcing quality information, and making an informed decision.
Myth #4 - Naturopaths are uneducated witch-doctors.
Wrong again – many naturopaths hold Advanced Diplomas as a minimum qualification, and a good proportion complete a 4-year degree before they start practicing. Some have taken on post-graduate university study. These are all recognised under the National Register of Vocational Education and Training (VET) section of the government’s Department of Education and Training (see www.training.gov.au). I myself have done extra study to degree level, above the minimum requirements, as it is very important to me that I am able to provide the best and safest care to my patients.
As part of our study we have to learn anatomy & physiology, chemistry, disease states, nutrition, herbal medicine, how to critique evidence, orthodox medical treatments and when to refer to a medical practitioner. We also need to commit to ongoing education to keep us up to date with the latest knowledge and scientific research.
Myth #5 - Natural medicines don’t work.
Actually, that is a very ironic statement, given that some of the medicines used in mainstream treatments today have their origins in herbs that have a long history of use.
One example of a medicine that is widely used in modern medicine is the opioid painkiller morphine – which comes from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum).
Aspirin was originally made from Willow bark (Salix alba), which contains a compound that has similar actions. Willow bark had long been used as a pain reliever before pharmaceutical drugs were around. You can read more about the history of Willow bark here (the University of Maryland's website).
Another interesting body of research supporting natural interventions is in the area of using a special type of diet called a ketogenic diet to control epilepsy. This was originally begun in the 1920’s, and has been quite extensively studied. You can read about it here.
Personally, in my own life and that of my family I have experienced the benefits of a natural and holistic approach, and I hate to think where I might be without it. As someone who was told by doctors that I would be living on painkillers for most of my life (more about that later), I now have the wonderful experience of having to check our one and only packet of paracetamol to see whether it is still within date, on the rare times I need to get it out of my cupboard. And I have seen many others take control of their health, by making positive changes after being at their wits end when a medical approach wasn’t working for them.
Interestingly, many pharmaceutical medications have less evidence than you may think. In 2003, Allen Roses, the vice-president of genetics at GlaxoSmithKline (a large pharmaceutical company) caused controversy when he stated that ‘the vast majority of drugs only work in 30 or 50% of people’, and this was published in the editorial of the British Medical Journal.
Myth #6- Natural medicines are dangerous.
The majority of Australians use some form of natural medicines on a regular basis, including vitamin/mineral supplements and herbs, very safely. Many people who are taking natural medicines are taking pharmaceutical medicines as well. Yes, some herbs and nutrients can be dangerous if they are taken in excess, over a long period of time, or at the same time as a medication that they can interfere with, and this is where consulting a practitioner can help. Overall, natural medicines have been shown to have a very safe track record when in the hands of a properly qualified practitioner.
Where you need to be careful:
As it turns out, where it seems likely that the media is getting the incorrect idea seems to be through recent prominent cases that have not actually involved qualified practitioners.
Currently, there are no laws regarding who can call themselves a naturopath, a herbalist, a nutritionist, a health coach or likewise. In some cases these individuals have done a weekend course, an online course through a college with a fancy-sounding name, or have decided to start a blog – while this is great for personal knowledge, the danger here is that people can end up dispensing advice that they are not qualified to give. The same goes for many multi-level marketing company salespeople.
Always look for a minimum of an Advanced Diploma qualification in either naturopathy, nutritional medicine and/or herbal medicine, membership of a reputable association such as the National Herbalists Association of Australia (NHAA – you can look for a practitioner in your area here) and health fund rebates.
So, there you have it. We are not long-haired weirdos living in grass huts and chanting to the full moon. We are real people, helping other real people, with real information.