According to conventional wisdom, when you’re sick, you call the doctor. (And maybe your mom.) But your trusty MD may not be the only one who can cure what ails you—especially if you’ve paid him or her a visit already and still aren’t feeling well.
That’s where naturopaths come in. Naturopathic doctors, who are educated in the same basic sciences as medical doctors and attend 4-year naturopathic medical schools, take a holistic approach to healing and use natural approaches, like nutrition, herbs, and acupuncture, in addition to conventional ones, like drugs. Whereas an MD may prescribe medicine as a first line of defense—”take these pills to lower your cholesterol/cure your back pain/ease your anxiety”—an ND focuses on treating a problem’s underlying causes (say, poor diet, lack of exercise, or stress) versus just its symptoms. (And they’re just one of the 6 alternative doctors you should consider seeing.)
“We use drugs when necessary, but our goal isn’t to get a patient on the right drug so that they don’t experience symptoms. It’s to get them well,” says Jaclyn Chasse, ND, a New Hampshire–based naturopath and president-elect of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
While naturopaths take on any number of health problems, from colds to cancer, they may not be on the general public’s radar. (They’re currently licensed to practice in 17 states and Washington, DC.) “There’s a healthy skepticism surrounding what naturopaths do,” says Chasse. “But naturopathic medicine is not ‘medicine lite.’ In fact, I often see patients who are so sick because they haven’t gotten well in the conventional system.” Here are some reasons you may want to visit a naturopath.
Your blood pressure is creeping up, or you have type 2 diabetes.
When it comes to chronic conditions, drugs can help initially, but at some point, they may stop working as well, says Jamey Wallace, ND, chief medical officer at Washington’s Bastyr University (one of five accredited naturopathic medical schools in the US). “That’s why making lifestyle changes is a focus,” he says. Sufferers of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes typically benefit from weight loss, regular exercise, and, of course, a healthy diet, so a naturopath will help patients map out a plan to meet those goals. “I’ll spend time with a patient to identify obstacles to doing those things, and help them set up a schedule so they can practice them,” says Wallace.
Your hormones are out of whack.
Is your period irregular? Your PMS raging? A naturopath may be able to help. “Conventional medicine doesn’t have a lot of tools in this area—there’s nothing to support the body’s own hormone production but birth control,” says Chasse. “But certain herbs are incredibly good at bringing hormones back into balance by improving the connection between the brain and the ovaries, where the hormones are made.” Nutrition also comes into play with hormones, so naturopaths will dissect your diet if an imbalance is found (like MDs, NDs run blood tests to determine your hormone levels). Chasse’s tip: Antioxidants help the brain-ovary connection, so “your best bet is to eat the rainbow”—that is, lots of colorful fruits and veggies.
Your stomach is killing you.
If you’re struggling with anything from bloating to IBS to Crohn’s, overhauling your diet could be a better solution than taking meds. “Most digestive disorders respond well to dietary changes,” says Wallace. “I talk about food a lot. Naturopaths aren’t trained as nutritionists, but we incorporate food as medicine in our practice.” Naturopaths also dig deep to find the root cause of your pain. “We might do stool tests to see if carbs or fats or proteins aren’t properly broken down, and we’ll want to know what types of probiotics do or don’t live in your gut,” says Chasse. “We tend to do certain testing that conventional doctors don’t really do.”
You’re feeling depressed or anxious.
While seeing your conventional doc for anxiety or depression symptomsmight get you a prescription for meds or a psychiatrist referral, naturopaths work with patients to identify the underlying causes of their issues. (Note: They aren’t equipped to manage serious mental-health problems.) “We get a lot of training in counseling, about a master’s [degree] level,” says Chasse. “We help patients reorganize their lives to limit stress, and we also work with herbs that help the body biochemically manage stress better.” You’ll likely leave your ND’s office with exercise and diet recommendations, too.
Your heartburn is out of control.
Does a slice of pizza for dinner mean reflux for dessert? Conventional antacids aren’t the only remedy. “Antacids are prescribed in inordinate volumes in this country,” says Wallace. Instead, modifying your diet and taking certain herbs may be the first logical steps to feeling relief. “There are a number of herbs that soothe the tissue in the stomach lining and esophagus,” he says. “With the herbs, in addition to some very basic diet changes, many patients come in and say their symptoms are gone.”
You’re suffering from an autoimmune condition.
Autoimmune conditions (everything from celiac disease to rheumatoid arthritis to lupus) result when when the immune system goes haywire and attacks the body’s healthy cells. As such, conventional doctors commonly prescribe drugs, like steroids, to get some of these conditions in check. Naturopaths, on the other hand, look to lifestyle tweaks. Chasse points to diet as a prime example. “Inflammation is the immune system overreacting, and certain foods cause inflammation,” she says. “We’ll put patients on an anti-inflammatory-diet—plant-heavy, with lots of fish and healthy fats and less red meat and sweets—and prescribe herbs to bring the body back into balance.”
You have cancer.
A disclaimer here: When it comes to battling any disease, we’re certainly not suggesting you ditch your MD in favor of a naturopath (in fact, some states have laws requiring that patients with certain illnesses see an MD before an ND can offer treatment). But in some cases, naturopaths can help optimize conventional treatments. Take cancer, for instance: Naturopaths can help minimize the side effects of chemo (which damages the immune system) so that patients are less likely to run into complications during treatment. “Studies have shown that natural therapies”—think acupuncture or taking certain herbs—”actually help patients do better on chemo,” says Chasse. “When cancer patients are also being treated by a naturopath, they’re more likely to take to the prescribed regimen without a problem.”
Written by: Nicole Frehsee