Mar 10 2015

Naturopathic Delusions

I want the public to fully understand what naturopaths are, because I don’t think that they do. This is a situation common to many cults and pseudosciences – there is a superficial layer of reality that represents the public face of the group, largely crafted for marketing purposes, and then there is the deeper layer of utter nonsense that most people don’t see. Homeopathy is a great example. Unless you are a skeptic or true believer, chances are you think homeopathy is some form of herbalism, rather than the magic potions that it is.

Naturopathy is similar. The superficial marketing level presentation of naturopathy is that its practitioners are medically trained and emphasize nutrition, lifestyle, and natural remedies. I attended a lecture at Yale by a naturopath who summarized their training as, “Everything you get in medical school, plus nutrition.” (The first claim is patently wrong, and the second falsely assumes that medical training does not include nutrition.)

The marketing, however, is working. After a recent article about naturopathy we posted on our Facebook page we had this comment:

How can you stop believing whole food, herbs, sunshine, fresh air, good water, exercise and human touch (which are the foundation of naturopathic medicine) are worse for you than allopathic poisons?

Marketing propaganda successfully internalized.

This summary is an absolute fiction on multiple levels. First, there is no such thing as allopathic medicine. That is a derogatory term invented by Hahnemann (the inventor of homeopathy) to denigrate the medicine of his time (which no longer exists). Second, good nutrition and exercise are part of science-based medicine, not a recent invention by alternative gurus. Finally, this bunny rabbits and sunshine image of naturopathy is a fiction.

Naturopathy is pseudoscience from top to bottom. They may throw in some basic nutrition and lifestyle advice, hardly something you need a special practitioner for, but what makes up the core of naturopathy is pure nonsense. The whole “natural” vibe is just the candy coating.

The article I mentioned above prompting the comment is this one about former naturopath Britt Marie Deegan. She completed her naturopathic degree and practiced for several years, but then just could not maintain the delusion any more, so now she has a blog in which she exposes the pseudoscience in her former profession. She’s just getting started, and has also submitted an excellent article for us at SBM which should go up soon.

Naturopaths define their own profession this way:

Naturopathic medicine is a distinct system of primary health care derived from a strong philosophical belief about life, health, and disease. Its principles and philosophies are an integral component of naturopathic assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Naturopathic medicine promotes wellness and prevention. It blends modern scientific knowledge with traditional and natural forms of medicine and it emphasizes disease as a process rather than as an entity.Naturopathic medicine is defined by principles rather than by methods or modalities. Above all, it honors the body’s innate wisdom to heal. The emphasis of naturopathic therapies is to treat the causes of disease and to stimulate the healing power of body by using natural techniques and therapies. Naturopathic doctors diagnose and treat both acute and chronic conditions and treat patients of all ages.

Notice that they explicitly state that naturopathy is a philosophy, not defined by methods (such as the scientific method). This is accurate, in my opinion, it is a philosophy-based practice. That means that they follow their beliefs, not the evidence. In an excellent series of articles on SBM by Scott Gavura he quotes naturopath Amy Rothenberg as saying:

I love being able to look at new approaches that may come along and to ask myself, “Is this within the bounds of the philosophy I so embrace?” And if not, to let it go.

Forget what the evidence says – philosophy is supreme. The result of this philosophy-based approach is that naturopaths cling to pseudoscientific ideas and treatments. One of their favorite treatments is the water treatment. This typically involves soaking part of the body in warm and cold water to “stimulate healing.” Naturopaths also like homeopathy, and often practice their own form of chiropractic manipulation.

In essence they practice a hodge-podge of nonsense, the only thing that these treatments seem to have in common is that they are not science-based. Most doctors who have naturopaths practicing in their area will have nightmare stories about patients who were under the ministrations of a naturopath. My best example is the patient who turned out to have CJD (the human form of mad-cow disease). His naturopath diagnosed him with food allergies (after other failed diagnoses, such as electromagnetic sensitivity) and prescribed an increasingly restrictive diet until the patient was malnourished and cachectic. He seemed to be living on the 60 or so supplements he was being prescribed. These ministrations certainly hastened the end and deprived the patient and his family of a proper diagnosis and prognosis until he was a week from death.

Mark Crislip tells his most dramatic naturopath story on SBM:

I became interested in SCAMs early in my practice when I was called to see a “leg infection”.  What it was a dead leg, wet gangrene, with the horrible smell only rotting human flesh can produce.  It was a 24 year old girl who had an osteosarcoma of her leg and rather than be cured with amputation she went to a naturopath who said she could he cured by, among other things, drinking alkaline water and herbs.  It didn’t.  She refused surgery by us. She had been brought in by her mother when she became unresponsive but perked up with fluids, letting us know her naturopath still assured her that he could cure the tumor, that the rotten leg was her body ‘rejecting’ the tumor.  That night the tumor, or the infection, eroded into a major artery and she bled to death.  That is my idea of the archetype naturopathic care.

As Mark says, these are not aberrations. This is the archetype of naturopathic care – operating within their philosophy regardless of reality.

The picture that Deegan is slowly painting over at her blog is that Naturopathy is devoid of any standard of care, let alone a science-based standard. She gives vaccines as an example. The official position of the AANP (American Association of Naturopathic Physicians) is the “freedom of choice” dodge:

All physicians and institutions providing care for children and adults should respect the responsibility and freedom of patients, parents and guardians to decide whether or not to proceed with the immunizations or the recommended immunization schedule within the range of options provided by state law.

They do not recommend any vaccine schedule, any standard of care, just some ancillary recommendations about informed consent and similar issues. Individual naturopaths are free to do whatever they want. They can essentially make it up as they go along.


What is most scary about all of this, and why we have been focusing so much attention on naturopaths, is that they are aggressively seeking licensure in the states that do not already have it, and to expand the scope of their practice. What they want, and what they are increasingly getting, is the right to function as primary care doctors. This would be an utter disaster for health care.

Naturopathic training does not prepare them to be primary care physicians. Their profession is not science-based, does not have a science-based standard of care, and is largely a collection of pseudoscience and dangerous nonsense loosely held together by a vague “nature is always best” philosophy.

This is one of those situations where most people will not believe that the situation can be as bad as it really is. This is similar to when I describe to people, who are hearing it for the first time, what homeopathy actually is. They usually don’t believe it, because they cannot accept that something so nonsensical can be so widespread and apparently accepted in our society. The same is true when I tell people about the core chiropractic philosophy of life energy (at least for those chiropractors who have not rejected their roots), or about what Scientologists actually believe.

One common reaction is the “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy. Defenders will insist that what we are describing is the exception, and that a “real” naturopath is not like that. Obviously there will be a range of practice (especially since there is no standard), but the pseudoscientific treatments that make up naturopathy are not the exception. They are at the core of their education and their philosophy.

Deegan is a useful resource because she gives us an insider’s view of naturopathic education and practice.

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