Why We Need Naturopathic Medicine | Portland, OR | Lee Dennis, ND

Lee Dennis, ND

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Why We Need Naturopathic Medicine

by Lee Dennis, ND

Posted: November 19, 2013

If you're not familiar with naturopathic medicine, you may want to go here or here first for a quick low-down. For the rest of you who are familiar with it, but maybe just don't know if it's necessary in general or right for you, let's talk.

According to the NIH, in 2007 approximately 38% of the adult US population used some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and they spent over $33.9 billion dollars in doing so. While these statistics alone do not in any way validate the efficacy of alternative medicine, they do speak to a growing trend and a desire for it. Naturopathic doctors (NDs) are experts in alternative, or natural, medicine and are currently the best trained practitioners to bridge the divide between allopathic medicine and CAM. We are trained in diagnostic and treatment methods from both paradigms. We can not only offer patients efficacious, alternative treatments that are based in science and/or traditional uses, but we can do so safely without interfering with prescription drug therapies or recommendations from their medical doctor.

But, let's look a little deeper. What might be the reasons for this growing interest in alternative therapies? What are some of the problems that modern medicine currently faces? I can name a few to start with - the rise of antibiotic resistant pathogens, the unpleasant to outright dangerous side effects of some prescription medications, epidemics of largely preventable chronic diseases, epidemics of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, some of the highest health care costs with some of the poorest outcomes compared to other wealthy nations and a lack of primary care physicians. If naturopathic medicine could address just a couple of these issues, it would be a valuable medical profession. The fact is, it can help to address all of these problems. Let's take them one by one.

Antibiotic Resistance

With the ever increasing threat of diseases that are becoming resistant to antibiotic treatments, such as MRSA, we need to not only develop antibiotics that are effective, but we need to be extremely judicious in our use of current antibiotics to prevent a worsening of the situation. Naturopathic doctors are very good at cautionary prescribing. While allopathic physicans can also certainly cut back antibiotic prescriptions, they are not as well trained in alternative solutions. NDs, on the other hand, can address many common mild bacterial illnesses, such as strep throat, urinary tract infections, ear infections and others, without resorting to antibiotics. A wide variety of botanicals extracts have proved to be useful against bacterial infections whether it be through direct antibacterial activity or through stimulation of the immune system. Garlic, thyme, oregano, bearberry, baptisia, cranberry, myrrh, goldenseal, echinacea, juniper, tea tree and usnea are just a few with such activity. Naturopathic physicians are also trained to employ the use of other modalities, such as hydrotherapy and homeopathy, which can both be used as concomitant treatments and can help to stimulate the body's own healing capacity.

Side Effects

The issue of side effects is consistently raised by those seeking alternative care and with good reason. Sometimes the side effect of a medication may be mild, from causing a cough to increased irritability or drowsiness. Other times, the possible consequences of a medication can be so severe that it may only be warranted if the alternative of disease progression is worse. Naturopathic physicians can address this problem in a number of ways. We can begin treatment, whenever possible, by offering the gentlest therapies we have. These may include homeopathy, various nutritional or herbal supplements, hydrotherapy and dietary changes. This isn't to say that all of our treatments are without unwanted side effects or that we will avoid pharmaceuticals when they are indicated. Botanical medicines, for example, can have unwanted side effects and can certainly interact with other medications. This is why they should be used under the care of a licensed ND to assure that they are safe and necessary. Even though some herbal medicine can have detrimental effects, a large majority are extremely safe and well tolerated when used appropriately. Additionally, herbal medicines have the advantage of being time tested for hundreds, if not thousands, of years of traditional use compared to new drugs that get a safety testing of a few years at most.

NDs are also highly likely to take steps to prevent the adverse effects of a given medication whenever possible. A prime example is the use of probiotics. Nearly all NDs will recommend probiotics to our patients during or after an antibiotic treatment regimen. Evidence has shown that this simple step can help to prevent the gastrointestinal side effects that often accompany antibiotics. While this recommendation is becoming more mainstream, there are still a large number of allopathic physicians that aren't doing it, even though the science and clinical experience for it is there.

The other way we can address this issue of side effects is through prevention (which you'll read more about below). If we can prevent diseases through lifestyle and dietary changes then we can prevent the need for future medications and their unwanted side effects. Naturopathic doctors are leaders in the field of prevention.

According to the CDC, 50% of US adults have at least 1 chronic disease, often stemming from preventable causes such as low physical activity, poor dietary habits, smoking and alcohol use. Unfortunately, we are not seeing huge advances in this area. There are many reasons for this that often have little to do with the actual treatment protocols. Allopathic medicine leaves a large portion of preventative recommendations - including nutrition and exercise - to the realm of public health. This occurs not only because medical doctors generally only spend a short amount of time with patients, but also because their training (in nutrition, at least) is quite often fairly limited. While those who work in public health do great work, it is really necessary to discuss preventative recommendations in detail in a one-on-one setting where the patient and physician can truly explore the lifestyle changes that are needed and the best way the patient can achieve their short-term and long-term health goals. The allopathic medical model is simply not designed for this type of patient-centered care. Naturopathic medicine can help to fill this role.

This overwhelming lack of true preventative medicine lies at the heart of many chronic diseases. But, let's be clear that preventative medicine needs to include much more than just blood pressure screenings and blood work. Let's also make the distinction now between screening and prevention. A colonoscopy screening that catches the early colon cancer or polyp hasn't really prevented anything, while good dietary habits including large amounts of fruits and vegetables with plenty of fiber can actually do just that. Naturopathic doctors tend to have a huge focus on prevention because we receive more thorough training in nutrition and we tend to spend much more time with our patients. This allows us to help our patients work through obstacles and find creative ways to make important lifestyle changes.

Mental & Emotional Disorders

There are plenty of possible reasons for the rise of mental and emotional disorders. The American lifestyle undoubtedly plays no small part in this rise. We have an ever increasing wealth disparity in this country leading to large amounts of the population on the verge of poverty and the associated stress that comes with it. We also have some of the longest work hours and shortest vacation times compared to other industrialized nations. The stress from these factors alone has a huge impact on our mental and emotional well-being. But, when we take into account other factors, such as poor dietary habits, low physical activity and environmental toxins it's no wonder that our mental health is just as affected as our physical health, especially given that the two are inextricably connected.

While naturopathic physicians cannot repair our economic system, change unhealthy work ethics or rid the world of environmental toxins there are a number of things we can do. Most naturopathic physicians pride themselves not only as doctors, but as educators. We spend a good portion of time educating our patients on healthy habits including stress management and a good diet. While a patient may not be able to immediately correct their financial situation or other stressors, they can, through various stress-management techniques, change how that stress affects them without necessarily turning to self-medication (such as drugs & alcohol) or to pharmaceuticals.

Health Care Costs and Primary Care

Unfortunately, there is no one simple solution to rising health care costs in this country. However, without trying to repeat myself too much, I'll say it again. Prevention. Prevention is the key to so many of our current health care concerns. Without focusing on prevention, we will never achieve lower health care costs and improved outcomes. How prevention helps decrease our health care costs should be relatively simple. Creating healthy habits now, prevents emergency room visits, pharmaceutical medications and unwanted surgeries later. This is where the need for primary care comes in and naturopathic doctors are poised to fill the need that exists in this country. Without good access to primary care doctors, too many people are relying on emergency systems to manage their health care which, as most of you know, is incredibly expensive. The Affordable Care Act, with all its flaws, has the potential to improve access to primary care physicians by increasing insurance coverage and access to Medicaid services. But for this to work, we need more primary care physicians to fill the role.

Note: While naturopathic doctors are covered by some insurance plans in licensed states, they are not by others and/or there may be many restrictions and limits on coverage. This is where you can help. Now that the new insurance market is open, choose plans with naturopathic coverage or demand it from your insurance company. The coverage that exists is only there because we wanted it in the first place. Continue to use what's there while also demanding more and better coverage. Do not let the insurance companies decide who you can and can't see.

There may be some of you still left thinking that allopathic medicine, within our current system, can take care of all of the above problems. While they could indeed take care of some of these problems, it would involve changing their system and altering some of the current medical thinking when it comes to patient care. It's easy to tell a doctor to stop over-prescribing medications, but without giving them some alternative tools to not only ease a patient's mind, but to also ease their suffering, they'll have to fall back on what they know - pharmaceuticals. Naturopathic doctors, however, already have these alternative tools. While medical doctors could definitely do more to address prevention, spending 10 minutes with a patient simply isn't enough time to do so. Yes, you can say, "Stop smoking", or "Cut back on the alcohol", but can you learn why they started in the first place? Can you learn what's getting in the way of quitting? It's easy for a doctor to refer to a nutritionist or a therapist for help, which is great, but it's still no excuse for not spending time with your patient and making sure that their needs are being met. Only a doctor that truly gets to know their patient and spends time educating them can be a true advocate for their health. Without knowing your patient, you're only treating a set of symptoms, which all too often just isn't enough.

This article is not in any way intended as an assault on medical doctors as many of them do great work and their services are sorely needed. It is, however, intended to point out some of the shortcomings of our current system and to offer up a solution that already exists. Naturopathic doctors are here, our profession is growing and we're ready to make some changes. Are you?


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