Commentary  In defense of naturopathic medicine

Toward a model of holistic healing

When we question the ‘legitimacy’ of alternative forms of medicine, such as naturopathy or homeopathy, what exactly is it that we are questioning?  The efficacy of the treatments?  The training of the doctors?  The philosophy behind the practices?  What is it about alternative medicine that raises the hackles of so many well-intentioned critics?  Why is it that conventional medicine is often considered immune to criticism, especially in Canada, where our beloved ‘universal’ healthcare is so highly valued?

Currently there is little to no evidence – scientific or otherwise – that suggests that naturopathic or homeopathic treatments are more dangerous than conventional medical treatments, nor is there evidence that doctors of alternative medicine are more likely to commit fatal medical errors.  Actually, the opposite is true: according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 20 to 30 per cent of mainstream medical patients receive contraindicated care in the United States, and up to 98,000 people die each year due to medical errors that include unnecessary and dangerous surgery, unnecessary medication, and other doctors’ errors. This makes mainstream medical errors one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.

Furthermore, naturopathic doctors are just that: doctors. Comparative studies done on Medical Doctor (M.D.) and Naturopathic Doctor (N.D.) curricula show that naturopathy students at accredited schools throughout North America, including the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, receive comparable biomedical and diagnostic sciences training. Many schools actually requiring that their students take more credits in these areas than other medical schools, as well as extra training in fields of study not covered by mainstream medicine, such as homeopathy, counselling, and clinical nutrition.  Many schools also begin the hands-on clinical training a year or two earlier than their mainstream counterparts. All this is in line with one of the key values of naturopathic and homeopathic medicine: taking a holistic approach to health and wellness.

Conventional medicine is premised on a dichotomy between ‘normal’ and ‘pathological,’ and focuses on the suppression of symptoms in order to return the body to a general and largely vague conception of normal that stems from essentializing conceptions of physical and mental health. Conventional medical discourse has been used to condone coercive, non-consensual medical procedures and experimentation on the bodies of women of colour, poor women, disabled folks, and gender- or sexually-variant folks.

Medical racism was used to aid and legitimize colonial expansion, lending ‘scientific’ support to slavery, Manifest Destiny, and a myriad of other white supremacist assumptions that continue both tacitly and explicitly in mainstream discourse to this day.  Medical sexism led to the pathologizing of women’s sexuality and bodies through concepts such as the solely female disorder of hysteria (cured through regular treatment that essentially amounted to sexual assault or the excising or cauterization of the clitoris).  The European witch hunts, which lasted well into the 18th century, criminalized European and, with colonial expansion, indigenous women healers who were using effective and culturally specific traditional practices.

The concept of the ‘normal’ body in medicine (and society as a whole) is one that is inherently white, middle or upper-middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, ‘sane’ and male.  This idea of normalcy is one that produces and maintains a hierarchy of bodies and health, where deviant bodies and behaviours are pathologized, devalued, and even criminalized, especially if the deviance is not ‘curable’ ie: disability, mental illness, queerness, et cetera. The effects of this are widespread, affecting the accessibility, availability, and quality of treatment, among other things.

Naturopathic medicine, however, takes a holistic approach to illness that recognizes both the uniqueness of individuals’ experiences, bodies, and minds, as well as the interconnected social, environmental, and spiritual elements that affect our bodies and contribute to our health and well being.  This integrated approach means that naturopathic doctors treat the causes, along with the symptoms of disease, using the most natural and non-toxic treatments, as well as working with the patient to educate and devise strategies for long-term, multi-dimensional health.

Am I advocating for the wholesale dismissal of conventional medicine?  Absolutely not, and neither do the vast majority of alternative medical practitioners, including naturopathic and homeopathic doctors. However, it is important to recognize the downsides and limitations of mainstream medical foundations and practice, and to expand our definitions of health and treatment in order to prioritize and value the well-being of all bodies in order to create strong and healthy communities.

Molly Swain is a U2 Joint Honours Women’s Studies and Religious Studies student.  She digs autonomy and self-determination, especially with regard to her physical and mental health.  Molly can be reached at