In June of 2009 the British Homeopathic Association declared “homeopathy awareness week.” I obliged by writing a post making the public more aware of the superstitious nonsense that is homeopathy. I, in fact, want people to be aware of exactly what homeopathy is, because most of the public does not know what absurd pseudoscience it is.

Now I have to extend the favor to naturopathy – because the US has declared October 7-13 Naturopathy Awareness Week. They managed to squeeze in this critical vote prior to shutting down the government. Here is the resolution:

S.Res.221 – A resolution designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as “Naturopathic Medicine Week” to recognize the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who apparently is enamored of alternative medicine, sponsored the resolution. The resolution is not a law and does not have any specific effects, but it is concerning none-the-less. Pseudoscientists are always desperate for the trappings of legitimacy and respect. They have become quite good and finding creative ways to make it seem like their nonsense is legitimate, because they cannot gain the one true measure – actual scientific legitimacy.

Naturopaths could, for example, conduct high quality clinical research that would establish in a convincing way that one or more of their preferred treatment methods are safe and effective, equal to or superior to standard medical care. They can’t do that, however, because their treatments are largely nonsensical and worthless, so instead they seek to have naïve politicians give them the recognition they crave.

Here is how naturopaths define their approach:

Naturopathic medicine is a distinct primary health care profession, emphasizing prevention, treatment, and optimal health through the use of therapeutic methods and substances that encourage individuals’ inherent self-healing process.  The practice of naturopathic medicine includes modern and traditional, scientific, and empirical methods.

This, of course, is propaganda and spin. They claim to use “scientific and empirical methods,” but that is mainstream science-based medicine. If they really used scientific and empirical methods, they would be practicing mainstream medicine.

The focus on the “inherent self-healing process” is a little closer to the truth, in that they tend to use modalities that make that claim. CAM practitioners in general have relied upon the “self-healing” gambit because they cannot actually treat diseases or identifiable entities – because their treatments do not work, because they are not based in reality.

Saying that a treatment “supports the body’s self-healing ability” is just hand-waving marketing hype. It gets around the fact that they do not have a plausible biological mechanism addressing a specific biological problem.

This claim is often attached to energy-based or vitalistic treatments, those that are based on the pre-scientific superstition that living things have their own “life energy” which is responsible for health. No such life energy exists, and therefore any practice based upon the notion of such energy is hopelessly worthless.

In practice naturopaths cobble together a wide range of unscientific, disproven, discarded, and fanciful treatments. They seem to prefer treatments that do not work to those that are safe and effective. Since regular medicine uses science to determine which treatments are safe and effective, this is the only way to distinguish themselves.

Let’s take a look at the curriculum for the school of naturopathy at Bridgeport University. It includes four semesters of homeopathy, in addition to oriental medicine, hydrotherapy, mind-body medicine, palpation, generative medicine, and manipulation. There are also the usual courses you would see in a medical school curriculum, but teaching some basic science is irrelevant if the philosophy of practice is unscientific.

Hydrotherapy is a traditional naturopathic treatment. It is the use of water, usually in the form of warm and cold cloths applied to the skin, inhaling vapor, and foot soaks. The claim is that this improves blood “circulation and quality” and is used to treat just about everything, from asthma to diabetes.

While naturopaths often present themselves as “integrative” – using science-based and magical potions side by side – in practice they tend to prefer the magic and are hostile to science-based medicine.

For example, here is a naturopath describing their approach to asthma:

Treatment for this disorder is dominated by the mainstream medical approach of proscribing a variety of drugs which, unfortunately, have toxic side effects. For instance, most bronchodilating drugs increase anxiety and sympathetic tone. Furthermore, many inhalers contain steroids, which can be very dangerous because they are addictive and extremely poisonous. In short, although in the moment allopathic drugs can save lives, used over time, they don’t present the best environment to promote healing in the body.

Interestingly, research shows that Asthma is often aggravated by diet. In some cases Asthma might even be caused by diet. It is therefore not surprising that many patients have already been treated successfully by naturopathic doctors through simple dietary recommendations.

First the factual error – steroids are not addictive. Chronic systemic use can create dependence because they inhibit the body’s ability to make its own steroids, so they have to be weaned off slowly. Inhaled steroids rarely are used consistently enough and in high enough dose to cause dependence (which is not the same thing as addiction – but addiction is a scarier word).

The relationship between diet and asthma is not clear at present. There is some preliminary evidence to suggest that those with a poor diet are more at risk for having asthma, but this has not been clearly established. There is no specific food or diet that causes asthma, that can prevent asthma, or abort an attack.

Science-based doctors recommend a healthy diet for patients with asthma, with weight control, and of course avoidance of foods to which one is allergic. But none of this is a substitute for medical treatment. Asthma can be a serious, even life-threatening disease, and it is critically important to receive standard science-based care.

The naturopathic approach, however, is to ignore the science, scare patients away from effective medication with words like “addictive” and “poisonous,” and rely upon nutritional methods which have no proven efficacy.

Again and again naturopaths demonstrate that they don’t understand the difference between a risk factor and a cause. Even when diet can be a risk factor for a disease, that does not mean it causes the disease, and it certainly does not mean that diet changes can cure or treat the disease once it occurs (which also confuses prevention with treatment).

Naturopaths do not follow the evidence. Rather they have a philosophical bias toward nutritional approaches and against pharmacological treatments. Mainstream medicine, rather, follows the evidence wherever it leads.

I do sincerely hope that the public becomes more aware of what naturopathic medicine actually is. It is what happens when you substitute philosophy for science, when you don’t ask the hard questions, like “does this treatment actually work,” and when practice becomes disconnected from reality.

I once asked a naturopath directly why they use homeopathy when all the scientific evidence indicates that it cannot possibly work and that it does not work. Their answer was, “because I have seen it work in my practice.” In other words – anecdotal evidence trumps science. When this is the case, there is no practical limit to the nonsensical conclusions to which one might arrive – even an entire profession based upon magic and wishful thinking.

Note: David Gorski wrote about naturopathy awareness week also at Science-Based Medicine. 


Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.