Shoud You Choose a Doctor Over a Naturopath?

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
March 09, 2023
Shoud You Choose a Doctor Over a Naturopath?

It’s human for us to see what we like to see. A whistleblower says naturopaths, doctors who use modern and traditional cures, are practicing dangerous magic.

If you’re thinking of using a naturopath, a healthcare provider who treats maladies with a combination of modern and traditional cures, with an emphasis on self-healing, check out “Naturopathic Diaries,” a blog by Britt Hermes, who borrowed $250,000 for her training and spent three years practicing as a naturopath before becoming a fierce critic.

“I know it sounds cynical, but naturopathic medical care is like picking treatments out of a magical hat,” she says.

As a high school student, Hermes had been plagued by psoriasis. When she took cod liver oil and changed her diet, she got better. Psoriasis mysteriously comes and goes. But Hermes thought she’d beat it on her own and got excited about the world of alternative medicine. She attended a four-year naturopath program and went on to practice, taking on patients she now realizes she wasn’t competent to treat.

While she was working for another naturopath, he asked her to give intravenous injections and drips to his patients when he was busy. Then she learned that he had been importing a drug, called “Ukrain,” which wasn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and giving it to cancer patients, many of whom were terminally ill.

“I was scared. I was very angry. And I was so sad,” Hermes told Forbes. “Patients trusted us. They were very sick, desperate for a cure, and paying thousands of dollars.”


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Naturopaths become doctors when they have passed professional board exams and are licensed as primary care physicians. (They’re not MDs.)

People sometimes try naturopaths when they have problems that standard medicine can’t treat, or because they like the idea of natural cures, which include herbs, acupuncture, chiropractic-like adjustments, and homeopathy. You might be interested in one or more of those options and want an authoritative person to keep track of what you’re doing or recommend among them.

But it’s important to think critically, be educated, and be careful about your healthcare choices.

Homeopathy pills are sugar and water with tiny traces of substances, too small to change your biochemistry. But taking any pill can affect your thinking, a phenomenon called the “placebo effect,” which is why when drugs are tested a “control” group receives a placebo, which may be a sugar pill.  

To be considered successful, a remedy must beat the placebo effect. An exhaustive survey by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia examined the record for 68 illnesses and concluded that homeopathic sugar pills don’t beat placebos. A similar review recommended that the British National Health Service stop funding homeopathic treatments because sugar pills don’t work any better than other sugar pills.  

Naturopaths also use a technique popular with chiropractors called applied kinesiology (AK). The goal is to identify substances that weaken your body, which might be described as an allergy. So the naturopath might have you hold a container of the supposed allergen in one hand and test how strongly you resist when he presses down on your arm. Then you’ll do the same thing with your other arm, which will be stronger.

In a “double blind” situation, when neither the patient nor doctor know which hand holds the allergen, there’s no difference. But when people hold something they think is supposed to make them weaker, they don’t try as hard, even without realizing it, explains Steven Novella, MD, a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. A  review of the evidence concluded that the few studies evaluating specific AK procedures either refute or cannot support the validity of AK procedures as diagnostic tests.

You might say: “Bring on my placebo effect! I feel great!” Just remember that naturopaths charge money for their services and may also steer you away from an effective treatment.

If you trust them as a primary care doctor, they may miss important clues. A sample question from the 2013 study guide for the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examination Board, describes a phone call from a frantic mother of a child with a loud barking cough, gasping for breath, and a fever. Part 2 of the question asks, “Which of the following homeopathic preparations would best address his clinical presentation?”

That child may have croup and needs immediate care, not a sugar pill.

Some people choose naturopaths because they believe that profit motive has corrupted medicine. Be clear that there is an industry behind naturopathy — the supplement industry — which helps fund the profession’s lobbying.

Naturopaths recommend lots of supplements, which aren’t regulated or tested like drugs. With supplements, there’s no guarantee that the contents match the label, and any claims that they’ll help you tend to be weak.

Hermes hired a lawyer who told her to report her boss to a regulatory board and state attorney general. When she resigned, she received a call from a former president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, who told her that naturopathic physicians went around the law because they practiced a special kind of medicine. For Hermes, this was a wake-up call. She came to a clear conclusion: “I was a quack.”

Medicare covers only some practices that fall under naturopathy, such as acupuncture and chiropractic for back problems and nutrition counseling for some conditions. If you have insurance and decide to see a naturopath, check with your insurance provider. You may have coverage, but it depends on your plan.


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March 09, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN