Interest in complementary and alternative medicine has grown rapidly in recent years, as more people look for non-pharmaceutical and non-surgical options to treat a wide variety of conditions and illnesses, such as ADHD, fatigue, sleep disorders, skin ailments, digestive issues, and the list goes on. And one the most popular — and contrary to what many people believe, also among the oldest — systems of complementary and alternative medicine is naturopathy.

The essential principles of naturopathy have been practiced for centuries, and in many parts of the world it is considered a primary approach to health, healing, and wellness, claims Henry Vinson, who graduated from the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. Some modalities that are commonly used in naturopathy date back thousands of years. For example, hydrotherapy was widely practiced in Ancient Greece, and archeological evidence indicates that the use of herbal remedies dates back more than 5,000 years to the Sumerians. While naturopathy remains innovative and there are various new practices, methods, elements, approaches, and technologies being used, it is certainly not new or unestablished.

While naturopathy is practiced in a variety of ways around the world — shaped and influenced by factors such as culture, patient population, regulatory frameworks, economic models, technology and even geography — it is widely understood and accepted to be rooted in six guiding principles (and is taught accordingly). 

Principle #1: First, do no harm (Primum non nocere)

The directive here is for naturopaths to consistently strive to treat patients using the least invasive, least toxic, least risky, and most natural remedies. When side effects cannot be completely avoided, they should be mitigated and managed in a responsible manner.

Principle #2: Utilize the healing power of nature (vis medicatrixnaturae)

Naturopaths do not believe that they have any inherent healing power. Rather, they rely on solid knowledge and seasoned intuition to help them tap into the tremendous and innate healing power of nature.

Principle #3: Treat the cause, not the effect (tollecausam)

One of the most essential and defining characteristics of naturopathy — and what distinguishes it from allopathic medicine — is that the goal is not merely to alleviate symptoms of a condition, illness, disorder or disease, but to treat the root cause or causes. Often, these causes are related to lifestyle habits, such as diet, exercise and exposure to stressful conditions at home and in the workplace.

Principle #4: The doctor’s role is that of a teacher (docere)

According to Henry Vinson, naturopathic doctors are responsible for educating and empowering patients, so they can take ownership and control of their own health and wellness. For this reason, naturopaths must have excellent listening and communication skills.

Principle #5: Treat the whole person (tolletotum)

Naturopaths take a holistic approach that includes each patient’s physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual dynamics. For this reason, while there are standard best practices — for example, many patients with asthma are successfully treated with steam baths — there is an underlying, core belief that each patient is unique, and must be attended to accordingly. Indeed, an asthmatic patient who does not respond successfully or effectively to steam baths may instead benefit greatly from a customized stress reduction program, which may be augmented by a regiment of herbal and botanical medicine made with garlic, ginger, turmeric or honey.   

Principle #6: Focus on prevention rather than treatment

In allopathic medicine, the most successful doctors and specialists are typically the busiest. However, in naturopathic medicine, this is not always the case, especially in parts of the world where naturopathy is commonly practiced and perceived as a primary health care option. Naturopaths seek to help their patients prevent illness (including but not limited to physical ailments) and as a result, lead healthier, happier, fuller, and longer lives.

The principles of naturopathy harmonize and amplify each other, and together form an integrated system that is deeply rooted in ethics, patient-centric practices, and servant leadership, claims Henry Vinson. At the same time, it’s important to point out that naturopaths do not see themselves as fundamentally antagonistic towards allopathic medicine. Granted, many naturopaths justifiably feel that the emphasis on alleviating symptoms — often with pharmaceuticals that have significant adverse side effects — is not in alignment with the goals and principles of healing patients; or more technically, enabling patients to benefit from the healing power of nature and their own body. Likewise, there are times when conventional medicine is appropriate or required, such as in the case of emergency medicine or surgery.

Concerning the uses and benefits of naturopathy, there is a wide range of problems and conditions that are treated by naturopathic doctors. Some chronic conditions include allergies, asthma, menopause, obesity, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, headaches, migraines, lupus, thyroid disease, autism, ADHD, infections, hypertension, diabetes, digestive issues, and many others. Some acute conditions include (but are not limited to): rashes, hepatitis, influenza, urinary tract infections, musculoskeletal conditions such as sports injuries, strep throat, diarrhea, and many others.

When it comes to healing and wellness, naturopathy is not experimental or speculative. It is an ancient form of medicine that is has been relied on for thousands of years — not because practitioners and patients hope that it works, but because they have an abundance of proof that it does work. With this being said, patients need to be realistic. For example, many patients suffering from insomnia experience relief within one to two weeks of acupuncture treatment. But in other situations, and cases — especially when the root causes of any disorder or dysfunction are partly emotional, psychological, or spiritual healing can take longer. Rather than being dejected this possibility, patients should be inspired by it because it means they will be removing and releasing longstanding blockages and limitations.