Water, air, sunlight and food are all essential for life and greatly influence our health. Naturopaths believe that by promoting health, rather than preventing disorders, and by removing obstacles to the normal functioning of the body, it is possible to overcome most disorders.

They are not, however, simply concerned with the intricacies of body chemistry and physiology but are interested in the whole person on physical, mental and spiritual levels. The main priority of a naturopathic practitioner when making a diagnosis is to consider the unique individuality of each patient. The concept of the healing power of nature and natural healing forces within the body is an old one, going back at least to Hippocrates (born around 460 BC). Naturopaths of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used hydrotherapy, dietary control, manipulation and psychological counselling to treat patients just as Hippocrates did over 2,000 yeaia before them. He had already recognized, for example, that fevers may sometimes be beneficial and took steps to promote them, a measure borne out by our knowledge of the body’s physiological defence mechanisms. In practice, the modern naturopath employs a wide range of procedures, but always those which are compatible with the natural functions of the body.

The power of self-healing

In naturopathic philosophy pathogens such as bacteria and viruses assume secondary importance. Naturopaths have always considered that they do not cause trouble in our bodies unless we provide an environment in which they can multiply, a view supported by modern bacteriological thinking. This view of our internal environment is the basis of toxaemia theories, which suggest that there is a slow, imperceptible decline in the vitality of the body cells and tissues owing to the accumulation of inadequately neutralized toxins from unsuitable food, chemicals, additives, and other pollutants. The effects of these may be made worse by deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements as a result of food processing and soil that has been overworked and depleted of its natural components. Acute diseases are generally regarded as a manifestation of the body’s attempt to eliminate these poisons, whereas chronic disorders ensue as vitality declines and our systems become more encumbered. Rather than attempting to confront and attack disorders, the naturopath will gently coax the body towards better health in the hope that it will utilize its natural defences and adaptive mechanisms more effectively.

The simple concept of naturopathy is that a body which can heal wounds and broken bones, or resist and overcome infections, is capable of recovery from most illnesses if we maintain the balance of those functions – emotional, nutritional and structural -which normally keep it in good health. Naturopathic treatment of acute disorders aims to support and stimulate the body in its healing efforts as far as it is capable of responding. It may take the form of attempts to eliminate the toxic build-up. If a person has a fever that person may be advised to fast, or limit food intake while his or her body resolves the illness. Appropriate dietetic advice may follow; in the case of problems with catarrh, for example, it might be necessary to limit the use of dairy foods for a period of time and allow the mucus to clear rather than simply to suppress the symptoms without dealing with the underlying cause.

Instructions on the application of packs and compresses to stimulate the skin and internal organs, such as the lungs, may also be given; and herbs or vitamin and mineral supplements may be prescribed to promote the general resistance of the body. For chronic disorders a more gradual programme of revitalization may be necessary. The introduction of a more nutritious diet may be combined with physical treatment, such as hydrotherapy and massage, to restore the body’s adaptive capacity. An important part of the healing of any ailment is the creation of the right mental attitude. Counselling to increase awareness of the role of negative emotions in causing disorders, and encouraging the resolution of conflicts in day-to-day life, are all part of a naturopath’s approach. Relaxation techniques are extensively used to teach people to cope more effectively with stress.

The discoveries of modern science and medicine confirm the wisdom of aspects of the naturopathic approach to disorders and their treatment, for example, in dietary control and psychological counselling. However, they do not go so far as to suggest that everything natural is right or, indeed, even harmless.

Diagnosing the patient

The naturopath attempts to diagnose the patient rather than the disorder. Therefore, if a person con- sults a naturopath that person is given a thorough assessment to determine not only the nature of his or her illness and its causes (there is seldom a single cause for any disease), but also his or her constitutional type, vital reserves, possible organ or tissue weakness, and potential for regaining health by the use of natural stimuli and positive motivation. Naturopaths use most of the standard methods of diagnosis employed by orthodox medical practitioners, but interpret their findings more as a guide to the nature of the breakdown in a patient’s health rather than attempting to precisely label an ailment. Investigations may include an evaluation of the person’s nutritional intake, posture, adequacy of rest and exercise, lifestyle, and state of mind, attitudes, or the effects of stress at work and in his or her personal life. All of these may have contribute in varying degrees to a person’s state of health. Genetic factors must also be taken in consideration as they may contribute significantly to an individual’s potential for recovery. Naturopaths make use of iris diagnosis (iridology), hair analysis and, in some cases, specialized instruments which determine the ‘bioenergetic’ disturbances of various organs in the body. These instruments are said to detect the subtle and invisible ‘energy fields’ which are supposed to exist in and around living things.

Probably the most important task of naturopaths is to determine patients’ potential for health and show them how they may realize it. Naturopaths are, therefore, consulted by people with a whole spectrum of disorders, some of which respond better than others. Acute infections – particularly in children – as well as chronic ailments, such as bronchitis, asthma, other allergies, skin troubles, digestive disturbances, headaches, insomnia, diseases of the heart and blood vessels, gynaecological problems, and anxiety states are all disorders for which one might seek the services of a naturopath. Health-screening is another important feature of naturopathy, particularly in such areas as preconceptual care, in which the nutrition and relationships of couples wishing to start a family may be reviewed.

Naturopathy deals with the foundations of health; its principles are simple, and it is universal in its application. It also uses other natural therapies, many of which are based on the same philosophy.