Naturopathy and “biomedical” treatments for autism

For the past several months I’ve been contrasting the advice from naturopaths against the scientific evidence, in a series I’ve been calling “naturopathy versus science”.  In past posts I’ve looked at the naturopathic perspectives on fake diseases, infertility, prenatal vitamins, vaccinations, allergies and even scientific facts themselves. From a blogging perspective, naturopathy is a fascinating subject to scrutinize, as there is seemingly no end of conditions for which naturopaths offer advice that is at odds with the scientific evidence. As a health professional,  I want to encourage the best use of health resources, and support patient autonomy and decision-making by providing credible, evidence-based information. Given repeated calls for naturopathy to be “integrated” with conventional medicine, I’ve spent a lot of time reading what naturopaths have to say about different medical conditions. What I’ve found is concerning. Naturopaths describe themselves a health professionals capable of providing primary care, just like medical doctors. And they’re increasingly seeking (and obtaining) physician-like privileges from governments.  Yet there is a lack of evidence to show that naturopathy offers anything distinctly useful or incrementally superior to science-based medicine.

Defining the scope of “naturopathic” treatment is difficult. Naturopaths offer an array of disparate health practices like homeopathy, acupuncture and herbalism that are only linked by the (now discarded) belief in vitalism – the idea we have a “life force”. From this philosophy can sometimes emerge reasonable health advice, but that has little to do with the science or the evidence. As long as it’s congruent with the naturopathic belief system, it’s acceptably “naturopathic”. One of the signs that naturopathy isn’t medicine is that it needs a prefix. Notice how there isn’t a “pharmacy medicine” or “nursing medicine” that’s distinct from science-based medicine. It’s just “medicine” – health professionals base their practices on scientific evidence and principles that reach across professions. Naturopathy doesn’t share the same evidence base as medicine, and in some cases, disagrees with its basic scientific principles. It needs to be qualified as distinct, and hence: “naturopathic medicine”. Notice how Rexall makes it easier to find the non-evidence-based products:

naturopathic and homeopathic

This week an advertisement was passed to me that promoted naturopathy at a Toronto public school: Continue reading

Naturopathy, Paternalism and Infertility Treatments

Pregnancy Test
This is another post in the naturopathy versus science series, where a naturopath’s advice is assessed against the scientific literature.

It’s Naturopathic Medicine Week in the United States, so it’s time for another look at the alternative medicine practice that blogger Orac likes to call the One Quackery to Rule them All. Naturopathy is an oddity among alternative medicine, because it’s a hodgepodge of other practices linked by an underlying belief in vitalism: the pre-scientific notion that living things have a “life force”. Vitalism disappeared from medicine when Wöhler synthesized urea in 1828, yet the belief in vitalism is a central tenet of naturopathic philosophy. Naturopaths liken themselves to be primary care providers akin to family physicians (general practitioners) but their practices are quite different: rather than make decisions based on scientific evidence, naturopaths pick and choose based on what they feel is congruent with their vitalistic philosophy, sometimes despite good scientific evidence that shows they are wrong. For example, homeopathy is an alternative medicine practice that is very popular with naturopaths. It is an elaborate placebo system where “remedies” contain no medicinal ingredients: they are literally sugar pills. There is no demonstrable medical effect from homeopathy, and so it isn’t part of science-based medicine. Yet homeopathy is a “core clinical science” for naturopaths, and the practice of homeopathy is part of their licensing exam.

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Which prenatal vitamin is best?


Vitamin supplementation is unnecessary for the vast majority of people. You wouldn’t know this walking through a drug store, where you’ll usually find an entire aisle packed with supplements. Alternative health providers like naturopaths tend to be strong supporters of supplementation, but this advice seems to be based mainly on the belief that “vitamins are magic” rather than good science. The best research hasn’t established a strong evidence base for taking supplements. We definitely need vitamins in our diet to live. But that’s where we should be getting those vitamins – from our food, instead of from pills. If you eat a reasonable and balanced diet, and have no medical conditions that require special consideration, vitamin supplementation won’t offer meaningful health benefits. In the absence of any deficiency, vitamin supplements seem to be useless at best and harmful at worst. Continue reading

Naturopathy versus Science: The Vaccination Edition

Follow the link for the "response" to this cartoon

The re-emergence of vaccine-preventable disease should surprise no-one that’s been following the anti-vaccine movement.

Dealing with anti-vaccinationists is like a game of whack-a-mole, where the moles are the same old tropes that keep popping up, no matter how often they are refuted with facts. Vaccines are a remarkable success of modern medicine: They are health interventions that are both demonstrably effective and remarkably cost-effective. Vaccination has likely prevented more deaths in the past 50 years than any other health intervention. Smallpox was a ruthless killer that took 300 million lives, just in the 20th century alone. Today it’s gone – eliminated forever. And now there are now over two dozen diseases that are vaccine-preventable. They should be an easy sell, and to most people, they are. But the control of vaccine-preventable disease relies in part on herd immunity – sufficient immunization to stop the spread of infection (no vaccine offers 100% protection) and protect those that cannot be immunized. Even a modest number of unvaccinated individuals can lead to reemergence of disease. None of this matters to antivaccinationists, to whom vaccines are bad. Viewing anti-vaccine websites for only five to ten minutes can increase the perception of risk of vaccination, and decrease the perceived risk of omitting vaccines. It also lowers vaccination intentions. By changing perceptions of safety, the willingness to vaccinate decreases. Now imagine that someone you believe to be a health professional openly questioned the efficacy and safety of vaccines – would it reduce your willingness to vaccinate? The evidence says it does. And that’s why the modern practice of naturopathy or “naturopathic medicine” is so concerning. Naturopaths have opposed vaccinations since the invention of naturopathy – starting with smallpox: Continue reading

Naturopathy versus Science: Seasonal Allergy Edition

tilting at windmills

I glanced at my pharmacy license recently, and noticed I became a licensed pharmacist almost exactly twenty years ago. Two decades seems like a long time to do pretty much anything, yet I can still vividly recall some of the patients I encountered early in my career, working evenings in a retail pharmacy that drew heavily on the alternative medicine crowd. It was the first pharmacy I’d ever seen that sold products like homeopathy, detox kits, salt lamps, ear candles, and magnetic foot pads. And the customers were just as unorthodox. There were some that told me they manipulated their own pH, and others that insisted any prescription drug was designed to kill. And there was a huge clientele that relied on the pharmacy for their “bioidentical” hormones. It was an instructive learning experience, as it was as far from the science of pharmacy school as you could expect to find in a place that still called itself a pharmacy. One of the really interesting aspects of that pharmacy was the enormous supply of vitamins and supplements for sale. It stretched over multiple aisles and even back into the dispensary, where there were some brands kept behind the counter. This wasn’t for any regulatory reason – it was because these were the “naturopathic” supply, the brands often recommended by naturopaths. In order for this pharmacy to sell them they had to keep the products behind the counter, presumably to grant these supplements a veneer of medical legitimacy. These were “special”, and they had the prices to prove it. Continue reading