Alternative medicine often gets a bad rap—and while it’s true that it’s a field with far less research and clinical studies to back it up, primarily because there isn’t big pharmaceutical money behind it, even conventional doctors, hospitals, and organizations like the Mayo Clinic are recognizing the benefits that can come from complementary and nontraditional medicine. The Mayo Clinic even has an Integrative Medicine and Health department that works alongside traditional doctors, and a research arm that studies complementary and integrative medicine and performs clinical trials.
Unfortunately, alternative medicine is a huge umbrella term that encompasses myriad practices, and it’s important to recognize what is truly legit—and when it’s most helpful. Typically, one looks outside their regular doctor or conventional therapies when they feel that their pain or suffering isn’t being managed well, or their doctor is dismissive of their concerns. Some common areas that patients seek alternative help for include ailments and issues such as hormone imbalances and fertility problems, allergies, chronic pain (often related to conditions like fibromyalgia or lupus), menopause, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome—even cancer and heart disease. When searching for additional help, it’s often best to seek out a licensed naturopath physician (ND) who has trained for four years in both holistic medicine as well as in basic sciences that a regular doctor learns, and is able to prescribe medications, even if they emphasize natural healing agents. Most can do minor surgeries, such as stitching and cyst removal. While their general approach is to optimize wellness and prevention and help the body naturally heal, a good naturopath should be willing to work with your regular doctor and integrate their regimens with conventional ones.
What kind of treatment might you expect from a naturopath? Well, it depends on your symptoms and illness, but a good one will spend a full hour or more at a consultation and take a thorough inventory of your health history. They may even order diagnostic testing depending on the case. From there, they may work with you on a nutritional plan, apply treatments such as acupuncture or massage therapy, or dispense botanical or prescription medicine. Some may even provide counseling.
The key to finding a good naturopath begins by assessing their credentials. Criteria varies from state to state—and not all states license them. So, start by checking out the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME), which is the only agency that the United States Department of Education recognizes to accredit naturopathic schools. From there, you can try asking your regular physician to recommend someone (though there’s a fair chance they may not be able to) or get referrals from trusted friends or neighborhood listservs. Once you’ve found someone, you’ll have to determine if they’re a good fit. Some red flags to consider—and ones that doctors generally raise—are if they are proponents of fasting and are anti-vaccination. Also, should they prescribe any herbal or vitamin supplements, be sure to talk to your doctor about them to avoid any potential reaction with other medications you may be taking. A good naturopath should know this information, too, but it never hurts to get a second opinion.
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