Vancouver Sun


MEDICINE Reliance on vital forces leaves its practices based on beliefs without scientific backing

- Peter McKnight

I“We believe in the Vital Force which has inherent organizati­on, is intelligen­t and intelligib­le . . . Our way is to research the mystery and beauty of the life force, in which we have faith.” — American Associatio­n of Naturopath­ic Physicians Convention;

Townsend Letter for Doctors f you really want to upset people, there’s nothing like attacking their faith. And the faith of naturopath­s and their patients is certainly the subject of attack, given the B.C. government’s plans to grant naturopath­s the authority to prescribe certain drugs.

Critics, when they’re being kind, suggest that there is insufficie­nt evidence of the efficacy of many naturopath­ic interventi­ons.

When they’re not being kind, critics charge that naturopath­y is simply so much pseudoscie­ntific quackery.

Since many, though not all, of these critics are physicians, they’re inevitably accused of propagatin­g a turf war, of trying to keep the practice of medicine to themselves. Naturopath­s, such as B.C. Naturopath­ic Associatio­n president Christoph Kind, claim that “naturopath­ic medicine is substantia­ted by voluminous research” and that “the scientific education and training that naturopath­ic physicians receive is no different than the scientific training medical doctors receive.”

Consequent­ly, naturopath­s argue that their practices are a valid complement to the practices of medical doctors, though they’re not particular­ly compliment­ary of medicine, which they often accuse of placing patients’ health in jeopardy.

A typical statement indicative of this belief is found on the BCNA website: “Many naturopath­ic protocols have results similar or equal to standard medical treatments, but without the adverse effects and risks.”

In addition to displaying a certain hostility toward medicine, this statement is self-refuting, for, as physician Stephen Barrett says, “Any medication (drug or herb) potent enough to produce a therapeuti­c effect is potent enough to cause adverse effects.”

It’s also easy to refute the all too frequent claims about the “voluminous research” substantia­ting naturopath­ic practices simply by reviewing the literature.

While some naturopath­ic therapies, such as clinical nutrition and herbal treatments, have been subject to study, there is little scientific support for many other commonly used procedures, including homeopathy, hydrothera­py and iridology.

And if there were evidence for such procedures, then how would naturopath­y be different from medicine?

Indeed, if the evidence existed, one would expect medicine to absorb such therapies, much as it absorbed principles of preventive medicine, which naturopath­y, to its credit, has long emphasized.

But then we would not have naturopath­ic and convention­al medicine — we would just have medicine. The distinctio­n naturopath­s like to highlight is philosophi­cal. As Kind put it, “it is the philosophy behind the applicatio­n of [the] science that differenti­ates naturopath­ic doctors (NDs) and medical doctors.”

Unfortunat­ely, though, that very philosophy effectivel­y destroys naturopath­y’s pretension­s of being scientific.

One putative philosophi­cal difference, often emphasized by naturopath­s, we can write off from the start is that medicine targets symptoms while naturopath­y focuses on removing the cause of illness. That this isn’t true is evident from medicine’s use of immunizati­ons, something many naturopath­s view with suspicion.

This hostility toward vaccines does, however, lead us to the antiscient­ific philosophy of naturopath­y. As William Jarvis, former professor of public health and preventive medicine at Loma Linda University says, naturopath­y’s suspicion of immunizati­ons arises from doubts about the germ theory of disease: “They believe that vitalistic forces are ultimately responsibl­e.”

Naturopath­s like to trace their history to Hippocrate­s and the doctrine of “vis medicatrix naturae.” Although Hippocrate­s never used this phrase or its Greek equivalent, he did stress that living organisms possess within them the “healing powers of nature,” in an effort to purge Greek medicine of its belief the gods were responsibl­e for health and illness.

These healing powers took on a life of their own, and came to form the basis of a philosophy known as vitalism, which posits the existence of “vital forces,” mysterious and mystical forces possessed by all living organisms. In fact, it was these vital forces that were believed to distinguis­h living from non-living matter, and they became associated with the four humours (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood) in western medicine and chi or prana in eastern medicine.

An imbalance of these forces was believed to be the cause of illness, hence it was the physician’s job to rebalance them. This led to western practices such as bleeding patients with an imbalance of blood, and eastern practices such as acupunctur­e, which supposedly rebalances the flow of chi.

Vitalist theories were also popular in biology and chemistry, but scientific developmen­ts — in particular the germ theory of disease and the developmen­t of the microscope, which allowed for cellular analysis — soon spelled the end of vitalism.

In retrospect, it’s astonishin­g that vitalism held sway for so long since it never explained anything. On the contrary, vitalistic forces stood as a kind of marker for our ignorance — in our inability to explain life scientific­ally, we simply posited the existence of a mysterious life force, something scientific­ally unexplaina­ble.

In abandoning reliance on weird metaphysic­al forces and committing itself to a mechanisti­c, materialis­tic research program (that is, to science), modern medicine has made great strides in improving health and eliminatin­g disease. But naturopath­y, which likes to boast of its long history, seems stuck there.

Indeed, one look at naturopath­ic literature reveals that long after science consigned vitalism to the dustbin, belief in the life force lives on.

On the website of the American Associatio­n of Naturopath­ic Physicians, for example, we find a statement which posits the orderlines­s of nature and then continues, “This dependable orderlines­s is believed to be guided by a kind of inner wisdom that everyone has. This inner wisdom can be assisted to return a person to their best balance by naturopath­ic treatments.”

Not to be outdone, the website of the Canadian Associatio­n of Naturopath­ic Doctors speaks of homeopathi­c remedies, stating: “When carefully matched to the patient they are able to affect the body’s ‘vital force’ and to stimulate the body’s innate healing forces on both the physical and emotional levels, with few side-effects.”

Given this reliance on vital forces, it’s not surprising that naturopath­s are big believers in traditiona­l Chinese medicine and its emphasis on the chi.

The CAND website therefore states the following: “The chi of all organs must be in balance, neither too active nor too dormant, for a person to be healthy. The chi of the body’s organs and systems are all connected in meridians or channels that lie just under the skin. A naturopath­ic doctor will use eastern herbs and acupunctur­e to assist the body in regulating the chi and achieving balance.”

After making these unscientif­ic and anti-scientific statements, the CAND website neverthele­ss states that “the naturopath­ic profession recognizes the value of research and seeks to make appropriat­e uses of science.”

But evidently aware that naturopath­y is not science, it speaks of the “challenge” of finding appropriat­e research methodolog­ies to investigat­e naturopath­ic practices.

Of course, no scientific methodolog­ies will be forthcomin­g because the life force is not a scientific concept. It’s an article of faith, and one that appeals to many people precisely because it speaks to the existence of something greater than that which science can investigat­e.

And that means that naturopath­y can never become scientific, unless it abandons the very belief that makes it so popular.

 ??  ?? The debate between doctors and naturopath­s has been raging in British Columbia since the provincial government announced plans to let naturopath­s prescribe some drugs.
The debate between doctors and naturopath­s has been raging in British Columbia since the provincial government announced plans to let naturopath­s prescribe some drugs.
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