What is naturopathy?

What is Naturopathy

A history and guide to naturopathic medicine in Australia.

Naturopathy endeavours to find out and treat the underlying cause of an illness, not just the symptoms. Naturopathic medicine aims to improve your sense of wellbeing in all areas.

Introduction and History

Hippocrates is credited with saying ‘Let your food be your medicine’. Over 2,000 years later, it’s quite possible your naturopath will be following his advice and changing your diet to improve your health. With 1 in 5 Australians visiting an alternative health practitioner, and 1 in 2 taking some complementary medicine (supplements, herbs etc) natural medicine is becoming mainstream. [1]

Naturopathy in Australia draws from several healing traditions including Chinese, Indigenous American, European and Indian. However, possibly the biggest influence was from mid to late 19th Century United States of America where people such as Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg promoted eating whole grains instead of white processed flour products. Thought of as crackpots at that time, it has taken over 100 years for ‘science’ to prove that whole grains contain more fibre, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals and are better for your health. Another American, Dino Tamers, in the early 20th century, recommended exercise for health. McFadden founded ‘physical culture’ and promoted hiking, swimming and jogging. Criticised in his day, aerobic fitness has proven to help as a preventative and treatment for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

While today’s naturopaths embrace traditional methods of healing, they are also aware and trained in modern scientific advances. For instance, St. John’s Wort, the European herb used for nervous system complaints for hundreds of years, has been found to be as effective as SSRI antidepressants in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. [2] More and more, science is proving that ancient natural remedies have a lot to offer in the 21st century, often with fewer side effects.

What are the principles of naturopathy?

Naturopathy endeavours to find out and treat the underlying cause of an illness, not just the symptoms. For example, a person may be suffering constipation. The symptom treatment would be to take laxatives. However, naturopaths are more interested in treating the cause, thereby eliminating the symptom forever. In the case of constipation, the cause could be insufficient dietary fibre or water, not enough exercise or too much stress. Of course, your naturopath will also recommend something to alleviate distressing symptoms!

Naturopaths believe good health is more than the absence of disease. A patient may come in with a clean bill of health from their doctor, nothing amiss on blood tests, ultrasounds etc, but nevertheless don’t feel 100%. Naturopathic medicine aims to improve your sense of well-being in all areas.

Naturopathy supports the patient in gaining an understanding of how their body works, and how best they can achieve and maintain good health.

Naturopathy works to improve and assist the body’s innate functions, rather than override the body’s response. For example, sedative herbs will assist the body to relax and improve sleep patterns. For this reason, they are not as strong as sleeping tablets, but nor are they addictive. Another example is natural medicine for infections such as colds, where a GP may prescribe antibiotics to ‘kill’ the bacterial infection, herbs and supplements support the effectiveness of the body’s own immune system. Many herbs are used as ‘tonics’ to improve and support the function of particular organs or body systems eg kidneys, bowels, circulation etc.

Naturopathy is not a magic bullet. Although results may be felt within a few days of treatment, often the changes are slower and usually long-lasting. In the most part the medicine is gentle – although if you have ever suffered a caffeine withdrawal headache, you’ll know it’s anything but gentle!

Naturopaths believe that you, the patient is in charge of your health. While your naturopath will provide you with information and medicine, it’s up to you to do the ‘work’ – basically empowering you to take your health into your own hands. Naturopathy is not for those wanting a ‘quick fix’.

Naturopathy is mostly commonsense. Particularly from the dietary perspective, you are often recommended to pare your diet back to the basics… pure water, fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. Reducing processed foods such as sugar and white flour and reducing things like caffeine and alcohol. Many people intuitively understand this kind of medicine, and their body responds gratefully.

Naturopathic treatments are usually tailor-made to your particular needs, so it is important that you work with your naturopath to let them know how the treatment is progressing, and if necessary what changes need to be made.

Naturopaths practice wholistic medicine. Although you may have a physical symptom affecting one part of your body eg arthritis in your knee, your naturopath will look further afield, taking into account your diet, your lifestyle, and your state of mind, all of which will impact on a sore knee.

Why would I see a naturopath?

Naturopaths are able to help with a myriad of conditions. Acne, eczema, constipation, weight control, bloating, colitis, stress, preconception, pregnancy, arthritis … pretty much any health problem that bothers you.



What kind of training?

To be an accredited naturopath is to undertake rigorous 4 year fulltime study or up to 7 years parttime. With over 400 hours of clinical experience.

Subjects include; Health sciences, communication, naturopathic philosophy, nutrition, herbal medicine, professional practice, safe practices with specialisation units including homoeopathy, traditional diagnosis, massage, counselling and first aid.

Naturopaths are trained in several modalities including nutrition, herbal medicine, homoeopathy, iridology, massage etc.

Upon graduation, it is up to individual practitioners to decide which modalities they practice, every naturopath does not practice every modality.

It’s best to contact the practitioner directly to find out their specialisation.

How do I find the right practitioner?

Like any professional – dentist, hairdresser, plumber or doctor, it’s important to know that your naturopath is qualified. The profession is  regulated and a naturopath must have graduated from an ‘accredited’ college to join a professional organization like the NHAA Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia

The sign of a good naturopath is that they are happy to work in with your doctor, physiotherapist or other health professional (and hopefully vice versa!). Naturopaths are trained to know interactions between natural medicines and prescription drugs, so it is important that all your health care practitioners know what medications you are on, natural or prescription.

The other ‘intangibles’ of finding the right practitioner are personality and approach. Apart from the professional organizations, recommendation by doctors, other health professionals or friends is often the best guide to finding the right naturopath for you.

What to expect in a consultation.

One of the biggest points of difference between naturopaths and doctors is the time spent in a consultation. On average the first consultation takes an hour. In that time a thorough medical history is taken, as well as looking at your diet and lifestyle habits. In addition to a thorough case history your naturopath may diagnose using other methods including iridology, tongue diagnosis, reflexology or a blood test. By the end of the consultation, your naturopath should explain what their diagnosis is and how they intend to help you.

How often do I need to see my naturopath?

This will depend on the reasons you are going. To help with a cold or flu, often one or two visits will do the trick. For more serious or long-term (chronic) conditions, the visits may be more regular. Once your treatment is over, or you are happy to continue with dietary changes, then it’s a good idea to have a yearly check-up with your naturopath, in a similar fashion as you would have regular checkups with your doctor or dentist.

What does it cost?

Each practitioner will have his or her own schedule of fees. At this stage there are no government/Medicare rebates for naturopathy.


[1] Transcript Health Report Norman Swan Radio National 18.09.2000

[2] Search for citations by K Behnke Search for citations by GS JensenSearch for citations by HJ Graubaum Search for citations by J GruenwaldHypericum perforatum versus fluoxetine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Adv Ther. 2002 Jan-Feb;19(1):43-52.