Chatting With A Brain Surgeon
This winter I was chatting with a brain surgeon who was in Revelstoke to enjoy North America's greatest vertical (we're a little proud of our hill here in the Stoke) . As is inevitable for two people who are passionate about healing, we got to talking about what we do. He asked me:
“How do you know that it works? What you do... I mean, when I am in surgery, I know if what I did worked or not- it’s really obvious. But what about what you do? How do you know if its… doing anything?”
I had to laugh. He wasn't being a jerk, he was genuinely curious. The way I practice: lifestyle-based medicine, acupuncture, and herbs are about as far from surgery as you can get! The process and the results are so different! I’ve been working as a Bowen Therapist and/or Naturopathic Doctor for ten years. The changes that I’ve seen have ranged from hard-won micro-improvements to the sort of miracles that I wouldn't believe if I hadn't witnessed them. I’ve also spent time talking to patients with only days left to live, when there was nothing I had to offer but comfort. And, like every healer, there have been people who I haven’t been able to help at all- not even to provide them with comfort. How do you boil all that down into a quick answer?
I can't remember what I said at the time. Probably I made a joke because that's what I do. But I've thought about it since then: How do I know that Naturopathic Medicine works?
Ask yourself that question too, because it is an important one: how do you know Naturopathic Medicine works? Or conventional medicine? Or massage? Or therapy? How do you know if what you are doing is working?
Just like every doctor (conventional and naturopathic) I know how to follow labs, signs, and symptoms, and evaluate whether they improve over time to determine if a protocol is working.
However, just focusing on one lab result, or one sign, or one symptom doesn't give you enough information. As a Naturopathic Doctor I'm trained to ask myself: Is the treatment working to mask discomfort or to address the root of the problem?
To answer that question, you have to observe the whole patient to see what is happening in their health overall, because when the body heals, it heals overall.
If I give you a treatment to address a problem, and that problem goes away, but two more pop up, then what we're doing isn't working according to my standard.
As an aside, having a treatment not work or having side effects pop up is part of the healing journey, and those experiences are valuable- the new symptoms are information about what is happening in your body, and if I interpret them properly, they should lead me closer to the correct treatment and overall healing.
To come back to my original point, I don't consider my therapy to have worked just because your original symptom resolved. Your health has to improve overall. And ideally it should stay that way when we remove the supplements and medications (though that isn't always possible with every person or condition). If a treatment does need to be part of your life long term, then side effects and risks can often be addressed with Naturopathic Medicine.
To understand my perspective, consider the following common clinical scenarios:
- Imagine that you're taking iron for anemia, and your labs are improving, but you're getting so constipated that you're constantly uncomfortable. Is that working for you? If you were my patient, I would say: no, we've got to change the form or dosage of iron or support your digestive tract in some other way. And let's figure out why your iron is low in the first place and get that under control.
- Imagine that you're taking an SSRI and your anxiety is better but now your libido is gone and you've gained 15 lbs. Your original prescriber might consider that a successful course of treatment, but you have to ask yourself: is that therapy really working? Is there a safer, more effective, natural alternative that has been studied? (You bet: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24456909)
- What if you imagine that you're taking a proton pump inhibitor and your heartburn is gone but you've significantly increased your risk of dementia, kidney disease, and heart attack? Is there a better, safer way to address that? (So many safer ways! Here's one: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16948779)
Note: It's a part of my disclaimer, but it bears repeating here: don't use this information to treat yourself. Check with your healthcare provider before initiating or changing a treatment plan.
What I hope that those examples illustrated for you, is that when I'm considering if a treatment we've used worked, my standards are higher than conventional standards. By my standards, Naturopathic Medicine doesn't just work, it works better than conventional care in many cases.
Naturopathic Medicine worked in my own healing journey, and I see it work every day in my practice. I don't have to wonder if it works- I know that it does; observing my patients over time tells me everything I need to know. Naturopathic Medicine may not have the satisfying precision of surgery, but it contains all the glorious messiness, uncertainty, mystery, and delight of life itself.
PS. If my observations aren’t enough to convince you (and why should they be?), there have been peer reviewed studies on the efficacy of Naturopathic Medicine; both the individual therapies themselves and the system of Naturopathic Medicine as a whole.
For example, in a recent study, Naturopathic Medicine was compared to Psychotherapy as a treatment for anxiety. Though both therapies were effective, Naturopathic Medicine was more effective. Over the course of 8 weeks, patients receiving Naturopathic Medicine had a 56.5% reduction in anxiety scores compared to a 30.5% reduction for Psychotherapy patients. Patients receiving Naturopathic Medical care also had significant improvements in mental health, concentration, fatigue, social functioning, vitality, and overall quality of life.
At the end of the day, it isn’t important if Naturopathic Medicine worked for people in a study, the real question is whether or not it will work for you. And you will never know unless you try.