The new coronavirus pandemic is changing the whole world right now— more dramatically in some places than others, but it is affecting us all deeply. Some of this change is devastating, and some has brought forth immense creativity and even healing. In many ways, the COVID-19 virus is shedding light on just how much power we each have to shape our own health and the health of our communities. For naturopathic doctors, this is not a new concept. Naturopathic medicine has valuable experience to offer during this time. In fact, many of the creative and thoughtful responses already happening are naturally in line with naturopathic philosophy.
6 Principles of Naturopathic Medicine
The 6 principles of naturopathic medicine guide our profession’s approach to medicine and to our patients. While there is a wide spectrum of ways that naturopathic doctors practice, we are all guided by these 6 principles. They illustrate not only the many ways that naturopathic doctors are a necessary part of our healthcare system in this crisis, but also how naturopathic thinking can help us all to respond more holistically to the new coronavirus pandemic. We really are all in this together.
These principles grow from naturopathic medicine’s roots in Earth-based systems of medicine, especially those of Europe and the Americas. Throughout its history our profession has drawn, sometimes though ownership or collaboration and sometimes without credit or consent, from indigenous medical systems, grandmothers’ kitchen wisdom, and ancestral practices. If the naturopathic approach sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you already have some relationship with an Earth-based way of thinking about bodies and the world. Whether their customs are alive today or have been lost, we all have ancestors who practiced, or still practice, some similar principles in their medicine. Naturopathy is an approach to modern medicine which integrates some of that ancestral wisdom with current research and biomedical science.
For the ND: Naturopathic doctors help our patients prevent all kinds of illnesses, including viruses, by supporting the body’s own natural defenses and ability to heal. This ability rests on the foundations of healthy sleep, daily movement, nutritious food, nourishing relationships, and a resilient stress response. Of course blanket advice to “eat well” or “sleep more” is often easier said than done. Most people face challenges bringing these areas of life into balance! Naturopathic doctors help our patients work through those challenges, and provide targeted recommendations for nutrients, herbs, and other medicines that give extra support.
For us all: Virus prevention requires knowing our strengths and vulnerabilities, so that we know how to keep ourselves resilient. It also requires thinking about the role we each have in our communities. Frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and other basic measures are still some of the most important ways we can all practice prevention together. Balancing our own well being with the health of our community doesn’t look the same for everyone. We each have different (and changing) work, family, home, financial, and health situations. The way my patients continue to tackle these challenging questions with thoughtfulness, practicality, and caring is truly the heart of preventative medicine.
The Healing Power of Nature (Vis Medicatrix Naturae)
For the ND: Naturopathic medicine teaches that all human beings (like all living beings) have an innate ability to heal and respond to challenges. Our intricate and complex immune systems are at the heart of this self-healing power. When our patients are sick with any kind of virus, naturopathic doctors focus on encouraging a balanced immune system response so that the person can resolve the infection and heal safely. While we know conventional medicines can sometimes be lifesaving for our patients, naturopathic doctors have many useful tools beyond pharmaceuticals. Substances from nature such as plants (botanical medicine), water (hydrotherapy), and food (nutritional medicine) can be powerful and effective medicines that support the body’s own healing process.
For us all: We can each practice trusting our body like a naturopathic doctor does, and right now I think that’s medicine everyone needs. We can also care for ourselves and each other at home using nature’s medicines. Some natural substances can be dangerous if not used properly, but some are safe, inexpensive, and easy for nearly anyone to use at home. Have you ever brewed a cup of chamomile tea to help ease anxiety, used a neti pot to clear the sinuses, or added extra garlic to your meal for an immune boost when feeling sick? You harnessed the healing power of nature! Many community health workers, herbalists, naturopathic doctors, and other experts have been widely sharing safe home remedies like these, to help care for their communities during this pandemic.
Identify and Treat the Causes (Tolle Causam)
For the ND: Naturopathic medicine excels in treating chronic illness, by offering more treatment options and a holistic perspective to help fill in the gaps often left by conventional medicine. Even though the direct cause of COVID-19 is a coronavirus, you’ve probably heard that chronic underlying health conditions, including heart and lung diseases, are some of the most significant causes of serious and life-threatening COVID-19 illness. Managing these underlying conditions may reduce the risk of becoming severely ill with the new coronavirus. Now as much as ever, naturopathic doctors are walking with our patients on their paths of healing chronic illness. Now more than ever, that means we are treating the cause and practicing prevention.
For us all: A naturopathic perspective asks us to look deeply at each person’s current situation and their history, in order to see how illness has developed and where the body has struggled to heal. In this coronavirus pandemic, we can see that the underlying causes of severe illness and death are often related to structural problems in our society. Economic disparities, systemic racism, destruction of ecosystems, and lack of equitable access to healthcare are significant underlying causes of both the chronic illnesses that increase risk and of overall mortality from COVID-19. In order to treat these causes, we must all work together to create lasting change. Many people around the world are already building movements to treat these root causes holistically.
Treat the Whole Person
For the ND: Naturopathic doctors understand that each of us is unique in the ways our history, life circumstances, behavior and habits, genetics, relationships, and physiology intersect. We call these intersections the “terrain,” or the earth from which each person’s health situation grows. Right now a lot is changing that affects our terrain, but because we’re all different we each respond in different ways. Some of my patients have been experiencing worsening anxiety, grief, or new body pain, while others have had changes in digestion or flare-ups of chronic illness… all related to the ways that life has changed during this coronavirus pandemic. Thinking holistically about each person’s terrain helps us identify the root issues to address and to make sure our treatment plan works for the whole person in the context of their family, community, and daily life.
For us all: Everyone can practice treating the whole person by tending as best they can to their emotional, social, spiritual, and physical needs during this challenging time. We also practice this principle when we treat our communities. All kinds of people are sewing masks, making hand sanitizer, grocery shopping for those who are more vulnerable, and working together in many other ways to support their neighbors. When we treat an individual as a truly whole person, we are also treating their community. When we treat the community, we are also treating each individual.
Doctor as Teacher (Docere)
For the ND: Naturopathic doctors have always practiced what conventional medicine now calls “patient centered care.” We believe one of the most powerful medicines we can offer is to share our own knowledge and understanding so patients have more power to make decisions about their own health. Often this means helping to interpret research studies and deciding how the science applies to each person. When fear-based recommendations and “one size fits all” health advice is being spread through the media, a naturopathic doctor can help you filter through the confusion. We are here to help our patients understand whether the latest immune-boosting supplement is safe or effective, how to manage symptoms safely at home when sick with a cough, and why fevers aren’t always a bad sign (but when to reduce them).
For us all: We can practice this principle by listening to each other, asking questions, and trusting each person as the expert on their own experience. It may also be useful to approach health information in the media the way that naturopathic doctors approach research studies about natural medicines. Naturopathic doctors are experienced in applying a scientific lens to situations where limited research is available. Here’s how we do it: First learn to recognize which sources can be trusted, then read carefully to find out if it seems like sound information, and finally consider based on what you already know whether the idea is worth exploring further.
First Do No Harm (Primum Non Nocere)
For the ND: We naturopathic doctors here at Heart Spring Health, along with many others across the country, began offering virtual appointments early on when the new coronavirus began spreading in the U.S. We made this choice because our first responsibility is to do no harm. Video conferencing allows us to continue supporting our patients without risking transmission of the virus or using up critical protective equipment needed in hospitals and critical care settings. Virtually, we’re able to safely discuss prevention plans with higher risk patients and to help guide those with mild or moderate illness safely through self-treatment at home. Online visits also allow us to continue providing care for the everyday health issues that don’t go away just because there’s a pandemic — seeing our patients for their allergies, heartburn, rashes, depression, and any other concern helps people stay healthy and decreases the burden on hospital systems which need to preserve resources for patients with severe COVID-19 illness. When we do need to see patients in the office at Heart Spring Health, we’re taking extra precautions to minimize the risk of disease transmission as much as possible.
For us all: In order to avoid doing harm to each other, we must continue practicing physical distancing and other preventative measures as much as we are each able. Even as Oregon begins easing some restrictions, this coronavirus hasn’t gone away. Increased testing and contact tracing can give us valuable information, but each person limiting their web of exposures is still the most powerful way to limit the spread of this coronavirus.
Many of us are getting more restless, lonely, frightened, or stressed as physical distancing extends into a third month, and some are itching to get back to “normal” life. This is an opportunity to keep looking for creative solutions, keep finding ways to support each other financially and emotionally, and keep shaping a more sustainable NEW normal that prioritizes keeping our communities healthy. Stay strong, everybody, and keep looking out for each other. If you need support, come see us virtually.
Dr. Eliza Hofkosh-Hulbert is a naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist who maintains a body positive, trauma informed, holistic family practice at Heart Spring Health in Southeast Portland, Oregon. She graduated with high honors from the National University of Natural Medicine and has been named in Portland Monthly’s list of Top Doctors and Nurses. Dr Hofkosh-Hulbert has a special interest in working collaboratively with her patients to address complex and often difficult experiences, including chronic pain conditions, chronic fatigue, and nervous system disorders. Learn more about Dr Eliza
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