Naturopathy: What Does It Really Mean?

Linda Lazarides
Written by Linda Lazarides

Naturopathy can be quite a confusing topic. In the UK and most of Europe we traditionally think of it as a raw food diet and fasting therapy which heals by detoxifying the body. But in the United States a naturopath is equivalent to a medical doctor and is allowed to prescribe drugs. The concept of detoxification with a raw food diet doesn’t enter much into an American naturopath’s training, which is mostly science-based, and has a heavy emphasis on dietary supplements and herbal medicines. By law in the USA you are not allowed to call yourself a naturopath unless you have an N.D. university degree.

In both cases, food and nutrition is at the very core of naturopathy. It is a little sad that for various reasons the therapy has splintered into so many different political fragments: diet therapy, nature cure, natural hygiene, optimum nutrition, holistic nutrition, lifestyle coaching, clinical nutrition, nutritional medicine, functional medicine, nutritional therapy, functional nutrition, etc. All of these aim to make you better by changing what you eat; they just have a different emphasis, or affiliation to a different training establishment. For instance, a doctor who prescribes dietary supplements based on lab tests will call him or herself a nutritional medicine or functional medicine specialist. An American lay practitioner who is not allowed to call herself a naturopath will say she is a holistic nutritionist.

The history of naturopathy in the West

Looking back at our roots, the very first western naturopath to use diet as a therapy was Johann Schroth (1798 to 1856). His treatment, the Schroth Cure, which is based on a strict vegetarian diet, is still practised today in Europe and particularly Germany. Like his fellow-Austrian contemporary Vincenz Priessnitz, he also used hydrotherapy (water-cure), and founded a spa. Another well-known water-cure practitioner, Bavarian monk Sebastian Kneipp, was one of Priessnitz’s followers. It was thought that the skin acts as a membrane, and that impurities in the body would flow out into water applied by bandages and baths. Today there are hundreds of spa establishments where the water-cure is carried out to detoxify the body on the principles laid down by these practitioners.

Priessnitz’ fame spread throughout Europe and then to the United States, where hydrotherapy medical schools and journals were established. John Harvey Kellogg, together with his brother, developed the well-known cornflakes for his patients at Battle Creek Sanitarium. He also set up a laboratory to study the clinical application of hydrotherapy. One of the most important contributors to the American naturopathic movement was Dr Henry Lindlahr, a German who had been cured by Sebastian Kneipp and subsequently trained in medicine in the United States. He established the principle that every acute disease is a healing effort of nature. We now know that he was correct; most diseases are due to inflammation, which is the body’s response to a toxic condition. Lindlahr was accused of quackery by his contemporaries for his iris diagnosis system, the basis of modern iridology.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

In the UK, Harry Benjamin was a well-known naturopath. Since these were the days before antibiotics, he even treated serious infectious diseases, using a detox fast. You can read about his methods in his book “Everybody’s Guide to Nature Cure”. Fasting is used to help detoxify the digestive system. Short fasts can be water-only. Longer fasts usually allow fruit or fruit juices.

In the early days of naturopathy, the greatest interest appeared to be in the hydrotherapy component of the nature cure, with diet being of lesser interest. This would make sense, since we need to remember that people in those times mostly drank beer or wine, in order to avoid contracting typhoid and cholera from the unhygienic water supplies. Drinking fresh, clean water would have been greatly beneficial to their health. Although many cures were attributed to taking spa baths and being wrapped in wet cloths, it is hard to know whether this was the effective part of nature-cure, or whether it was the drinking of water and the use of a strict vegetarian diet. Certainly, in Europe, spa water-cures are still very popular. In the UK, however, the emphasis is more on dietary detoxification.

“Quackery” becomes science

In the 20th century, many people of course felt too sophisticated to believe in such nonsense as “nature-cure”, and worshipped at the altar of science, where drugs could easily be “proven” effective. What is so exciting now is that science is slowly edging towards proof that the early naturopaths were right in terms of their dietary approaches. Concepts such as “food as medicine”, “detoxification” and “disease begins in the gut” are now being scientifically validated by countless studies on superfoods, the enormous therapeutic value of plant-based diets, and the role of the microbiome (resident gut bacteria) in the development of chronic diseases.

Seeing this research forging ahead has made me fall in love with the original principles of naturopathy. The early naturopaths had no scientific understanding of what they were doing; they just trusted that nature could provide the cure. Attacked by the mainstream doctors who thought that mercury and arsenic were a good treatment for syphilis, they fought on regardless. Their struggle will sound awfully familiar to today’s natural therapists!

Scientific proof in favour of the natural approach is strengthening every day, and I feel it is only right to honour the early naturopaths. So, now that I can teach not only the ancient principles of naturopathy, but also the modern science that proves it. I call my training course Modern Naturopathy. It is a wonderful tool against disease, and I am proud to teach it. 

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