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  • David Howell

Snake Oil - Does Naturopathy Really Work?

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Naturopathy is not snake oil

Good ol' snake oil. Old fashioned magic potions claiming to cure all diseases, smooth wrinkles, remove all aches and pains and return anyone to full health and vitality. We look back on such wild claims and laugh at the lack of scientific evidence, and have since moved on to better things.... Or, have we?

There's a strong opinion out there that claims Naturopathic Medicine falls into the snake oil category. I hear negative medical opinions about Naturopathy from my clients on an almost daily basis, and a simple review of public opinion shows some pretty negative views on Naturopathy.

Here's an example from Wikipedia.....

" Naturopathic medicine contains many pseudoscientific concepts and is considered ineffective and can be harmful, which raises ethical issues. Naturopaths have repeatedly been accused of being charlatans and practicing quackery."

It's worth testing such claims against the real evidence. There are 2 types of real evidence, anecdotal evidence and scientific evidence. Here's a brief explanation of both types;


This type of evidence is when an observation is made about a reaction or occurrence, for example; a person appears to have headaches when they don't drink much water.


This type of evidence is when an actual study is made to prove or disprove a theory, such a study involving multiple subjects undergoing a clinical trial to show whether or not a theory is true. For example, multiple people who appear to have headaches when they don't drink much water are involved in a trial, where some of them are given more water than others and the total number of headaches among both groups are compared at the end of the trial. If these results can be replicated, then the evidence is regarded as being scientific, and either proves or disproves the original theory.

Here's some examples of both types of evidence in Naturopathy;

ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE (from my own clinical practice)

I see many people suffering from headaches and migraines. Once I've established that there's no sinister cause, (and always refer for a medical opinion if there's any possibility of there being so), I check a client's fluid intake, food types being eaten, possibility of hormonal & stress influences and for signs & symptoms of possible magnesium deficiency and for other potential musculo-skeletal issues.

I then make relevant recommendations for alterations to fluid intake, dietary and lifestyle adjustments, prescribe a nutritional supplement and may refer for chiropractic or physiotherapy treatments.

When my clients return for review, I can then analyse whether the treatment has been effective, and if any alterations or further recommendations are relevant.

In the majority of cases, headaches are either fully resolved, or dramatically reduced. This is an observation I make in my clinic, and falls under the category of anecdotal evidence.

This is how the majority of my practice occurs, and the massive range of conditions I see are approached in the same manner, observation of client responses providing me with daily anecdotal evidence of the success of my treatments. While this evidence is not regarded as scientific, it is obviously valid, with my clients reporting significant benefits in their lives.

I claim to be a Naturopath who practices logical and science based client treatments, so while anecdotal evidence of my success may not satisfy science loving critics, you can be assured that my treatments are science based, as per the example given below;

SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE (from a brief search of Pubmed online clinical journal database)

  • The odds of an acute migraine headache increased by 35.3 times when blood magnesium levels reached below the normal level.

  • The odds of a non-acute migraine were 6.9 times higher when blood magnesium levels were below the reference range.

The study authors concluded that "The serum (blood) level of magnesium is an independent factor for migraine headaches and patients with migraine have lower serum levels of magnesium during the migraine attacks and between the attacks compared with healthy individuals."

An observational clinical trial on water intake and Migraines was reported in a physician's Family Practice Journal in 2012. Results showed "Drinking more water resulted in a statistically significant improvement of MSQOL" (Migraine-Specific Quality of Life) in the 52 patients who drank more water than the 50 control group patients.

While the above examples simply relate to migraines, clinical trials are increasingly backing up what Naturopaths have been using anecdotally for years, in conditions ranging from diabetes to cardiac health, from anxiety to chronic lower back pain and beyond.

COST EFFECTIVENESS OF NATUROPATHY - Challenging Wikipedia's claim

A clinical study on the cost effectiveness of Naturopathic treatment for chronic lower back pain over a 6 month study period showed;

  • A saving of $1096 (USD) per person due to reduced need for other health care options

  • A saving for society of $1212 (USD) per person due to reduced medical intervention & better productivity

  • A return on investment of 7.9% for employers, assuming they paid the full cost of Naturopathic care

Another clinical trial on Naturopathic treatment's cost effectiveness in treating cardiovascular disease showed;

  • An average saving to society of $1138 (USD) per person per year

  • A net saving to the employer of $1187 (USD) per person per year, presuming the employer paid the full cost of Naturopathic care.

  • A 3.3% reduction of cardiovascular events over the next 10 years

  • A 0.9% reduction of deaths from cardiovascular disease over the next 10 years (thjat's almost 1 in 100 persons)

Simple analysis of the scientific evidence is enough to strongly dispute Wikipedia's claims that Naturopathy is based on "pseudo-scientific concepts" and is "considered ineffective". It's worth noting that I challenged Wikipedia on some of their claims, noting that they'd actually misquoted 2 of my Uni lecturers to support their claims, but they refused to change their comments despite me presenting them with clear evidence.

So, with apologies for the technical nature of this blog, I encourage you to dispute any claims that Naturopathy is no better than snake oil, and to choose a Naturopath who practices based on science and anecdotal evidence (word of mouth recommendation is a great example of gathering your own anecdotal evidence)!

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