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Health Lessons from The International Congress on Naturopathic Medicine

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What could be better than combining business and a little pleasure at a business conference in an exciting city? That was what I had the opportunity to do at the International Congress on Naturopathic Medicine (ICNM) in London last week, where dozens of top practitioners from around the globe presented their latest research and practice experiences.

I have been to numerous naturopathic and integrated-health conferences in the US, but I went to the ICNM because I wanted to learn from experts outside the US and get their perspective on the interplay between conventional and naturopathic medicine in different countries and with different health-care structures. Much to my surprise, in spite of socialized medicine in Europe and the more natural, organic perspective by the citizenry of Europe, the naturopaths in the UK and beyond have the same problem as naturopaths in the US—fighting for respect and their standing in the health-care community.

It’s really shocking to me, frankly, that naturopaths continue to struggle for a place on the health-care team given the efficacy of natural treatments and the complicated balance between the solutions and the risks associated with reductionist prescription-focused medicine.

For those who are not aware, naturopathic doctors attend medical school for four years just as allopathic or conventional doctors do. After the first two years, their course schedules are simply focused in a different direction. Why would anyone argue with a medical philosophy that believes in treating the whole patient rather than just the part that is “broken” and that helps the human body operate at its best using “therapeutic methods and substances that encourage individuals’ inherent self-healing process?” Dr. Cornelia Titzmann of Berlin, one of the presenters at the conference, said it best—“We need to get over the bias that only pills and injections are ‘real medicine.’”

To me it’s not either or. The real win is to have both naturopathic and mainstream doctors on your medical team, especially for seniors who are taking numerous prescription medications and cancer patients who are “drowning in toxins.” How great would it be if the side effects of these medications could be eased or if less medicine were required because the body is able to process it more efficiently?

So what did I learn in the course of those three days?

Here are some of the most significant and unique concepts presented, any one of which could have an enormous impact on health and health-care costs…

  1. New parents may be poisoning their babies and toddlers with the way they feed them, putting them at risk for future disease. It takes approximately two to three years for a child’s friendly bacteria to take root in his/her gut, starting with the exposure to “friendly bacteria” during vaginal childbirth. C-sections, poor nutrition, excess sugar, inadequate levels of fat and more may be putting children at risk for physical and emotional issues—an increasing number of studies are proving the connection between the gut biome and digestive issues, autoimmune issues and even depression.
  2. Depression and pain perception may be caused at least in part by an imbalance of bacteria in the digestive tract. As much as 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin, responsible for regulating mood and transmitting pain signals among other things, is synthesized in the digestive system. A probiotic designed to improve the gut biome may go a long way toward reducing depression, anxiety and chronic pain (Dr. David Leschieid). What struck me: Which would you rather do? Take safe probiotics…or potentially addictive pain medications that come with the risk for side effects?
  3. A single Western-style meal laden with saturated fat and simple carbohydrates can impact the gut biome within hours. Imagine the impact day after day and year after year. What struck me: Think about that the next time you sit down to a cheeseburger and fries—I certainly did when dining in the land of fish and chips.
  4. 10 minutes of mindfulness a day is enough to change a brain, helping to offset the negative impact of chronic stress in our lives. What struck me: We all have 10 minutes of “wasted time” each day—how about replacing 10 minutes on social media with 10 minutes of simple quiet? This is no easy feat in a society that is decreasingly able to handle a moment without electronic stimulation.
  5. Sugar is as addictive as drugs, affecting brain function in the same way that alcohol does. That’s why alcoholics used to be given sugar as a substitute for alcohol during rehab. What struck me: You know that afternoon sugar break you just “have to have”? Well, guess why.
  6. “A trillion dollars of US health expenses—or 30% to 40% of spending—go to address issues that are closely tied to the excess consumption of sugar” [Presentation by Dr. Constance Scharff, Cliffiside Medical, quoting Credit Suisse Report, 2013). Excess sugar consumption can lead to type 2 diabetes and obesity, plus all the health problems that accompany obesity, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis and some cancers. What struck me: Take that, Washington, DC, as you work on reducing health-care costs.
  7. The obesity epidemic started when the Dietary Guidelines were developed in 1980 (Dr. Marc Bubbs). The guidelines stressed the importance of a low-fat, carbohydrate-based diet, which led people to avoid fats and consume excess carbohydrates.  The result was weight gain and assorted diseases rooted in inflammation. What struck me: Coincidence…or influence?
  8. There has been a massive global decline in testosterone and sperm counts since 1989 (Dr. John Robinson). And the causes may be reduced maternal testosterone, sedentary lifestyle and an unmanly environment—testosterone increases when men are challenged and have a sense of purpose. Traditional male behaviors of confidence, assertiveness and self-reliance help boost testosterone production. What struck me: Are helicopter parents, common in recent decades, taking away our children’s independence and thus reducing the testosterone levels of our young men?
  9. Cancer loves sweets: Cutting all sweeteners (except stevia) out of cancer patients’ diets resulted in an 83% remission rate (Dr. Colleen Huber). What struck me: A sugar-free diet alone won’t cure cancer, but it makes the work of other therapies a whole lot easier.
  10. Cholesterol is lower in the summer months when we tend to sweat more. Yes…sweating lowers cholesterol. This from Violet Wasson, a naturopath from Australia. Sweat therapy also can ease the burden on failing kidneys. Saunas not only feel good…they’re actually good for you.

To be clear, neither I nor the Bottom Line editors believe that it is an either/or when it comes to health-care choices. Drugs and surgery definitely have their place and have worked a whole lot of miracles. But they should be the last resort, not the first course of treatment. Our cultural shift toward immediate solutions to symptom suppression works against our bodies’ natural functions. It is ironic that with all of the focus in society on living and being green, the naturopathic community still continues to struggle for their deserved respect in the medical world.

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