Is naturopathic medicine evidence-based?

One of the most common criticisms of natural medicine is that it lacks supportive evidence. This is simply not true! In many cases, there is as much or more research evidence for natural medicine as conventional medicine. However, there are also areas in which the research evidence is sparse or incomplete. The purpose of this blog is to clarify the true meaning of evidence-based medicine (EBM) and explore its role in contributing to natural medicine.

StethoscopeWhat is evidence-based medicine?

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) is defined as the “conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about care of individual patients (1).” Furthermore:

“The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research. By individual clinical expertise we mean the proficiency and judgment that individual clinicians acquire through clinical experience and clinical practice (1).”

This definition of evidence-based medicine does not conflict with the principles of naturopathic medicine. Naturopathic medicine is based on a large body of evidence gathered through systematic research and knowledge gained through clinical experience. Its principles support the application of this information to devise the most effective treatment for our patients.

However, the colloquial understanding of EBM supports randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled studies as gold standard of knowledge and leaves little room for other forms of research or for clinical experience.

Naturopathic MedicineWhat about holistic health care?

Conventionally understood EBM is limited in encouraging health care that adheres to naturopathic principles. First, EBM does not recognize holistic treatment of individuals, and in fact seeks to boil down complex information to a simple conclusion recognizing only how the majority of subjects respond to a single intervention. Not only does this ignore the knowledge that could be gained through examining all the subjects in a study and why they each responded in the way that they did, but also is not necessarily applicable to real life health care since patients are nearly never under controlled conditions and subject to only one intervention.

Naturopathic doctors are interested in treating real patients in the real world and therefore in gathering knowledge in any area that will serve this purpose. In many cases, this knowledge includes clinical observation and experience with real patients.

The funding flaw

Second, funding committed to research is not allocated based on what areas of knowledge are the most interesting, warrant the most investigation, or even may be the most beneficial to the public. Most research is conducted by pharmaceutical companies on products they hope to bring to market in order to earn profits for shareholders.

Unfortunately, this capitalist drive behind health knowledge is not conducive to researching how low-cost treatments such as diet and lifestyle changes can be far more effective than any drug. It is also not conducive to gaining knowledge through “failed” experiments, such as when pharmaceutical research does not yield results favourable to the drug being researched. Currently, pharmaceutical companies are not required to publish such research, although there is a movement to change this, thankfully. Naturopathic doctors are interested in achieving results, even if there is no particular product to sell.

Empower yourself with knowledge

Finally, naturopathic doctors also act as teachers, seeking to empower patients with information so that they can care for themselves. EBM places power in a faceless research environment, removing it from clinicians with decades of experience, and therefore also removing it from individual patients who may know their unique needs best.

Therefore, while the official definition of EBM does fit with naturopathic principles, the applied definition, in terms of how the health care system actually operates, does not.

For more information and more of my thoughts on conventional medical research, please see my previous blog Mythology of science-based medicine.


  1. Sackett DL, Rosenberg WM, Gray JA, Haynes RB, Richardson WS. Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t. BMJ. 1996;312 (7023):71–2.
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