How to talk to a loved one about the dangers of naturopathy

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I frequently receive emails asking for advice on how to speak with a loved one receiving naturopathic treatments. Discussing the pitfalls of alternative medicine with someone who is a believer is challenging. Alternative medicine believers think they experience holism and energetic life forces much like how people experience praying or religious services. It is common for believers to feel persecuted during critical discussions of health.

Here is a broad guide for navigating a conversation with loved ones about the dangers of naturopathic medicine.

Listen first

It can be frustrating and exhausting to navigate the medical system. Some patients feel that they are punted from one specialist to the next. Others feel ignored by medical doctors. Naturopathy advertises a solution. Many naturopaths claim to offer a “one stop shop” for patients with promises to fix everything from the inside out. This is incredibly alluring for patients who are sick and tired. Understanding the patient’s motivation for pursuing naturopathic treatments is the first step for a constructive conversation.

Identify health risks and potential harm

Not all alternative therapies pose the same dangers, which include direct physical injury, death, delay of effective medical care, psychological harm, and financial ruin. It is important to identify the dangers specific to the situation.

The Patient Guide of my website houses ever-growing information on commonly used naturopathic lab tests, diagnoses, and therapies. Here, you can find news articles, blog posts, and personal stories by alternative practitioners and former patients.

The CAM Cancer website is a fantastic resource offering summaries of high-quality evidence for complementary and alternative cancer therapies. The website is geared toward health professionals but I find the information readable and easy-to-understand.

Please be highly suspicious of any naturopath claiming to be a cancer expert or specialist. There are some naturopaths who use the abbreviation FABNO after their names to indicate they are a Fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Oncology. For more information about the FABNO designation, naturopathic training in oncology, and common naturopathic cancer therapies, please read Naturopathic Cancer Care – Is it safe, and does it work?

NaturoFAQs offers a “science-based guide to natural health” with colorful infographics on many topics including acupuncture, homeopathy, and chiropractic. Other topics include weight loss supplements, vitamins, herbalism, natural cold remedies, organic food, and naturopathy.

The QuackWatch website for naturopathy, called NaturoWatch, is a wonderful callback to the 1990s internet. Dr. Stephen Barret has put together a comprehensive collection of stories, books, victim reports, regulatory information, education, history, and all things naturopathy. You can also find links for notable naturopathic practitioners who have harmed patients or made bizarre medical claims.

Writers for the Science-Based Medicine website have written about it all. Their naturopathy versus science page is a great place to start to perusing blog posts on naturopathy topics.

If you are looking for information on naturopathic manipulations, chiropractic, or physical medicine techniques I highly recommend Pain Science, which offers “good advice for aches, pains, and injuries.” Its author, Paul Ingraham, is a former massage therapist.

Keep it simple

In my experience, it is easiest to get information across if you are covering only one issue. Identify the most serious danger and address only that point with simple pieces of evidence. More complex or difficult-to-explain concerns can be addressed during subsequent conversations.

Here is a short vignette to illustrate what I mean, based on a real conversation I recently had with an individual:

Abby is seeing a naturopath for ozone therapy to address what she believes is chronic Lyme disease. These therapies have cost thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses over the past several months. After asking Abby to describe her treatments, you learn that Abby has purchased an ozone machine for her house. She inserts the ozone tube into her body to apply ozone gas (called insufflation). She is also going to the naturopath’s office for injections of ozone gas directly into her veins.  Abby tells you that she feels sick after these intravenous treatments, but believes this feeling is due to a “die-off reaction,” whereby patients get sicker as chronic infections are “cleared from the body.”

The immediate concern here is the direct injection of ozone gas into Abby’s veins. This can cause an air embolism and potentially kill her. There are many concerns: the at-home ozone generator, the cost of these therapies, and the fictitious diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease. There is no such thing as a “die-off reaction.”  The medical use of ozone gas in this context is likely illegal. However, the immediate concern is for Abby’s life.

I began by stating that I was worried for Abby’s safety and well-being. I explained how an air embolism is a medical emergency and how injecting ozone gas into anyone’s veins may cause an air embolism to occur. I used very simple language, e.g. “imagine an air bubble getting trapped in a vein, or in your heart, and that this air bubble can prevent oxygen and blood from reaching parts of your body.” Abby became very upset and defended her practitioner, who (of course) told her that the procedure was safe. I reiterated that the procedure was indeed dangerous, and steered clear of calling the practitioner a liar or a fraud. We had a calm, productive 30-minute conversation, where she listened to my concerns. I know she heard me, as she asked follow-up questions, like “how do you treat an air embolism?” I thought that this was a good sign that she was considering my information. However, I think Abby is still receiving ozone gas injections. I hope, since our chat was friendly, she will be open to speaking with me again. Change often does not happen overnight.

Change can happen

My mom loves her chiropractor. We’ve had multiple, lengthy conversations about the risks of chiropractic neck adjustments. She knows I am against chiropractic care. Despite this, she wants to continue to see her chiropractor. But, she has decided to no longer receive neck adjustments—the kind where the neck is quickly, and forcibly, rotated side-to-side. By focusing on this one issue, I have been able to (hopefully) save her from what I feel is the most dangerous risk– a cervical artery dissection, which can cause a stroke.

There’s a way out

Offer your support in finding a science-based practitioner for your loved one. You can also offer to drive them to doctor’s appointments, with making phone calls to insurance companies, asking follow-up questions to medical staff, organizing health documents, and taking notes during appointments.

A loved one of mine has been suffering from chronic digestive problems for years. Her naturopathic doctor (ND) offered to diagnose her irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) with a lab test. However, the naturopath did not inform her that this test is not diagnostic for IBS and also not approved by the FDA. A few weeks after getting the results, the patient received a large bill for the test, which was not covered by insurance. The cost had not been disclosed. The patient was upset. But, when I asked what she was going to do about it, she said nothing—she didn’t want to upset the naturopath. With her permission, I wrote a letter to the ND explaining that the patient had not been provided with adequate informed consent for the test, that she had been misguided about its cost, and stated concerns that the ND was using non-FDA approved tests. I also told the ND that the patient would be finding new medical care. The bill was waived. I was able to help organize the transfer of medical records to a gastroenterologist at a medical clinic. By offering my support, I helped this loved one find safe and effective medical care, and saved her hundreds of dollars.

Play the long-game

This guide is just a starting point. Every case is different, and will likely require multiple conversations over a period of time. Offer information slowly, and only if the person is willing to listen and engage in a critical conversation.

It can also be very effective to offer suggestions of reading material. In this case, the person can take in information at their own pace. When I was reading Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial by Drs. Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh, I needed to go through the information very slowly, and not in the order laid out by the authors. I cried my way through the book. But, when I finally finished reading it, I knew I didn’t want to be a naturopath anymore. Be patient. I’m evidence that anyone can change, given time and the right support.