Naturopathic and Allopathic Healing: A Developmental Comparison

Joel Funk, Ph.D.

Professor of Psychology
Plymouth State University
Paper presented at the Ninth Annual Adult Development Symposium
Amherst, MA June 24–26, 1994

Part One of a two-part series


Based in part on interviews with three naturopathic physicians, a formal comparison between naturopathic and conventional (allopathic) approaches to health and healing is presented. The underlying structures of the two healing modalities differ radically, e.g., naturopathy employs several levels of postformal operations, while allopathy is primarily formal operational. Using criteria derived from a number of developmental theories (Werner, Koplowitz, Cook-Greuter) eighteen points of contrast are delineated. The claim is made that naturopathy reflects a developmentally more advanced mode of understanding healing. Numerous examples are provided, e.g., the use/abuse of antibiotics, the role of diet, the problem of side effects, treating the disease vs. treating the patient, and issues concerning prevention, diagnosis, and ethics.

A recent survey published in a major medical journal revealed that at least one third of Americans have seen an “alternative” or “holistic” healer in the past year. Given the emerging popularity and increasing significance of alternative, holistic, or what will henceforth be referred to as “naturopathic” systems of healing (as opposed to the conventional or “allopathic” methods), it seems timely to examine the underlying structures of the two approaches from the perspective of developmental theory. A variety of theoretical approaches and developmental criteria will inform the analysis, including postformal stage theories (Commons et al, 1984; Koplowitz, 1984), ego development stage theory (Cook-Greuter, 1990), transpersonal psychology (Miller & Cook-Greuter, 1994; Funk, 1994), Werner’s (1948) orthogenetic principle, and moral developmental schemes (Vasudev, 1994).

First, some basic definitions are in order: allopathy aims to remove symptoms or the proximal cause of symptoms, while naturopathy seeks to restore the body to overall health and prevent further illness, through eliminating the underlying cause of the symptoms. One naturopath used the metaphor of a smoke alarm going off in a building. Allopathic medicine treats the problem by cutting the wires to the alarm bells, alleviating the symptom (noise). Or it may open a window to allow the smoke to escape. However, the underlying situation which produces the smoke continues to worsen. Naturopathy seeks to eliminate the conditions which cause the smoke, i.e., fire somewhere in the building. The alarm will then cease clamoring by itself.

While allopathic physicians rely primarily on drugs, surgery, and “bio-incompatible” physical energies (e.g., X-rays), all of which are invasive and potentially harmful, naturopaths have at their disposal a diverse armamentarium of non-intrusive and essentially harmless measures. These include extensive dietary changes, juicing, herbs, vitamins, minerals, glandular extracts and other natural supplements, homeopathic remedies, intestinal cleansing, fasting, massage, exercise, “bio-compatible” life energies (e.g., reflexology, acupressure), stress management, and general life style changes. It is true that some of the aforementioned treatment modalities have filtered into the allopathic mainstream, but typically not in a holistic manner, as will be seen below. In any event, this essay contrasts relatively “pure” forms of allopathic and naturopathic healing.


Based on in-depth interviews with two practicing Doctors of Naturopathy, a briefer interview with an older, more experienced naturopath who had been a mentor to the other two, plus extensive reading suggested by the interviews, as well as some firsthand experience with naturopathy and related healing methods, I have been virtually compelled to formulate the following conclusion: While there are assuredly many instances primarily crisis management where allopathic procedures such as drugs and surgery are required and beneficial, as an overall approach to healing, naturopathy reflects a more developmentally advanced mode of healing than does allopathy. Below is a point by point analysis of this developmental contrast. Except where a reference is provided, the facts and examples discussed below emerged from the interviews and readings; the entire analysis has admittedly been filtered through the lenses of the naturopaths as well as the author. Nevertheless, the general thesis is, I believe, a valid one.

Findings and Discussion

1. Naturopathy requires postformal operations for its comprehension and application, while allopathy relies essentially on formal operations and a linear model of causality. Frequently two or more linear chains may be linked by allopathic medicine as when an opportunistic infection is observed to spread after prior weakening of the immune system, as in AIDS but a true systemic level of analysis is rarely attained in allopathic medicine.

Allopathy’s near exclusive focus on the disease process and its proximal causes (bacteria, viruses, etc.) indicates a lack of systemic thinking. Naturopaths do not focus on the symptoms; they view the disease as an indication of a deeper imbalance in the organism, which requires a holistic approach to treatment. As Walters (1993), in a book on cancer treatment alternatives, writes: “The allopathic, conventional approach, for all its high-tech trappings, is based on a primitive medical philosophy: aggressively attacking an “enemy” disease. Often the patient is devastated in the process, while the cancer and its underlying causes remain.” (p. 2)

Another example: The very notion of “side effects,” a problem arising all too often in allopathic medicine (see #8 below), betrays an unsystemic view of the person. Only from the limited perspective of the symptoms being attacked are there “side effects.” From the organism’s—and the naturopath’s—holistic perspective, there are only effects. Therefore naturopaths seek remedies congenial to the organism, with virtually no “side effects.”

Yet a third example can be observed in allopathy’s failure to distinguish between synthetic chemicals, such as ascorbic acid, and naturally occurring remedies, such as the complete vitamin C complex, which includes bioflavonoids, rutin, and hesperidin as cofactors for maximum efficacy. This tendency to isolate the “active ingredient” from its larger system is also operative in the pharmaceutical field, which frequently extracts one or more chemicals from a holistically balanced herbal system. The naturopathic model assumes that the “remainder of the herb” has a significant role to play in absorption, or buffering of acidity, or minimizing potentially harmful effects. For example, aspirin was originally a derivative of white willow bark, which contains numerous compounds besides acetylsalicylic acid. As a result, aspirin has “side effects,” while white willow bark has none.

2. In vivid contrast, naturopathy assumes and requires, at minimum, a systematic view of the body (Commons et al, 1984). A system is a Gestalt, i.e., more than the sum of its parts, in this instance more than the sum of linear causal chains of disease, or more than the sum of activities of individual organs. For example, a cancer may be found in the lungs, but naturopathic treatment will involve numerous other organ systems, e.g., building the immune system, detoxifying the entire body not only the lungs, strengthening the liver and cleansing the intestines to facilitate the process of detoxification and absorption of nutrients, which can in turn rebuild damaged tissues and debilitated organ systems, etc. Regardless of the specific symptoms, the whole organism is treated.

In other words, the various organs of the body are treated in a synergistic manner, not piecemeal. Synergy in this instance means that as each organ is restored to function it helps the other organs as well. Maximum efficacy is achieved by supporting several weak organ systems at the same time. The total effect is greater than the sum of treating each organ system separately. Similarly vitamins, minerals, herbs, enzymes, cleansers, exercise, etc. are all prescribed together, as they mutually enhance each other’s benefits. Most allopathic research, on the other hand, isolates one item, e.g., vitamin E in relation to, say, cancer, ignoring the fact that this vitamin works better in conjunction with vitamin C and selenium, and vice versa.

3. Naturopathy, in fact, is typically meta-systematic (Commons et al, 1984); the naturopaths interviewed frequently drew connections between our deteriorating, demineralized soil, a result of non-ecological agricultural techniques (pesticides, synthetic fertilizers) and severe mineral deficiencies in the human body, which can lead to a wide range of diseases. The organism was always seen in the context of its physical and social environment: air, water, soil, light, noise, electromagnetic radiation, music, stress, clothing, household building materials, etc.

4. In the midst of the meta-systematic cognition described above, occasional implicit use was made of third order analogies (Sternberg, 1984). For example, a homology—a formal identity, more than a mere analogy—was made by one naturopath between antibiotics and pesticides. As a third order analogy it would break down as follows: antibiotics vs. herbal “probiotics” = short-term alleviation vs. immune building; pesticides vs. organic farming = short-term bug removal vs. strengthening plants/soil.

In other words, the contrast between organismic and linear approaches to treating “pests” in the body is identical to what occurs when attempting to treating agricultural pests.

5. Beyond this, naturopathy, ultimately, might even be considered cross-paradigmatic (Commons et al, 1984), touching inevitably on the economics, politics, history, and sociology of the various healing alternatives (Walters, 1992), ultimately penetrating to the contrasting philosophies underlying naturopathy and allopathy. Naturopathy results from a guiding philosophy at odds with the dominant mechanistic philosophy undergirding Western industrialized society. Allopathy, in contrast, is clearly derived from these same premises. Or in Eisler’s (1987) terms, naturopathy embraces a partnership model of relationship, while allopathy falls within the dominator model. As indicated below, this partnership/dominator model extends not only to the treatment process but to the healer/patient relationship itself.

6. Naturopathy at times transcends the representational level (Alexander et al, 1994). In Koplowitz’s (1984) schema, the highest stage of apprehending reality is called unitary. A unitary view of reality was sometimes explicitly delineated, other times merely hinted at by the naturopaths. The interviews were permeated with a profound respect for the underlying wisdom and intelligence of Nature. The naturopaths cautioned repeatedly that humans “play God” at their peril.

Furthermore, although, they did not use this terminology, the naturopathic view seems consistent with the recently emerging philosophy of “deep ecology” (Devall & Sessions, 1985) and with the Indian moral philosophy of Ahimsa or “nonviolence towards living things” (Vasudev, 1994).

A more specific example of unitary “thinking” can be seen in the emphasis on the healthy functioning of the cell as the basis for fighting disease—even before the immune system is called into play. Seeing humans in their “cellular” modality unites humanity with all of life, down to the mineral level.

Similarly, naturopaths are comfortable with the concept of a healing and sustaining Life Force or energy that exists in all living forms. Many of the natural remedies and treatments prescribed are designed to enhance the functioning of this force in the body. Drugs and processed food, on the other hand, are avoided, as they are said to weaken the body’s life energy. This is not a new concept by any means, as it has been recognized (under names like prana, chi, n/um, mana, and ki) and used in Asian and shamanic healing worldwide for millennia (Walters, 1993).

7. Thus, it can be stated that a basic axiom of naturopathy is trust in the wisdom and healing power of Nature. Naturopaths respect the body, treat good health as the norm, even our birthright, have faith in the body’s tendency towards homeostasis, and see disease as “a beautiful gift” or lesson, indicating the need/opportunity for change in lifestyle.

Allopathy, in contrast, typically distrusts nature, and tries to “play God” by interfering with and/or suppressing natural processes. One of these natural processes is fever, a high temperature created by the body to burn off toxins, e.g., bacteria. Naturopathy acknowledges this as part of the healing wisdom of the body and welcomes the fever (unless it becomes life threatening). Allopathy, which does not acknowledge the healing value of the fever, forces the body to lower its temperature, effectively stifling the body’s ability to heal itself and worsening the situation by allowing the toxic bacteria to propagate.

Allopathy tends to see disease as inevitable rather than the outcome of poor lifestyle choices (e.g., diet). One naturopath criticized the allopathic and widely held view that, “it’s normal for women to need estrogen in their 50’s, for older men to get prostate cancer, and for a certain percentage of the elderly to become senile.” The fact that these are statistically common problems among a population that consistently violates naturopathic principles does not mean they are normal or inevitable.

The same naturopath, when speaking of the wisdom of Nature, marveled at the more than 400 functions performed by the liver, in awe at the intelligence capable of producing such an organ. Allopaths make headlines by heroically performing liver transplants; even if naturopaths could perform surgery, it is almost unimaginable that they would remove such a miraculous organ unless absolutely necessary. Instead, they would cleanse, nourish, and strengthen it.

One allopathically trained physician bemoaned the fact that, “The medical system needs to relinquish a single-minded quest for mastery and allow for the presence of mystery….It’s the only medical system in the history of the human race that doesn’t allow for the presence of mystery” (Remen, 1994, p. 125).

8. Naturopathy has great respect for each patient. First, naturopaths abide closely to Hippocrates’ dictum: Above all do no harm. Vitamins, herbs, and massage produce no or minimal side effects aside from the necessary inconvenience of detoxification while virtually all drugs, surgery, and anesthesia have side effects, often deleterious ones. Even supposedly safe aspirin, which can cause internal bleeding, has been implicated in several deaths annually. Walters (1993), in a comprehensive critique of traditional and alternative treatments for cancer, concludes that chemotherapy is not only ineffective for the most part, but highly dangerous as well. Despite the fact that, “Only 2 to 3 percent of the nearly one-half million Americans who die of cancer every year are being saved by chemotherapy…over half of all cancer patients routinely receive chemotherapy drugs…All chemotherapy drugs are toxic and many are carcinogenic” (Walters, 1993, p. 1). Similarly the pain killing drugs frequently prescribed for arthritis actually accelerate the degeneration of the joints.

Overall, estimates run to several hundred thousand iatrogenic (i.e., treatment induced) deaths a year! One naturopath argued that this figure would be orders of magnitude larger, if what allopathic physicians do not do were factored in as well. For example, by ignoring, deprecating, and even suppressing the arguments and findings of naturopaths, nutritionists, and other alternative healers including non-traditional MD’s for decades, allopathic medicine has thereby contributed greatly to disease and death.

It is not a mere coincidence that none of the three naturopaths interviewed carry malpractice insurance, and that in general naturopathic malpractice insurance is far lower than for allopathic physicians.

Second, each person is considered unique, not as a mere instantiation of some disease pattern. Naturopathy treats the patient in depth. Naturopaths spend copious amounts of time during initial visits (from three to five hours in the case of those interviewed here), including a detailed history of physical and emotional problems. Naturopaths believe that patient’s own thoughts and intuitions about what is occurring in their body can often be valid clues in determining and refining a treatment program. Unlike many allopaths, naturopaths do not dismiss the patient’s ideas and beliefs, since “they know better.”

Similarly, early symptoms, which presage full-blown diseases later on, are not ignored, but taken seriously. (One naturopath somewhat humorously compared the disease itself to an “idiot light” going off on a car dashboard, because the driver [patient] previously ignored all the earlier warning signs.)

In diagnosing and treating arthritis, for example, allopathy focuses on the manifest disease, categorizes all patients as essentially “arthritis cases” of a particular type, and usually ignores the problem until it is advanced enough to be causing acute symptoms. In short, they treat the disease, not the patient. Naturopathy, in contrast, looks for early warning signs, such as certain aches and pains, poor nails and teeth, charley horse, even kidney infections. Similarly, in the case of osteoporosis, a number of “idiot lights” are likely to flash before the problem becomes visible on X-rays: receding gums, fingernail lines, loose teeth, achy joints, even temper outbursts. Many naturopaths also corroborate their evaluation with a diagnostic system called iridology, which presumably can indicate the deteriorating state of an organ before it manifests in disease symptoms.

Furthermore, naturopathy, being systemic, does not invoke a single, simple cause, for each disease, nor a single, simple treatment. Ten people with the symptoms of arthritis, may very well receive ten different programs of treatment, depending on the various causal factors and the patient’s specific organismic strengths and weaknesses. A rigid, inflexible character may be the prime factor for one patient, while a diet high in sugar, nuts, and citrus fruits leading to an acid/alkaline imbalance may be key in another. A third may develop arthritis due to a combination of stress, overwork, lack of exercise, and excessive coffee consumption. Naturopaths treat the patient, not the disease.

9. Naturopathy has overarching integrating principles, (Werner, 1948) several of which have already been or will be mentioned [see the attached sheet outlining the principles of naturopathy]. A somewhat related approach, homeopathy, also has very specific “meta-rules” which inform treatment, such as the axiom that “like cures like.” Allopathy at root has only one “principle,” which is to eliminate the manifest symptoms of the disease. This may make sense from the point of view of linear, formal operational thinking, but it overlooks the organismic, systemic, homeostatic nature of the body. Thus, the “cure” all too frequently boomerangs: antibiotic over-use it’s in our meat too–has now led to “superbugs,” which appear to resist existing antibiotics. Naturopaths have been warning against precisely this outcome for decades.

In fact, antibiotics actually weaken the immune system in the long run in a number of ways, for example, by removing zinc from the body. Zinc, however, is necessary for the immune system to function properly, so that when a newer, possibly stronger bacteria or virus appears, the organism’s immune system is likely to be weaker than before, not stronger. Naturopaths avoid this dilemma by using “probiotics” to treat infections, including vitamins, trace minerals (like zinc), thymus extract, bee propolis, and herbs like goldenseal, echinacea, and a four-herb formula called Essiac. All of these have the effect of boosting the immune system, although some of these work more gradually, others more immediately. More systemically, naturopaths would also recommend acidophilus to replenish the beneficial intestinal flora that have typically been depleted by years of taking antibiotic use. The net result is that the organism is stronger from the experience of having fought off the infection naturally, on its own. In a sense, the body has “learned” from the experience.

A postscript to the homeopathic principle alluded to above: Conventional allopathic healing has employed the principle of “like curing like” in vaccines and allergy shots, for example. It has not, however, been able to induce a general principle of treatment, whereas homeopathy has (De Schepper, 1994). Homeopathy treats all diseases in this manner, and can frequently predict, on the basis of the disease symptoms, which sorts of plant derivatives are likely to work. In fact, it was homeopathy’s success in treating epidemics in the last century that led to its growth in America, a growth that was stopped by the concerted actions of allopathic physicians (Walters, 1993).

In the year 1831 a great cholera epidemic swept Europe and later America. The physicians dealt with the problem as usual and the sick died in droves. Hahnemann [founder of homeopathy], not having yet seen the disease, predicted on the basis of the law of similars, the remedies which would prove curative. His prediction came true…The discovery of the efficiency of certain drugs…before having actually seen the disease, through…the application of a law—that is science. (De Schepper, 1994, p. 452)

10. Naturopathy is not only more highly integrated than allopathy, it differentiates far more precisely as well (Werner, 1948). A recently popularized, officially endorsed “food pyramid” stresses grains, vegetables, and fruits something naturopaths have been clamoring about since the turn of the century but this scheme is far too diffuse, as Werner would put it. A naturopath, for example, would further differentiate between whole grains and processed grains, between hybrid grains (semolina wheat) and naturally occurring “heirloom” grains (spelt), between reliance on a small number of grains, vegetables and fruits and eating a diversity of crops, between organically grown and “conventionally grown” (i.e., with pesticides) vegetables and fruits, between dark green leafy vegetables and nutrient-poor iceberg lettuce, between vine-ripened and prematurely picked tomatoes, between fruits that are alkaline or acid, between food grown on soil fertilized with compost or chemicals, between raw vegetables and cooked vegetables, etc.

In fact, the naturopaths interviewed provide an informational handout to all new patients, which makes recommendations for a whole host of techniques and products. A few examples: avoid sunglasses, as they filter out natural light needed by the brain and pineal gland; use the one brand of cough drops that has no sugar in it; do not drink city water, use spring water; use full-spectrum lights, not standard fluorescent lights; do not use aluminum cookware; use environmentally safe household cleaners and detergents, etc. These seemingly “obsessive” distinctions are not truly obsessive, since they are all subordinated to the integrating principle of eating food and using products that are grown/developed in accordance with Nature, and which are health promoting.

Allopathy, in contrast, suffers from what might be termed “misplaced obsessiveness.” Instead of a finely articulated view of what promotes health not a single medical school in America requires a course on nutrition, for instance allopathy focuses instead on the minutiae of disease processes, endless pharmaceutical agents, surgical procedures, office management, political and bureaucratic maneuvering, and the like.

Given that allopathic medicine dominates American culture, it is ironic, but hardly surprising, that many plant lovers use full spectrum lights to help their plants grow better, all the while working all day under inferior artificial lighting. The naturopaths interviewed observed regretfully that we take far better care of our cars, computers, plants, and pets than we do ourselves! As one remarked, “If you don’t have the right fuel in the body, it’s like having a Ferrari and putting low quality gasoline in it, then wondering why it doesn’t run well.” It should be obvious that any decent mechanic should make sure the Ferrari is first getting the proper fuel before poking around in the engine, but, to push the metaphor, this is precisely what allopathic “mechanics” do not do.

11. Naturopathy is thus paradoxically simple and parsimonious (in its few basic principles), yet elegantly complex in application requiring years of study and continuous upgrading as part of clinical practice. In the terminology of Werner’s (1948) well known orthogenetic principle, naturopathy is both well differentiated and hierarchically integrated. Allopathy, in contrast, is “simplistic” (in lacking integrating principles) and therefore excessively complicated in practice, as when physicians prescribe an anti-nausea drug to counter the effects of chemotherapy or when a diuretic prescribed to reduce water retention depletes potassium, causing “side effects” necessitating the further prescription of synthetic potassium. In brief, allopathy creates a negative spiral health pattern, while naturopathy engenders a positive spiral health pattern.

One telling indicator: There is no need for specialists in naturopathy. Typically a patient who comes in for disease A finds that symptoms of apparently unrelated condition B, which have plagued them for years and failed to respond to allopathic measures, also clear up.

A further irony: allopathic medicine presents itself as conventional, scientific, even conservative, when in fact it is a radical departure from the more natural, non-invasive healing methods employed planet wide for millennia (Walters, 1993). Naturopathy is typically depicted as “radical” in the pejorative sense of the word: as a deluded backwater far from the allopathic mainstream. Actually, naturopathy is radical in its true etymological sense; “radical” derives from the Latin root “radix,” meaning “going to the root.” Viewed historically, however, naturopathy is simply a modernized version of a venerable tradition. In that sense it is “conservative” in that it conserves the best of what has been accumulated from age old methods, as well as from modern research. As a final irony, the bulk of this research has been done by or under the auspices of allopathic medicine, which all too frequently ignores and even suppresses its own findings on the efficacy of vitamins, herbs, and other non-conventional treatment modalities (Walters, 1993).

End of Part One. Wasn’t that exemplary? To continue to the fascinating conclusion, click below…

Copyright ©Dr. Joel Funk. All Rights Reserved.

Joel Funk, Ph.D.