When George Taraviras sprained his thumb six years ago, the primary care physician he picked from his health plan's booklet turned out to be a naturopathic doctor. W. Bruce Milliman treated Taraviras' thumb that day, and during a thorough exam found Taraviras had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type II diabetes. Milliman put Taraviras on garlic tablets, vitamins and minerals. He encouraged Taraviras to watch his diet and exercise more.
"Triglycerides, cholesterol, my blood sugar, he helped me get all those in line without any drugs," said Taraviras, 40, a private investigator in Seattle.
Under Milliman's care, Taraviras has drunk astragalus tea to help his body fight a cold, let an unsightly rash run its course rather than take steroids and had an injured ankle checked for a possible break with a tuning fork -- a device once commonly used by orthopedists to check for bone fractures. He hasn't felt the need to see a traditional medical doctor, and he likes the fact that he's been able to largely avoid prescription drugs -- and their potential side effects -- for his various ailments.
"When I see these news articles, about the side effects that the medical establishment considers acceptable," said Taraviras, "and I know that I can lower my cholesterol, my blood pressure, and I can do it all without drugs, with a knowledgeable naturopath, I don't understand why you would do anything else."
For most Californians, going to a naturopathic doctor was not an option -- until now. On Friday, California licensed naturopathic doctors for the first time, becoming the 13th state to do so. New York, Massachusetts and Florida are considering similar licensure.
Because of its population, influence and openness to alternative therapies, the naturopathic profession considers California's action an important step to legitimizing this little-known field.
Most Californians have only a vague notion of what naturopathy is. For those unfamiliar with the field, the word naturopath itself might conjure images of an herb-dispensing, Birkenstock-wearing hippie type with minimal medical training.
So what is the difference between an N.D. (Naturopathic Doctor) and an M.D. (Medical Doctor)?
Naturopathic medicine grew out of the 19th century European natural healing movement, which involved treatments at natural mineral springs and spas. The field gets its name from Dr. Benedict Lust, who claims to have cured himself of tuberculosis with hydrotherapy and who brought his practice to the United States from Germany around 1900. He opened the first school of naturopathic medicine in New York City. At the time naturopathy included fasting and folk remedies, standing in cold waterfalls, running barefoot through the snow and eating whole grain bread. Naturopathic medicine became highly popular in the 1920s, and was licensed in many states, but the profession fell out of favor in the '40s and '50s, as Americans came to rely more on conventional medicine and pharmaceuticals.
Among the founding principles of naturopathy are a belief in the healing power of nature, the idea that the "whole person" should be treated, and that prevention of disease is as important as the cure.
To obtain a license in California, doctors will have to attend one of four accredited naturopathic colleges in the United States (there are also two in Canada) and take a standardized national board exam. The four-year postgraduate program includes two years of instruction that is similar to medical school, including classes in anatomy, physiology, pathology and immunology.
During the students' third and fourth years of training, the teaching begins to diverge. Students learn about vitamins, herbs, nutritional supplements and lifestyle modification. They take basic classes in Ayurveda -- the ancient medical system from India; homeopathy -- a system for treating illness based on administering minute, highly diluted doses of natural substances to stimulate the body's self-healing mechanisms; acupuncture; exercise therapy and counseling. Many go on to specialize in one of these areas.
"Conventional medicine tends to focus on a specialization in diseases," said Joseph Pizzorno, a naturopathic doctor and president emeritus of Bastyr University, a Seattle college with programs in naturopathic medicine, acupuncture and other natural health sciences. "We tend to focus on therapeutic approaches. One person might choose to become really good at homeopathy or nutrition; another, like myself, might be more interested in nutrition and herbs."
The biggest difference between a visit to a naturopathic doctor and a medical doctor is the amount of time spent with the patient and an emphasis on treating the root of the medical problem rather than the symptoms. Naturopaths also are trained to try less invasive, less toxic therapies first.