Women lead full and rich lives, gracefully juggling career, family, hobbies, friends, and wellness. That’s not to say it always comes easy or without health concerns. Women often suffer from fatigue or pain exacerbated by hormonal disorders or stress and chronic conditions they feel are not treated by conventional medicine. Many women now turn to a complementary health tool such as naturopathy—in conjunction with primary care—that may better address ailments in a holistic way.
Naturopathy is an alternative medical system based on the body’s ability to heal itself without the use of drugs and with treatment techniques such as herbal supplements, stress reduction, exercise therapy, acupuncture, and dietary and lifestyle changes.
A naturopathic doctor treats each individual patient as a whole, not only assessing physical health but also mental and emotional health, as well as genetic, environmental, and societal factors.
In January 2017, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill creating a licensing board to regulate practicing naturopaths in the state, paving the way for further legitimacy and safety for the alternative medical practice. Currently, only 19 other U.S. states have similar licensing regulations, including all of New England.
This is a win for both naturopathic doctors and prospective patients because in unregulated states, anyone can call him or herself a naturopath without a license to ensure that he or she received proper training. The required training for a licensed naturopath in Massachusetts is a degree from a four-year accredited college approved by the Board of Registration in Naturopathy.
Allison Willette, R.N., N.D., president of the Massachusetts Society of Naturopathic Doctors (MSND) and a naturopath who specializes in menopausal women, says a lot of what naturopaths do is benevolent, but there are natural herbs and treatments that could do more harm than good. For example, while a properly trained and licensed naturopath cannot prescribe medication, the naturopath should be aware of possible interactions between a supplement and a patient’s prescribed medication. In addition, “Naturopaths should be able to look at a patient and say, ‘You need to go to the ER or you need an EKG,’” she tells Exhale. “Some things are beyond the scope of naturopathy.”
A former ICU nurse, Willette works at her private practice, Good Sense Healthcare, in Hadley, Massachusetts. She assesses various aspects of a woman’s health. “We look at things like, are you getting enough sleep?” she says. “Are you peeing, pooping enough? Exhaling and sweating?”
Among her female patients, especially those in their 40s experiencing menopause, Willette has noted a pattern of multiple obligations and responsibilities taking a toll on their health, and they don’t know how to manage them day-to-day.
“They may be working and they may have a ton of unpaid work, like taking care of family, their mom and dad, grandchildren,” she says. “It’s a lot on the plate for women this age.” Willette says her job is to provide women with the tools and education to manage their daily well-being.
For women, the traditional model is great at diagnosing diseases, but for multifactorial chronic conditions,
it falls short. —Keri Layton, N.D.
Keri Layton, N.D., a naturopath specializing in women’s health at Winchester Natural Health Associates in Massachusetts, tells Exhale that “for women, the traditional model is great at diagnosing diseases, but for multifactorial chronic conditions, it falls short. There are many hormonal and societal factors that affect women differently.”
“[As naturopaths] we understand how environmental contaminants impact women differently. For example, we have more body fat, and chemicals like to be stored in fat,” says Layton.
Layton also treats conditions such as hypothyroidism, which affects both men and women, but symptoms may manifest differently in women—wreaking havoc on the female reproductive system with irregular periods and/or fertility issues.
No dairy, no soy, no pecans, no garlic.
After six weeks, I can’t tell you how much better I felt. —Anna Lucas, naturopathic patient
Naturopathic patient Anna Lucas, 58, a professional organizer from Winchester, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for years and took several medications prescribed by her rheumatologist. She sought naturopathic treatment after growing tired of her medications working only temporarily.
“That was their thing—they were just gonna keep giving me more drugs, even though I was already taking four or five things. I was just done,” Lucas tells Exhale.
Lucas’ naturopath, Shiva Barton, N.D., of Winchester Natural Health Associates, took her full medical history and requested blood and stool tests. He advised Lucas to eliminate several foods from her diet for six weeks and then add them back in one at a time to see how it affected her.
“No dairy, no soy, no pecans, no garlic. After six weeks, I can’t tell you how much better I felt. I stayed off dairy and soy, which are both inflammatory for me,” says Lucas. “Over the course of the next year, I stopped having symptoms.”
Lucas says it has been eight years since she has been on any arthritis medication and has continued to stick to her controlled diet.
The majority of insurance companies do not cover alternative health treatments, such as naturopathy. Lucas says although her insurance did not cover her visits with Barton, she believes she saved more money in the long run by not spending it on prescriptions and numerous visits to her rheumatologist.
Another of Barton’s patients, Anna Trask, began naturopathic care about 20 years ago when she was pregnant. “I was feeling yucky and thought he might have ideas for my diet,” she tells Exhale. “I cut dairy out and felt much better.”
Lucas says that naturopathy also helped her solve an overlooked health issue. “I always used to get migraines but nobody even knew what they were.” Barton was able to diagnose Lucas with menstrual migraines and advised her to give up caffeine and chocolate, and finally her headaches stopped.
“I love my western doctor and she’s good at supporting that complementary approach,” Trask, who is currently a vice president at Decibel Therapeutics, a Boston biotech company for hearing disorders, tells Exhale. “I see it as a combined effort. My kids also go to a naturopath for colds, allergies, dietary supplements, and different ways of thinking and changing your environment.”
For new patients, Willette says her first appointments are 90 minutes long. “It’s a lot of paperwork. We want your whole history because there can be a thousand reasons why you might have a health issue.”
Search the Massachusetts Society of Naturopathic Doctors website for vetted practitioners. Once licenses are administered by the state, you can visit the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Naturopathy to search practitioners, check their licensing numbers, and find out if they have any malpractice infractions.
Expect to pay $250 for a 60-minute first-time visit and $90 for follow-ups. This does not include costs for specific supplements or therapies.