Naturopathy in the Newspaper

In my local newspaper, a  naturopath has an advice column that sometimes contains a few grains of good advice, but mostly consists of free advertisement for her services and a bit of scaremongering. An example is this this week’s column. [quotations from the naturopath's article are bolded]

Question: Last year my nine-year-old son’s teacher described him as tired, unmotivated and fidgety, especially after lunch.

Do you have any suggestions to help him out?

Without any more information on whether or not this parent had the same concerns with their child at home or in other situations, our intrepid naturopath launches into a litany of unlikely causes and improbable cures. Only a few of these have any scientific research to actually back up the statements. Mostly our naturopath makes assumptions and provides very questionable advice. Granted, this is the format of nearly all advice columns on relationships, manners, and health, but I think the advice from naturopaths and other CAM providers has the potential for serious damage.

Without further ado, let’s look at the column.

 Does he get 10 hours of sleep every night? 

Lack of sleep is a common problem that affects many people, children and adults alike. Examining sleep patterns is a good place to start when determining why a child is listless in school. According to some researchers, sleep requirements are almost entirely based upon the average amount of time people remain in bed, not upon actual physiological requirements. Sleep requirements are probably influenced by growth rates, stress, disease, pregnancy, and other aspects of your physical condition. They may also be influenced by both genetic and cultural factors. Actual recommendations for a 9 year old would be a range between 9 and 11 hours each night.

Does he regularly eat foods or ingest substances that he may be allergic to?

IgE allergies, which is usually the case for peanuts and sometimes shellfish, can be life-threatening, whereas others may be IgA or IgG allergies which are delayed and less obvious in nature perhaps manifesting mentally with fatigue, lack of concentration or hyperactivity and physically in the form of digestive problems, eczema, asthma, ear and respiratory infections.

Certainly eczema, asthma, ear and respiratory infections are very often related to an allergic response to food, pollen, or other environmental allergens. Outside of Coeliac disease, which affects about 1% of the population, any association of IgA or IgG with such non specific issues such as fatigue, lack of concentration, hyperactivity, or generalized digestive problems is tenuous at best and more likely totally unsubstantiated.

Does his diet contain protein at every meal?

Eating protein in each meal as part of a healthy diet is definitely good idea, but the emphasis should be on daily intake, and there is no evidence tying the above symptoms to meal-specific protein. Nutrient deficiency may be an issue, but again, a well balanced diet should be followed if at all possible. A good place to start would be Canada’s Food Guide, or if you have specific concerns, registered dietitian should be your first stop.

Some children with hyperactivity are very sensitive to foods that naturally contain salicylates

The association of salicylates with hyperactivity goes back to the 1970s and Benjamin Feingold.

In 1973, Benjamin Feingold, M.D., a pediatric allergist from California, proposed that salicylates, artificial colors, and artificial flavors caused hyperactivity in children. (Hyperactivity is now medically classified as attention deficit disorder [ADD] or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]). To treat or prevent this condition, Feingold suggested a diet that was free of such chemicals. His followers now claim that asthma, bedwetting, ear infections, eye-muscle disorders, seizures, sleep disorders, stomach aches, and a long list of other symptoms may respond to the Feingold program and that sensitivity to synthetic additives and/or salicylates may be a factor in antisocial traits, compulsive aggression, self-mutilation, difficulty in reasoning, stuttering, and exceptional clumsiness.

The claims made by Feingold and his followers have largely been discredited outside of the anecdotes told by parents who made the lifestyle changes necessary to follow the regimen.

But carefully designed experiments fail to support the idea that additives are responsible for such symptoms in the vast majority of children. Most improvement, if any occurs, appears related to changes in family dynamics, such as paying more attention to the children.

The evidence relating food dyes to behaviour should perhaps not be dismissed as completely as Dr. Barrett does, but the evidence is far from clear-cut. In my own opinion, except in extreme cases, I agree with Dr. Barrett’s assessment that a change in family dynamics (and in this case, classroom dynamics) should be the first consideration.

What seems normal at the time can be seen as insane in retrospect, such as our school principal chain-smoking in his office fewer than 30 years ago or experts knowing for 30 years before it was banned that hydrogenated oil was not heart, or anything else, healthy.

Yes, medical science sometimes advances slowly, and sometimes in a non-linear fashion, but making assumptions about where we will be in 30 or 40 years is not particularly good medicine either. There have been numerous examples of treatments developed and commonly used that have later been proved to be totally useless as well. Hindsight may be 20-20; foresight, not so much.

Mercury is a neurotoxin and is rarely used in amalgam dental fillings anymore, but if your child does have some, a blood mercury test would reveal if they are leaching mercury. Avoid sources of mercury such as tuna, other large fish, and flu vaccines two weeks before testing.

If there is a longer history of mercury exposure then a hair analysis with an ND is a better reflection of potential brain mercury levels, since mercury leaves the blood to be eliminated via stool or urine, with the rest being stored in body tissue within one week of exposure.

Mercury has long been recognized as a potential health problem, especially among certain industrial workers and those who live on diets high in certain fish (especially types of tuna). Health Canada has more information information, but it is generally accepted that for most people the possibility of health problems developing from mercury exposure is quite low.

Moreover, exposure to methyl mercury from fish consumption is generally so low that it is difficult to measure any potential adverse health effects, even when using very sensitive methods to analyze changes in cognitive skills. Any such health effects may be offset by the nutritional benefits of fish consumption.

If you feel you have a reason to be concerned, Health Canada also has guidelines for testing blood, urine, and hair. Each of these tissues is used to determine short vs long term exposure to mercury, however, in order to justify the test, a physician will ordinarily collect your family’s mercury exposure, and most definitely will not be profiting off your heavy metal exposure.

Macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) fuel the mind and body, and we should expect problems throughout the body when nutritional balance is lacking. Next time I will highlight the supplements that I would most likely suggest to support cognition, as well as overall health.

No naturopathic advice would be complete without advice on taking supplements; supplements that the naturopath will be more than happy to sell to you.

For me, if a teacher told me that one of my children had the above symptoms and only at school, I would first look to the physical and emotional environment in the classroom. A common problem in our schools, bullying, can certainly be behind many problems for children, including those listed above. Another thing to look at would be whether the child is having trouble understanding concepts or perhaps is bored by repetition. The ability to keep a large group of children engaged at appropriate learning levels is a challenge for any teacher. A child who is on one end or the other of learning scales is certainly not likely to be active or keen. Perhaps stressors at home are causing behind these issues. We often don’t realize how intuitive children are at internalizing problems that exist in our families.

The information provided is not intended to diagnose or substitute the advice of your healthcare professional. Please consult with a health-care provider before making any changes.

The naturopath covers up here by declaring that she is not giving actual medical advice. However, she brings up potential problems that have a very low probability of occurring in any child. This serves no purpose other than to frighten parents into believing that the risks are high for these issues, while totally ignoring more common and much more likely reasons why a child is struggling at school. All for the purpose of driving customers to her office.

See Part II of this post here.

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  1. [...] up to my previous article where a naturopath makes some rather extreme suggestions for a mother concerned about her 11 year old son. In this instalment, she tries to sell a number of her products to address the issues she imagines [...]

  2. […] there is an article in our city paper by a local naturopath. In several previous posts, here and at Skeptic North, I’ve criticized her recommendation for supplements as a universal treatment for […]


  • John Underhay

    John Underhay, also known as Peicurmudgeon, is just your average atheist, left leaning, SCUBA diving, snorkeling, biker. He lives on PEI and spends some of his time attempting to point out the flaws and or dangers in promoting ideas that run contrary to the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology. He has a BSc (Biology) and an MSc (Pharmacology) from the University of Prince Edward Island, and is currently retired. You can read more of his posts at http://peicurmudgeon.wordpress.com/