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Can natural medicine cure us from the outside?

Welcome to Physical Medicine: Naturopathic treatments that affect our bodies from the outside, rather than the inside. Using elements from the environment around us, as well as the careful use of physical force, physical medicine can have a surprising effect on our health.

These days, we usually think of medicine as something we ingest – or have injected into us. But the 1st Naturopathic doctors rarely resorted to these measures. Naturopathy began much more simply. Not with medicine that worked from the inside out, but from the outside in.

It began with water.

Hydrotherapy: The Medicine of Water

Water as natural medicine from the outside

People used to travel from miles around to be treated with water at hydrotherapy spas.

These weren’t the kind of spas that pampered their visitors. They treated serious ailments with serious treatments. And the favourite treatment of all? Cold water. Really, really cold water. Spas were built where the coldest, freshest springs of water could be found.

Often, patients were encouraged to drink large amounts of this water. But its main use was external. It was used to spray, bathe, and soak various body parts – or the entire person. Often, patients were encouraged to walk barefoot in the cold morning dew – or better yet, in the snow.

sauna bucked & ladle

And for this brutal treatment, thousands of sick people came. Not because it was fun. But because it worked.

Eventually, hot water and saunas were found to add further benefits – especially in combination with the cold. Something we in northern Ontario can certainly attest to.

Today, Naturopathic doctors still use combinations of hot and cold water to aid in healing. They can be helpful in a wide variety of conditions, from external injuries to internal complaints.

Light, Air, & Earth: The Medicine of the Outdoors

Natural medicine from the outside: light, air, and earth

Have you ever noticed that you feel better outside? The forerunners of Naturopathic medicine certainly did. Even in the 1800’s, many Europeans – especially the wealthy – were suffering from a life spent too much indoors.

Fresh air and sunlight were prescribed. New spas were built where patients could sunbathe in the nude. They slept on dirt beds in huts without walls. They bathed in mud. Occasionally, they hiked up wooded mountains in snowstorms. The opposite of modern comfort. And again, sick people got better.

Today, we suffer even more from a lack of natural elements. We spend our lives indoors. We breathe recirculated air. Walk on laminate floors instead of the earth. Fill our eyes with computer screens instead of sunlight. Is there any question that abandoning our natural environment has impacted our health?

We have a growing amount of evidence to prove it. Breathing fresh air is good for us. Exposure to the sun – in the right amounts – is good for us. And yes, actually touching the earth is good for us. What Naturopaths discovered long ago is now measurable with scientific tools.

The outdoors is one of my favourite medicines. It is more powerful than we realize. And it is absolutely free.

Massage: The Healing Power of Touch

Massage is a healing form of touch

Another natural medicine that works from the outside in is massage. And unlike hydrotherapy, this is one that almost everyone enjoys.

While Naturopathic doctors are not massage therapists, we do use both relaxation massage and targeted, deeper tissue work to treat various ailments and promote overall health. We can refer you to an RMT or perform this treatment ourselves, depending on your preference.

I actually enjoy treating with massage – it’s another one of my favourites. If you’re booking an initial appointment specifically for a massage, just be aware that the 1st 15-30 minutes will involve a brief medical assessment. I’m still a Naturopath, after all. And as a doctor, I have a responsibility to provide the highest quality medical care I can.


These days, manipulations are generally performed by chiropractors. They are the specialists in this field. But when Naturopathy was 1st becoming established in North America, it was closely tied to Chiropractic medicine. They were taught in the same schools, and many doctors were certified in both.

Today, Naturopathic doctors are trained and certified to assess your spinal (and other joint) alignment and, if necessary, perform chiropractic manipulations. Some Naturopaths love doing this – it can be quick and convenient to have done within a normal visit. Others prefer to refer to Chiropractic doctors who specialize in this, especially if your case is complicated.

Cupping: Drawing the Inside Out

Cupping comes from traditional Asian medicine. It involves placing cups, made of glass, plastic, or silicone, on the skin. The air pressure inside the cups is reduced, to pull the skin and deeper layers of tissue upward. This suction can also draw blood to the surface, creating circular patterns that look like bruises.

Cupping can be used for a number of different purposes. Like massage, it can help stretch the fascia, which is a layer under the skin and surrounding muscles that can be come tight. In Asian medicine, it is believed to draw toxins out of the body. More and more people, including athletes, are discovering the benefits of cupping.


Acupuncture can be one of the scarier physical medicines. It does involve needles. Thankfully, the needles are very thin, and most people can barely feel them.

Like cupping, acupuncture comes from traditional Asian medicine. Needles are inserted on specific points on the skin. Each point is believed to impact your body in a certain way. A Naturopathic doctor will choose a set of acupuncture points to treat your specific Asian medicine diagnosis. Needles can be left in for 15-30 minutes or more, and several treatments are usually needed.

While Asian medicine is quite different from western medicine, it has a large amount of research supporting its effectiveness. It can be especially useful for pain and fertility issues, along with many other conditions.

Before your 1st acupuncture appointment, you may want to read the following article:

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