The Principles of Naturopathic Medicine, or How Red Sorrel Taught Me What I Already Know

The Principles of Naturopathic Medicine, or How Red Sorrel Taught Me What I Already Know

I was recently diagnosed with a serious problem: red sorrel in my yard.  I knew it was there; I watched it spread from the parking area last summer to my yard this spring.  I saw those blades of beautiful red flowers waving in the breeze all over my yard.  But I had no idea that I had a problem.  When my neighbor came over and gave me the diagnosis, I tried not to panic.  I did what any good patient does – I got on the Internet.  I found some optimistic and cheery sights touting its great culinary and medicinal uses.  But mostly I found sites that were frightfully useless.  They were all about the same: a description of the weed and a picture (thanks, but I got that part), a description of where it likes to grow (anywhere and everywhere), and an explanation of how to manage it (you can’t – just forget it; give up before you even try).  These web sites always mentioned that you could try this or that weed killer, but only in spot treatments.  I’m not certain what constitutes a “spot,” but I’m pretty sure it’s smaller than half my yard.  You could probably guess that I’m vehemently anti-weed killer, but these guys are telling me that even if I were up for using it, I can’t because it’s only a spot treatment?  So do I have any options?  Should I sell my house?  Rip up the top 2 feet of yard and start over?

Alas, I have not found a miracle cure to rid my yard of the dreaded red sorrel. But, being certain that I didn’t want this noxious, invasive weed taking over the rest of my yard and the strawberries I just planted, I decided I had to maintain hope.  Why am I telling you this story?  Because this terrible weed is reminding me of valuable lessons I already know about life and medicine.

Again, like any great patient would, I looked deeper into the Internet. (Do you hear the sarcasm in my voice?  Maybe soon I’ll write a post about Dr. Google and its followers).  I hit the jackpot: two different blog posts outlining attempts to kill red sorrel organically.  One says the only thing she did was add nitrogen to her soil and the following spring, problem (almost entirely) solved.  The other says she’s about to try adding sawdust and manure mulch, which she has heard can work.  Sadly, this one gave no follow up posts, and has not replied to my inquiries.  No matter; I will believe.  I will continue my quest with vigor.  I will dig out the sorrel, replenish the soil, plant native plants, and start nurturing my yard (something that has not happened in at least 2 years since I’ve been busy with other parts of my life).  I will believe that I can get past the sorrel fiasco, even if the Internet tells me otherwise. 

This story of restoring land health is strikingly similar to that of restoring human health.  It follows the principles of naturopathic medicine and the therapeutic order of healing so well that I just had to write about it.

Principles of Naturopathic Medicine

The Healing Power of Nature
Naturopathic medicine believes that nature, and the human body, have an innate healing power.  Given the proper foundations of health, and the appropriate support, the human body has the ability to heal itself of illness.  Someone who is ill and eats a diet of strictly processed foods, drinks nothing but diet soda, and lives with an abusive spouse may not experience this power.  But if that same person begins to eat fresh vegetables, drink clean water, and amend emotional health, nature may now be uncovered and allowed to work toward healing.  I believe that once I provide my lawn with the foundation of health (water and nitrogen) and the appropriate support (strong native plants), that it will heal itself of the red sorrel.

Identify and Treat the Cause
We NDs don’t just say “well you’ve got constipation, here’s a prescription for a laxative.”  We dig into the root cause of the constipation – why is your body responding this way?  Is it diet?  Is it emotional? Is it a genetic syndrome?  Is it an anatomical malformation? 

Why do I have a sorrel infestation?  Because I wasn’t paying attention.  I let it grow without finding out what it was.  I was focused on everything in my life other than my front yard.  I was putting it off for later, when I had time.  My yard was not watered once last summer.  It was about half grass half dandelions and moss at the time the sorrel came to town.  I planned to dig it out and replace it with native plants one day.  But in the mean time, I was completely ignoring it.  Just as we so often ignore our health.  We know one day we will start exercising, increase our veggie intake, or start making time for ourselves.  But when does that day ever come?  Often it comes when there’s a major problem.

First Do No Harm
Drugs?  This is a question I ask a lot when I see patients.  Will they help?  Will they harm?  Are they immediately necessary or can we try something else first?  Sometimes, drugs are immediately necessary; often they are not.  Drugs, as well as any intervention, can cause harm.  The question should always be, do the benefits outweigh the potential harm? 

Weed killer?  My 2 year old plays in this yard, digs in the dirt, rubs it on his face, breathes the air that comes off of it, and sticks his fingers in his mouth before we can get inside to wash them.  Do I really want residue of something designed to kill left on this lawn?  And what about the watershed?  Weed killer runs off our lawns and straight into our rivers and streams.  This is not an insignificant problem (see links below).

Doctor as Teacher
You better believe I have become the greatest anti-invasive plant evangelist there ever was.  Sometimes I think I just might have the time and energy to pursue a side career in landscaping specializing in native plant restoration. 

Treat the Whole Person (Yard)
Rather than seeing a patient with symptom X and prescribing drug Y, we NDs like to get a list of all the symptoms, determine why the body is expressing these symptoms, and address the root cause of these symptoms with natural interventions.  So, for constipation in a child, I don’t jump to prescribe a laxative.  I find out what the child eats and drinks; I ask about emotions and emotional support – is this a child who can’t let go of anything, or who can’t use a public bathroom?  I ask about other symptoms.  I might prescribe increased water consumption and diet improvements.  I might prescribe counseling.  I might uncover emotional stress at school and prescribe cooperating with teachers to address it.  The prescription will be individualized and address the child as a whole person.  What I’ve found with the dreaded sorrel is no different.  I can’t solve this problem with a single solitary action.  I’m going to have to remove the offending agent, nourish the health of the soil, add strong native plants that can fight off the sorrel (probiotics?) and continue to promote health in the future. 

Prevention and Wellness 
Generally, the best way to prevent illness is to promote wellness.  A well fed, well watered, happy, emotionally attached, cared for human who exercises, gets lots of fresh air, and relaxes and sleeps well, will typically be healthier than one who does not, and will often be sick less often, less severely, for less time.  Apparently, the same is true for my lawn.  A lawn that goes an entire summer and then some without water, that is growing in soil that has never been nourished, seems to be a bull’s eye for a hostile take-over.

The Therapeutic Order

NDs prefer to use the lowest intervention possible for each patient’s treatment plan.  Here is the order: 

  • Determinants of Health (are the following needs being met for the patient: adequate clean water, fresh air, exercise, adequate nutritious food, emotional and mental health)
  • The Healing Power of Nature (is something preventing the body from healing itself?)
  • Tonify Healing Systems (e.g. series of structured sweats, hydration, and increased exposure to fresh air)
  • Correct Structural Integrity (e.g. is the gut lining damaged by years of exposure to a poorly tolerated food?)
  • Symptom Based Naturopathic Treatment
  • Symptom Based Pharmaceutical Treatment 
  • High Force Interventions (e.g. surgery)

With each patient, we choose where we need to come in on the Therapeutic Order, based largely on the extent of the illness at hand, but also on the patient’s abilities and desires.  

With my red sorrel, I considered, for about a half a second, coming in at symptom based pharmaceutical treatment: weed killer.  But, I learned it wasn’t an option, and I would have been unwilling to do it in the end anyway.  So, I’m coming in at determinants of health, the healing power of nature, and correct structural integrity. 

Sadly, you can’t always cure a disease.  Some patients will die of their diseases, and some will live with them chronically.  But you can always help a patient, if you seek the opportunity.  At this moment, I have to believe that I will cure the disease, that I will beat the sorrel, that I won’t still be battling it in 5 years.  But I may be.  And at least, the patients (me and the lawn) have been helped.  I think it’s obvious how my lawn has been helped (sparkly new plants!)  As for this patient, I’ve seen how the idea of foundational health applies to the earth.  And I’ve been reminded of the tantamount importance of these foundations of health for the wellness of my family, my friends and their families, and the globe.  Okay sorrel, lesson learned.  Thank you, you may go away now!

Roundup linked to health problems
Roundup’s inert ingredients kill human cells
Weed killers in our water
Pesticides as Water Pollutants

I have no affiliations or financial interests to disclose.

Teresa Neff

Dr. Teresa specializes in pediatric and adolescent medicine and women’s health. After earning her doctorate from Bastyr University, she spent over two years at The Kids Clinic, in north Seattle, first as a medical resident, and then as a staff physician. At The Kids Clinic, she became comfortable managing urgent acute matters as well as chronic health concerns. Dr. Teresa loves combining her life long love of teaching children with her passion for natural medicine. As a primary care provider, she offers well child exams, well woman exams, sports physicals, lab studies, vaccines and vaccine education. In addition, she uses the various tools of naturopathic medicine, including Craniosacral Therapy, Visceral Manipulation, and Classical Homeopathy, among others, to build healthy foundations and to promote health and empower her patients. Dr. Teresa also studied breastfeeding and lactation with the Simkin Center and holds a certificate as a Certified Lactation Educator (CLE). Having experienced the struggles and the joys of breastfeeding herself, she is happy to help moms establish or continue breastfeeding. Dr. Teresa sees patients at Seattle Nature Cure Clinic in Seattle, Washington. <a href="">Schedule an appointment with Dr. Neff in Seattle, Washington</a>

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