How does naturopathy work? A bit like a flying vacuum-cleaner to Mars


10th November 2014

Every so often you read a piece about alternative medicine that asks: how does it work? How does homeopathy work, how does acupuncture work, etc. There was a piece in the Telegraph recently that asked: how does naturopathy work?

There was a complicated answer about ‘healthy electromagnetic frequencies’ and so on; ‘bioresonance’, ‘modalities’, and a marvellous quote about how

‘Every cell in the body puts out a certain electromagnetic frequency, that can be measured – a healthy stomach cell sounds different to a healthy brain cell…’

Presumably those words have some sort of meaning to someone.

But the problem with this piece – and with an awful lot of other pieces on similar topics – is that there’s no point answering the question ‘how does X work?’ until you have first answered the underlying question: ‘does X work?’ I mean, I could spend several hours explaining to you precisely how I managed to fly to Mars on a vacuum cleaner, but if I hadn’t actually done it, you might feel it was something of a waste of your time.

As it happens, the London Natural Therapies group, which the piece cites as a source of all this healing, has been censured before by the Advertising Standards Authority for making unsupported claims about their ‘live blood analysis’, which is supposed to tell whether your liver cells are singing in the right key or whatever. But still, the question is wider than just that group: does naturopathy work?

Short answer: of course not, don’t be ridiculous. The long answer is a bit more involved: naturopathy isn’t something nice and straightforward like homeopathy, which you can simply point at and say ‘obviously diluting something until there is literally none of it left doesn’t make it work better as a medicine, and even if you think it does, we’ve got all these studies to show that it doesn’t’.

Naturopathy is a broad tent of silliness: the naturopath in the Telegraph story says that she offers ‘Bioresonance and live blood analysis, acupuncture, biopuncture, infusion therapy, oxyvenation,’ as well as ‘nutritional therapy’ and ‘biopuncture (in which the needles contain homeopathic injectibles)’. As far as I can work out, ‘naturopathy’ is pretty much just any old alt-med quackery, all available under one roof; a one-stop nonsense shop.

We can look at the different bits one by one, though. Biopuncture is definitely nonsense, because it involves homeopathy, and homeopathy is nonsense. Bioresonance is, as alternative medicine researcher Edzard Ernst put it, ‘an attempt to present nonsense as science’ and live blood analysis is, as the ASA has wisely noted, also nonsense. Acupuncture is likely a placebo (according to, again, the splendid Dr Ernst). And I haven’t got the energy to find out what oxyvenation and infusion therapy are, but I’d say it’s looking pretty bad for naturopathy at this stage.

So how do all these things work? Simple: they don’t. You can say that something works because of the power of love and the wonder on a child’s face, but if it doesn’t work, then you’re pretty much just talking for the sake of it, and maybe you should stop. Remember always: the question is not ‘how does it work?’ but ‘does it work at all?’