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How Naturopathic Medicine Connects Human and Planetary Health

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Climate change is contributing to more extreme weather events and rising temperatures across the globe. Due to widespread media coverage of climate change-related health impacts—respiratory illness from raging wildfires and exhaustion from extreme heatwaves—we’re finally waking up to one simple fact: our health is intricately linked with the health of our planet, planetary health. 

The Planetary Health concept acknowledges that human health depends on the environment. And as naturopathic doctors know, planetary health is also about our everyday choices. The food we eat, the water we drink, and the products we use all impact our health. This article covers how naturopathic doctors can help patients understand and navigate planetary health and how naturopathic medicine focuses on whole-person health.

Planetary Health is Nothing New to Naturopathic Doctors

According to the Planetary Health Alliance (PHA) based at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Planetary Health is “a solutions-oriented, transdisciplinary field and social movement focused on analyzing and addressing the impacts of human disruptions to Earth’s natural systems on human health and all life on Earth.”

But as Dr. Iva Lloyd, ND, President of the World Naturopathic Federation (WNF), notes, this approach is far from new to naturopathic doctors. “You can’t be healthy as an individual without a healthy planet,” explains Lloyd. “Whether it’s the sustainability of food or the chemicals in personal care products, it really is about including the environment in health. And that’s not new in the naturopathic world.”

Dr. Tabatha Parker, ND, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine (AIHM), agrees. “The naturopathic perspective inherently includes planetary health. The original writings on naturopathic medicine didn’t necessarily use that term, but they were talking about the same philosophy,” Parker explains. “We’re all part of our actual community. But we’re also part of the natural environment that we live in. It really is inseparable.”

Naturopathic Doctors Help Patients Understand Climate-Health Connections 

When it comes to understanding how climate change impacts non-communicable diseases (NCDs) or chronic diseases, naturopathic doctors have a strong role to play. The AIHM is the only member of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health representing integrative health professionals. Parker was involved in research which revealed that extreme heat and air pollution are the top two issues impacting human health. “Asthma and other NCD-related lung issues can often be tied back to issues impacting their climate,” notes Parker. “And that is the root cause of their illness.”

Parker was recently on Capitol Hill, advocating for policies that will bring much-needed funds and resources to tackle climate issues head-on. She met a high school student who had lost her California home to a climate-related disaster and spoke about the strong impacts on her mental health. She has experienced many years of health issues as a result and still struggles with anxiety. 

“Naturopathic medicine is about getting to the root cause of a person’s illness. If you don’t change the root cause, you often don’t get better,” Parker explains. “Climate change is causing increases in temperature, drought, and other extreme weather conditions, and impacting the nutrition of our food. NDs are like investigative journalists, helping patients connect the root causes of illness and climate health.”

Media coverage of the impacts of climate change helps raise awareness. But it can also lead to eco-anxiety and eco-grief—especially for children and youth. “Kids today are exposed to so much about climate change on the internet and social media at a young age. They may not have a space to talk about that, which can impact kids’ anxiety,” Parker explains. 

Some NDs include climate health impact questions on the intake form they use at the first patient visit. Parker suggests including questions such as

  • Have you been affected by extreme heat? 
  • Do you experience eco-anxiety? 
  • Are you worried about what’s happening to our planet?

“Many people are disconnected from nature because we live in such an industrialized world. But there are also many people who are very connected. And they physically feel the anxiety and effects of what is happening to our planet,” says Parker. “NDs can encourage patients to think about these things and create safe spaces for these discussions.”

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Naturopathic Doctors Help Patients Make Healthier Choices

When it comes to making lifestyle changes that are good for both people and the planet, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. What diet is best? Which products are the least toxic? What ingredients are best to be avoided?

Naturopathic doctors effectively reduce patient overwhelm with education. “Our World Naturopathic Federation research shows that 98% of NDs do community education,” notes Lloyd. “It boils down to people becoming aware in a way that motivates but doesn’t paralyze. There’s so much information out there! People need to know that health is a journey, not a race. You don’t have to put everything in place tomorrow.”

Naturopathic doctors use this philosophy to help patients understand the health impacts of their everyday choices, including what fabric is used in their clothing and what chemicals are in the pesticides and weed killers used in their gardens.

 “In a lot of food issues, the problem is what’s added to the food. It is not the food itself,” explains Lloyd. “The more local and sustainable the food is, the fewer chemicals are added.” 

When it comes to personal care and household products, it can be particularly confusing for people to know which products contain toxins that could negatively impact health. Greenwashing (when companies make false claims about a product being ‘natural’ or ‘environmentally friendly’) is rampant in these industries, making it even more difficult for people to make healthier choices. 

Sometimes it’s about choosing the right form of a product. Let’s say you use a natural brand of laundry detergent, free of chemicals such as phosphates. While all the brand’s detergent products may be toxin-free, choosing laundry strips over liquid detergent is a planet-friendly choice. They use less water to produce, no plastic jugs are needed, and their light weight means less fossil fuel use and toxic emissions during transport. 

Parker encourages people to remember that they don’t have to do everything. “It’s not all or nothing. It’s each individual making one or two significant changes that are right for them.” Parker’s family of four consciously decided to have only one car and added e-bikes as a healthier, less polluting transport option. Parker knows colleagues who refuse to fly to conferences to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Everyone’s situation is different. Parker encourages people to choose realistic, empowering actions that won’t make life more stressful. This is where NDs can really help narrow down the options. “A lot of it comes back to how we buy, what we buy, and how we create our lives. NDs can ask questions such as, how much do you travel? Is it necessary? How many cars do you need? Do you turn out your lights every night? There are so many ways for NDs to get patients thinking about positive ways they could contribute to their climate and community.

The Future of Planetary Health: The Naturopathic Perspective

When it comes to the future of planetary health, naturopathic doctors have a great deal to offer. Lloyd is pleased to see the naturopathic focus on diet, lifestyle, clean personal care, and household and garden products gaining wider recognition.

And if her recent visit to the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) Tradeshow is any indication, other industries increasingly recognize the importance of planetary health. “It was great to see a focus on decreasing single-use containers and moving shampoo to bars. It’s becoming a much bigger focus on personal care products, food, and supplements.”

Her conversations with several makers of clean, personal care products point to a continued patient education role for NDs. “All of them said that their best referrals come from NDs,” Lloyd recalls. “I don’t know a single naturopathic doctor who isn’t aware of these things. The naturopathic workforce is probably one of the best trained in knowing what the options are.”

How might this growing interest in planetary health impact the future of the naturopathic profession?  Lloyd predicts that naturopathic care and principles will become the frontline of healthcare. “Globally, the primary health issue is lifestyle. In NCDs, there’s a much larger awareness of the impact of the planet on a person’s health. But for health care to improve, we must recognize that the planet can’t be healthy unless individuals are healthy – and vice versa,” notes Lloyd. 

One current barrier to increasing public awareness of planetary health is that information tends to be kept in silos. People focused on plastics may not speak to those researching wildfires, who may not be in touch with pesticide researchers. And Lloyd sees a growing role for NDs in helping patients navigate complex health choices. “This separation into silos needs to change. When people do that, there will be no choice but to simplify their lives and choices. It’s about making decisions with different intentions. You make a decision based on health, and then you expand what that means: health for me, the planet, and the workforce.”

But individual planetary health choices can only go so far without larger, systemic changes. Climate events have greater impact on the lives and health of historically underserved communities that are already affected by colonialism and racism. For many people, it is not a ‘choice’ to be unable to afford whole foods or live near toxic sites like mines, paper mills, and nuclear power plants. 

Parker envisions a radical redesign of the healthcare system, with more sectors of society contributing their support. She is encouraged by early signs of positive change. She recently attended a White House conference on nutrition and ending hunger. “They haven’t had a conference on nutrition and health in 50 years in this country! All sorts of organizations have committed over a billion dollars to address these issues,” notes Parker. “If we reverse how we approach health and begin with creating health and wellness in every person, we will shift NCDs. But we can’t do that until we shift the whole approach.”

Ultimately, naturopathic doctors are the ideal healthcare providers to lead this societal shift. “NDs could easily step into planetary health leadership roles because we have so much education in environmental medicine, food systems, nutrition, and more. We bring tremendous value to those conversations that are vital for future generations.”

Interested in getting involved in the planetary health movement? Members of the public can join one of the PHA’s Regional Hubs, and naturopathic doctors can join the PHA’s Clinicians for Planetary Health.

What the Naturopathic Approach to Planetary Health Looks Like Worldwide

As President of the World Naturopathic Federation and a member of their Environmental Health Committee, Lloyd sees how naturopathic doctors across the globe implement planetary health principles into their practices. “When we look at the uniqueness and strength of naturopathic care, it varies by country because the environmental, climate, and food factors are different,” Lloyd notes.

Lloyd points to a few examples of how these regional differences can play out. Compared to North America, NDs in India may integrate more yoga into their patient recommendations. Latin American NDs may recommend foods and medicinal herbs that grow in their climate. Health conditions also vary by geographic region. Unlike in North America, personal care products in some countries are mainly made with natural ingredients and by natural processes.

Regional differences can even impact what forms of supplements are culturally acceptable. “Nutraceuticals are common predominantly to the Western Pacific and to North America. If you’re in Asia and want a zinc supplement, you take an herb containing zinc. You don’t take zinc,” notes Lloyd. “The whole basis of planetary health isn’t about consistency. It’s about congruency with where you live. And the naturopathic profession has an amazing ability to be in sync with the environment, and know what is natural for us.”

One planetary health issue that Lloyd feels doesn’t get enough attention is cell phones and wireless technologies. “Every time a new technology is introduced, the goal is for people to acclimatize to it. But, depending on the health issue, not everybody can acclimatize, ” says Lloyd. “We’re getting to the point where the load of wireless technology is surpassing people’s ability to acclimatize to it.”

References

https://www.aihm.org/

https://www.planetaryhealthalliance.org/planetary-health

Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases Mid-Year Workshop Summary: Planetary Health, NCDs, and Implementation. 2022. https://gacd.org/resources

https://medsocietiesforclimatehealth.org/

https://medsocietiesforclimatehealth.org/learn/reports/

https://worldnaturopathicfederation.org/

World Naturopathic Federation. White Paper: Naturopathic Workforce and Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). 2022. https://worldnaturopathicfederation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Non-communicable-Diseases-NCDs.pdf

More Planetary Health Reading from Naturopathic Doctors

Prescott SL, Logan AC. Planetary Health: From the Wellspring of Holistic Medicine to Personal and Public Health Imperative. Explore (NY). 2019;15(2):98-106. doi:10.1016/j.explore.2018.09.002

Prescott SL, Logan AC, Albrecht G, Campbell DE, Crane J, Cunsolo A, Holloway JW, Kozyrskyj AL, Lowry CA, Penders J, Redvers N, Renz H, Stokholm J, Svanes C, Wegienka G, OBoiPHotWUN. The Canmore Declaration: Statement of Principles for Planetary Health. Challenges. 2018; 9(2):31. https://doi.org/10.3390/challe9020031

Redvers N, Celidwen Y, Schultz C, et al. The determinants of planetary health: an Indigenous consensus perspective. Lancet Planet Health. 2022;6(2):e156-e163. doi:10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00354-5

Redvers N. Patient-Planetary Health Co-benefit Prescribing: Emerging Considerations for Health Policy and Health Professional Practice. Front Public Health. 2021;9:678545. Published 2021 Apr 30. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2021.678545

Redvers N, Poelina A, Schultz C, Kobei DM, Githaiga C, Perdrisat M, Prince D, Blondin B. Indigenous Natural and First Law in Planetary Health. Challenges. 2020; 11(2):29. https://doi.org/10.3390/challe11020029

Redvers N. The Value of Global Indigenous Knowledge in Planetary Health. Challenges. 2018; 9(2):30. https://doi.org/10.3390/challe9020030

Solomonian, L. Promoting Planetary Health: A Necessary Part of Caring for Children. NDNR. August 4, 2021. https://ndnr.com/pediatrics/promoting-planetary-health-a-necessary-part-of-caring-for-children/

Planetary Health Resources from the Institute for Natural Medicine

Contact with Nature is Good for Your Health

What do Naturopathic Doctors Mean by First, Do No Harm?

Why and How Do Naturopathic Doctors Focus on Prevention?

Prescribing Time in Nature Improves Health

This article is provided by

The Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of natural medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing healthcare systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of evidence-based natural medicine
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
  • Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

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Our dedicated content team of professional staff writers represents decades of experience covering essential natural health topics in an accessible, evidence-based, and engaging way. Guided by a shared passion for holistic well-being, each and every one of our writers strives to empower our readers to take charge of their health.

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