The Influence of Vitalism on Naturopathic Medicine

The philosophical perspective on which the naturopathic clinical approach is based is that of vitalism. According to vitalist philosophy, living beings are not machines running according to strict cause-and-effect relations, but are beings whose existence is guided by a single vital force.

This runs contrary to the “mechanistic” view underlying conventional medicine, which is based on the principle that it is possible to subdivide the body into components and analyze their function independently of the rest of the body. Following this subdivision, medical scientists commonly ‘put it all back together’ and assume that the models they have just created correctly represents real-life patients.

Sometimes their models are sufficiently true-to-reality, and conventional methods then prove effective. But often enough their models will not accurately represent the patients in front of them, and in such cases medicine will not provide adequate solutions.

What we’re made of (according to vitalists)

While vitalists admit that the mechanistic perspective of modern medicine is often very useful, they insist that it is limiting in many cases and ultimately incorrect. Vitalists claim that a more accurate way of analyzing people is by noticing their pattern of being.

Each of us is imbued with a vital force which guides and unifies our being. Its components are not body organs, tissues, cells, and molecules, but components such as:

  • heredity
  • early childhood environment
  • family relationships
  • social environment
  • temperament (psychological tendencies, strengths, weaknesses)
  • past medical interventions
  • past physical or psychological trauma
  • stressful life transitions
  • food intake
  • physical activity, and
  • exposure to environmental toxins.

Together these constitute the complex web of interacting factors that form the corporeal (physical) and spiritual (non-physical) self.

What vitality is (according to vitalists)

Vitalists and non-vitalists differ in their understanding of health. Mainstream scientists and modern medicine (following a non-vitalist philosophy) reject the non-physical self, while vitalists embrace it. Although many scientists believe in elements of the vitalist tradition, when they publicly discuss psychological phenomena they usually insist that they are talking simply of the operations of the brain. But vitalists analyze bodily illness mainly in terms of the spiritual factors that might be contributing to it.

In other words, the person’s spirit or vital force determines the health of the body in a very real way. Vitalists point to the fact that we often feel better or worse depending on the extent to which we are able to be the masters of our life, especially during times of stress. Disease, accoring to vitalists, is simply a more advanced stage of the stress that we exhibit when we persistently fail in the pursuit of physical and spiritual goals.

Clinical implications of vitalist philosophy

The vitalist philosophical perspective translates into naturopathic treatment methods that do not target symptoms directly but instead strive to shift the organism away from its current state toward a state of better overall health. In fact, interventions that target symptoms without addressing the underlying pattern are generally regarded as non-ideal or ‘suppressive’ and are used only as temporary measures.

Ultimately, the attainment better health commonly requires one to stop chasing symptoms as they arise but instead focus on fundamental, long-term improvement, even at the cost of short-term suffering. That this strategy is often capable of re-establishing a healthy state when conventional medicine has failed is regarded by vitalists (be they homeopathic or various naturopathic practitioners) as proof of the validity of their philosophy.

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