A naturopathic doctor is a real doctor

Naturopathy: which alternative procedures really help

More and more people are interested in naturopathic therapies. You want a natural and gentle alternative to conventional medicine - without chemicals and side effects. The visit to the family doctor is usually sobering: Many doctors turn up their noses when it comes to alternative therapy methods. But there are naturopathic treatments that have been proven to help with certain diseases - and are now even recommended by conventional medical practitioners.

A phrase often quoted by doctors is: A therapy that has no side effects cannot have any effect. Orthodox doctors are correspondingly skeptical of naturopathy, which often has few side effects. But when is a therapy actually considered effective? In order to be prescribed by the doctor and paid for by the health insurance companies, therapies and drugs must be examined in scientific studies on many patients.

What is effective is what is better than placebo

In these studies, one group of patients usually receives the therapy in question, while another group only receives a placebo - often a sugar pill - or sham therapy. The reactions of the two groups are then compared with one another. It is only proven to be effective if the applied therapy alleviates the symptoms significantly better than the placebo.

But why bother with the placebo or the dummy treatment? It has been shown that the psyche also plays an important role in the treatment of physical illnesses. People who take a tablet for their symptoms often feel better just because of it - even if the tablet is just a sugar pill and is therefore completely ineffective. This phenomenon is called the placebo effect. In clinical studies, drugs and therapies must therefore prove that they are better than the placebo.

More than just a placebo effect?

It is precisely this placebo effect that divides the opinions of conventional medical practitioners and alternative practitioners. Naturopathic procedures are often accused of having no real effect. Critics argue that the improvement many patients feel is only due to the placebo effect.

In order to prove the opposite, scientific studies must also be carried out on naturopathic medicines and therapies. For a long time, such studies were in short supply. But meanwhile the effectiveness of some naturopathic procedures for certain diseases has been scientifically proven.

Acupuncture: energy flows and happiness hormones

Acupuncture is a good example. In this therapy procedure, thin needles are placed at specific points on the body. What exactly acupuncture does in the body has not yet been fully scientifically established. The traditional idea is that the points where the needles are placed lie along energy paths called meridians. Traditional Chinese medicine, from which acupuncture originates, assumes that illnesses arise when the flow of energy is disturbed. Acupuncture is supposed to bring it back into balance.

We now know from studies: The effect of acupuncture comes about, among other things, from the fact that the stimulating stimulus of the needle pricks in the brain triggers an increased release of pain relieving and mood-enhancing substances ("happiness hormones").

Proof from Germany: Better than medication and massages

Although acupuncture is originally a healing method from China, the world's largest acupuncture research was carried out in Germany. On behalf of various statutory health insurance companies, researchers from Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin examined several thousand patients to see whether acupuncture would help relieve pain.

They showed that three out of four patients with chronic headache, back pain and joint pain (e.g. as a result of osteoarthritis) benefit from acupuncture treatment. According to the studies, acupuncture works even better for these patients than conventional therapies such as medication, physiotherapy or massage.

The studies also found that acupuncture can also help with tension headaches, hay fever, allergic asthma, and menstrual cramps.

Osteopathy: gentle movements against pain

Osteopathy is based on the idea that all body structures influence each other. If a certain joint or organ is diseased, this can affect completely different areas of the body. And since it is the connective tissue that connects all organs and structures in the body, it is of particular importance in osteopathy.

The osteopath feels with his hands for restricted mobility, hardening, tension and other tissue changes. He then tries to solve this with various stretching, massage and grip techniques. This should also stimulate the self-healing powers and normalize blood pressure and lymph flow.

Expert opinion: Relief for spinal problems

The German Medical Association had scientifically examined whether an osteopathic treatment actually works. According to this, there are various studies that show that osteopathy can be effective for a number of different diseases, especially for chronic pain in the spine.

According to the report, there are also indications of positive effects in the pain disorder fibromyalgia, recurrent otitis media, asthma in adolescents, three-month colic and the elderly who are functionally restricted.

Herbal medicines: effective for many ailments

Herbal medicinal products, which are also known as phytopharmaceuticals, are made from whole plants, individual parts of plants (e.g. flowers, roots, bark) or components of plants (e.g. essential oils). Homeopathic and anthroposophic medicines are not phytopharmaceuticals.

On a green recipe: freely available, but recommended

The effectiveness of herbal medicines has also been scientifically proven for many diseases and complaints. Most herbal medicines do not need a prescription, they can be bought freely at the pharmacy. Doctors often issue their patients with a “green prescription” for herbal medicines that they consider to be medically recommended.

Guidelines recommend phytopharmaceuticals

Herbal medicines play a role in numerous medical guidelines that give therapy recommendations for the treatment of diseases. A prerequisite for the inclusion of a therapy in the guideline recommendations is that it has proven its effectiveness in scientific studies.

St. John's wort preparations can help with depression and psyllium and psyllium husks are recommended for constipation and various intestinal diseases. There are also guideline recommendations for cough syrup with thyme or ivy leaf extract and for valerian for insomniacs.

Perceived improvement - that's why the treatment at the naturopath works anyway

For many other naturopathic therapies, however, the effectiveness has never been proven. Nevertheless, many patients have positive experiences with it. Many people report improved well-being after having been treated by a naturopath. And studies also show: Subjectively, patients perceive a positive effect, even if the therapy is objectively ineffective.

Is science wrong?

Why is that? Is science just mistaken in these cases? In fact, there are naturopathic therapies that simply haven't been adequately investigated. But often completely different factors play a role.

When patients report enthusiastically about their alternative treatment, the placebo effect mentioned above is often seen as the main reason. Anyone who thinks they are receiving effective therapy is very likely to have an effect. The patients feel an improvement in their symptoms and attribute this to the therapy process.

The conversation - balm for the soul

In the meantime, however, we also know that it is often the detailed conversation with the alternative practitioner or naturopathic doctor that has a positive effect on well-being. In the classic medical practice, the time that the doctor has available for each patient is limited. That is why the appointment with a naturopath, who takes the time and cares, is often balm for the soul - and thus improves well-being.

Nadine Eckert works as a freelance science editor in Cologne. She writes for various medical journals, including the Deutsches Ärzteblatt. The studied biologist has been working as a journalist for 15 years.


  1. Model project acupuncture: outstanding proof of effectiveness for acupuncture
  2. How does acupuncture work?
    Scientific evaluation of osteopathic procedures
  3. Phytotherapy in the medical S3 guidelines of the Working Group of Scientific Medical Societies - a systematic review