It’s True: You Are What You Eat

Naturopaths see healthy food as medicine and many pharmaceuticals as poison

Editor’s note: Sixth in a seven-part series about creating a sustainable health-care system for Rhode Island.

By KARINA LUTZ/ecoRI News contributor

Naturopathy, as Keri Layton, explains it, is as close to explicitly sustainable health care as can be found locally. Layton, a naturopathic doctor, puts it this way: “The entire philosophy of naturopathy is that the body can heal itself if obstacles to health are removed and its systems are gently supported. The first thing we do is look at the quality and purity of diet and water.”

Layton encourages the reduction of pesticides and antibiotics in the diet, and the inclusion of free-range and grass-fed vs. corn-fed meat, all of which also supports more sustainable agriculture. Grass-fed beef, for example, reduces methane from the cattle’s indigestion, reduces the land impacts per gram of protein, uses fewer pesticides, and is less fatty and healthier to eat.

“Overcrowded animals,” Layton said, “are more likely to have unhealthy fats, but pastured meat has higher conjugated linoleic acid — an anti-inflammatory fat. It’s no accident. We have evolved together, and that’s what’s healthiest.”

In the naturopath’s first meeting with a patient, an interview that takes an hour and a half, Layton examines the person’s whole lifestyle to see where the sources of toxins might be eliminated, and how diet, water consumption, exercise and other daily habits might be improved.

She also takes the patient’s individual and family health history. Some environmental toxins’ impacts may not be felt in the first generation but later, such as the fertility drug and endocrine disruptor diethylstilbestrol (DES), which has been linked to birth defects and other health problems in the second, and now, research is starting to uncover, the third generation.

“We don’t know the impacts of the 80,000 new chemicals introduced since World War II, or how to trace toxic exposure that might have been in earlier generations,” Layton said. “Our nervous systems are under a lot of pressure."

“After food and water, we look at toxic exposures, as they cause many neurological diseases that are increasing,” she added, listing Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and attention deficit disorder as examples. She often gets her patients tested for toxins such as heavy metals, and may prescribe a chelation therapy to remove those metals from tissue. She doesn’t just have blood tested, but sometimes urine, as older people may have stored lead in their bones since childhood, for example, that only begins to release as their bones begin to deteriorate.

Of course, eliminating toxins from the environment would be more sustainable. But, Layton said, “for chronic disease there is no surgical fix, and cancer prevention doesn’t make anybody money.”

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of people working quietly, or perhaps even loudly, behind the scenes on environmental health issues, such as the Childhood Lead Action Project, the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island and the Green and Healthy Home Initiative. It just means there’s much to be more to be done.

Layton works out of the large alternative wellness center, All That Matters, in Wakefield, and has an office on Providence’s East Side. There are a few other naturopaths practicing here and there locally, but not many, in part because of the lack of licensure for naturopaths in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Medical doctors are often shy about collaborating with naturopaths, for lack of knowing if they have had sufficient training and for lack of time to vet them themselves, according to Layton. Without a license, insurance is unlikely to cover naturopathic services. Yet medical doctors usually have little training in nutrition, never mind the finer points of the advantages of natural food or natural medicines such as herbs, homeopathy, manual therapies and nutritional supplements — the key tools in a naturopath's toolkit.

Naturopaths also use some talk counseling, and may prescribe meditation and mindfulness. For counseling, Layton primarily relies on a “motivational interviewing” technique, which helps patients identify opportunities for lifestyle changes and understand their obstacles. Some common obstacles to exercise, for example, are injuries, weather and time. She tries to help people find the exercise they like, or how it might fit into their work day, such as biking to work.

“We’ve cluttered our lives with time-saving devices. And all the gains in productivity haven’t been used to shorten the work day,” Layton said.

She looks for ways for her patients to reduce stress in their lives, improve their diet and exercise. Then she may prescribe one or two supplements if needed, and see if that helps.