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Some time ago, I had a discussion with a friend about naturopaths. As I had a copy of a very good Reader's Digest article about this very subject, I showed my friend, who was most impressed, so I thought that many people might be interested in knowing more about how some of them operate. This undercover investigation is most revealing.

My friend also mentioned that she went to an iridologist, who (in her words) "told me everything about me and she got it all correct." Well, I regarded this with a great deal of scepticism, as I know how this is done, using a technique that so-called fortune tellers and clairvoyants use called cold-reading, which is revealed on the Psychics page. So here is the tale of one investigator who selected 25 naturopaths at random from the phone book and arranged consultations with them. Her conclusions are exactly what I expected. Read on.


By Reader's Digest reporter Helen Chryssides - July 2000

In an Adelaide clinic, a lean, bespectacled man peers into my eyes and frowns. "Your brain lacks oxygen," he declares. He asks me to lie down on a couch so that he can take a blood-pressure reading from my arm and then another reading with the pressure cuff strapped on my ankle. By the time I sit up, his diagnosis is ready.

"Your tiredness is due to a combination of factors," he says. "Your diastolic blood pressure is too high, as is the differential in blood pressure between your arm and leg. You have cholesterol and calcium deposits on the walls of your arteries.

He tells me this condition isn't life threatening - a vegetarian diet should fix it. And I will need to take a neurostimulant - a herbal tonic - to pep me up He can make one up for me at a cost of $20 for a three-week supply. He recommends that I come back regularly! "As soon as you stop taking it, the effects will cease." If I develop a dry cough, he wants me to return. "It could be lung cancer, but I don't want to worry you."

I am worried. In the past eight weeks, I have consulted 25 naturopaths - natural therapists - who have declared that I may have everything from poor digestion and a malfunctioning liver to intestinal parasites, breast cancer, a blocked ovary, thyroid imbalance and brain lesions and that I could be pregnant (I'm not). They have told me that the true colour of my eyes is green or blue, though I'm of Greek ancestry and all my Greek relatives have brown eyes, to exercise more, eat less meat, eat more meat, cut out dairy foods, consume more dairy foods, avoid wheat, tap water and startling noises. In consultations costing from $35 to $170 I have been urged to buy supplements ranging in price from a few dollars to over $9000.

Alternative medicine is booming in Australia. According to figures compiled by Adelaide University's Associate Professor Alastair MacLennan, honorary editor of Current Therapeutics, a monthly publication for Australian GPs, we now spend some $2 billion a year on alternative health services and products - double the amount just seven years ago and twice as much as our out-of-pocket expenses on all conventional medical treatments. Says John Dwyer, professor of medicine at the University of New South Wales, "It's ironic that while orthodox medicine has delivered us the best health and life expectancies in human history we're still looking beyond it for something that promises us even more.

Fuelling Australians' enthusiasm for non-traditional medicine, increasing numbers of health funds offer rebates for natural therapies and the federal government has exempted many alternative health services from the GST.

I was intrigued. Do Australia's 10,000-odd naturopaths provide a useful alternative to general practitioners who can't always give us satisfactory answers or don't always have time to listen? What sort of advice and treatments do they offer? I selected 25 randomly from the Yellow Pages across five states and set off to find out. To each, I gave the same explanation: I was feeling tired, but not seriously and had gradually become aware of this over the last three or four months. I asked in each case for an opinion and a treatment plan.

Before embarking on my journey, I visited the surgeries of two medical practitioners whom I trust: my personal doctors for the last ten and eight years respectively. "There's no medical problem," concluded the first, after a full examination and blood tests. "You're as healthy as a woman of your age can be." The second doctor agreed that, at 45, I was in excellent health. I went away with advice on exercise and diet and reminders to get plenty of rest.

My first appointment was in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, where a naturopath spent most of the hour-long consultation detailing a diet regimen that would almost eliminate dairy products. I asked whether this would put me at risk of osteoporosis. She laughed. "That's a dairy industry conspiracy," she said. (Later, an Adelaide naturopath told me osteoporosis was caused by fluoride in the water.) Buffalo-milk cheese was OK, she added, because it was low in lactose, but red meat was out.

On the Gold Coast, another practitioner wanted to know my blood type. "0," I told him, asking whether that made a difference. "Very much so," he said, handing me a book that would explain how my prehistoric ancestors had been predators who thrived on intense physical exercise and animal protein. "Your body is designed to eat meat,' he said.

A Perth naturopath tested my sensitivity to foods by running a small electrical current through one of my fingers while he placed a series of glass phials containing small amounts of different foods into a machine wired to the same circuit. My problem: peanut butter, uncultured dairy products and maybe coffee.

The readings on the machine also showed that I had parasites in my bowel. "They're too small to show up in any other test," he said. "Doctors can't pick them up." Neither could 24 of his colleagues.

In Melbourne, one naturopath ventured that my tiredness could be due to pregnancy or, if not, an early sign of breast cancer. Another told me I was genetically predisposed to cancer and then added. "But I don't want to worry you." I was to hear this phrase time and again after some alarming ailment had been suggested.

All the practitioners I saw used a variety of techniques and treatments. But most focused on diet and most used iridology, studying my eyes to diagnose problems. If I was to follow the diet and take the supplements recommended by one Perth naturopath, my eyes would begin to change from brown to blue-green in a matter of weeks.

Others used osteopathy massaging and manipulating of my bones, joints, muscles and ligaments; kinesiology, to reveal energy imbalances" by testing muscle reactions; massage; and chiropractic techniques.

In one capital city, I encountered a practice I hadn't heard of before: aurosoma. A woman in a multi-coloured coat suggested that I select my favourite colour combinations from several dozen bottles containing tinted liquids. This test would unravel my health problems.

I chose purple and yellow. This, she said, indicated that there was a potential problem with my intestinal tract. She could also see from looking into my eyes that I had a genetic predisposition to cancer. She advised $153 worth of monthly supplements to stimulate my thyroid and adrenal glands, boost my immune system and protect my spine. Tinctures - special solutions - were needed for my liver, pancreas, stomach and lymphatic system, as well as supplements for metabolism, hormonal balance and to cleanse my system. "You need a minimum of five years to get 100% effect," she advised. I worked out what this would cost me: over $9000.

Naturopathy in Australia is unregulated. Anyone can set himself up as a practitioner without qualifications or proof of competency. This is in stark contrast to the five or six years of university study, one year's internship and three to five years on a training programme required to become a doctor Several industry groups, like the Australian Natural Therapists Association (ANTA) and Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS) have entry requirements and codes of conduct for members. No-one keeps records on how many practitioners answer to no-one.

Training courses abound. "Earn up to $40 per hour in just 12 weeks," boasts one college advertising a certificate in massage therapy by correspondence. At the other end of the scale, a four-year full-time naturopathic course can cost up to $25,000. Several colleges offer bridging courses for students with no prior knowledge of chemistry or biology. This may explain the large number of naturopaths I saw who had made career switches.

In Perth, for example, I met a former fitter and turner, a young man in his first two years of practice. He checked out my "adrenal, digestive and reproductive systems" by pressing his right hand against my wrist while he prodded at my body with his other hand. When a jab at my left side produced a wavering in my right arm, he pronounced a problem with my ovaries.

He rectified this weakness with a metal contraption resembling an oversized paper stapler that he clicked against my back to "correct the electrical circuits" inside me. I asked how long I'd stay cured after his treatment. "Impossible to say," he said. "You may drive home, someone toots at you, you get stressed and turn round and it all goes out again."

Others I consulted admitted to former careers as a musician, financial planner, psychiatric nurse and accounts clerk. One doubled as a dentist. A former solicitor told me the nerves to the lower section of my brain were not working properly. I rang my doctor about this, "If that was true, you'd be in a wheelchair," she said.

Each consultation lasted between 30 minutes and 90 minutes, a lavish allocation given that Australian GPs spend on average less than 15 minutes with each patient. But costs were correspondingly high. I was charged from $35 to $90 per visit. Much of this - perhaps as much as $42 - could be refundable from a private health fund if the practitioner is among those recognised by the insurer.

Impressive sounding initials, I learned don't guarantee quality of care In Adelaide, an initial assessment with a practitioner registered with ATMS included saliva, blood and urine tests to check metabolic activity. After paying $170 for the three appointments this required and having my samples collected and analysed by his student son, I insisted on a copy of the results.

The levels noted were in some cases four times the normal range quoted by the manufacturer of the tests. "It's nothing," explained the naturopath. "Your spine's too tight. It needs adjusting, like the spark plugs on a car."

Although 16 of the therapists asked me to answer a medical questionnaire, only a handful referred to it or discussed my answers. Fewer than half asked me about my diet in any detail - 11 asked me nothing about what I ate - yet every one recommended supplements. These ranged from herbal liquids made up on site to vitamin and mineral supplements from commercial manufacturers.

Pressure, frequently unsubtle, was applied on me to buy. An Adelaide naturopathy clinic wanted me to sign up as a company salesperson so I could obtain the first supply of Ambrotose, a "glyconutritional" supplement, for $99 instead of $150. A Melbourne practitioner wanted me to pay $25 for a container of Vitamin C powder, explaining that this special formulation was even more expensive in health food stores.

The Federal Therapeutic Goods Administration requires health supplements to carry a list of active ingredients and forbids unproven claims on labelling about their effectiveness But this doesn't apply to treatments mixed on the premises or accompanying verbal sales pitches. An Adelaide naturopath who wanted me to take his home-brew neurostimulant for the rest of my life became wary when I asked what was inside the brown bottle with "No 55" marked on the label. "Herbs," he said, adding that he treated cancer patients and that he believed big companies were trying to discover his recipe.

Health funds have been keen to recognise alternative medicine. Medibank Private, Australia's largest private health insurer, introduced naturopathic benefits in June 1999 to keep up with its competitors. There are sound financial reasons for them to do so. According to Dwyer, some funds admit that the industry has questionable value, but know that rebates help to attract young and healthy people who are less likely to seek coverage for serious illness. In a tongue-in-cheek TV ad for Mutual Community health fund, a young female patient lies face down on a consulting couch while a chanting male practitioner stands over her slapping two raw fish together.

My assignment gave me many surprises, but one of the biggest was the contradictory advice I received. My irises revealed different symptoms almost daily: "stress lines," no stress lines, weaknesses in right or left lungs or neither. One Adelaide practitioner told me to eat less and drink more water. A New South Wales counterpart told me to eat more often.

Of the nine naturopaths who examined my tongue, two pronounced it healthy while the others noted calcium and vitamin-B deficiencies and stomach, liver and spleen problems. Eight looked at my nails. One saw vertical ridges, another saw longitudinal ridges, others none. From these observations, three diagnosed a silica deficiency, the others, in turn, magnesium; potassium, zinc, calcium and iron deficiencies. Two cited digestion problems.

Most of the natural therapists I consulted were dismissive of the medical profession. Only two spontaneously recommended that I consult a doctor also. A few asked whether I had already seen one and the rest didn't consider the option.

"What do you want to see a doctor for?" a naturopath in Adelaide asked. He told me of a survey that claimed more people in the United States were inadvertently killed by doctors than in motor vehicle accidents. "But this is Australia," I pointed out. "Same here too," he said.

Only two of the 25 naturopaths gave me what I considered to be sensible and harmless advice - a good diet and other lifestyle suggestions, like stretching exercises after working at my computer for a long time. Even then, they failed to consider that medical conditions might be causing my tiredness.

I asked the Australian Natural Therapists Association to comment on my findings. "I'm not as surprised as I'd like to be," says Beverley Coats, the association's honorary secretary. She put the conflicting opinions down to differences in philosophy and varying standards of training and blamed the Internet for a flood of questionable material that naturopaths might read and believe. "Probably it's their personal belief that they're one-hundred-per-cent correct," she says. "Obviously everyone has got their own ideas."

Adelaide University's Professor MacLennan is less conciliatory. "That's not a satisfactory explanation when we're dealing with people's health," he says. "These practitioners have been shown up and their contradictions highlight the industry's complete lack of scientific credibility."

What redress do Australians who seek alternative medical opinions have? Though ANTA claims it has been lobbying the government since its inception in 1955 to bring in stricter controls, naturopathy patients who are dissatisfied with their treatment have few options. They can complain to the police about a criminal breach, or seek to get their money back through a small claims tribunal.

For Professor Dwyer, this isn't good enough. "Governments protect consumers in all other areas where people take our money in return for service and don't deliver," he says. "We wouldn't for a moment stand for unqualified people passing themselves off as doctors. We must insist on acceptable and measurable standards in all areas of health care."

Meanwhile, Dwyer advises, before visiting a natural therapist, first consider why you're rejecting conventional, evidence-based medicine. Could simple solutions like improving your diet, fitness levels and sleep patterns help, or are you seeking a magical, no-effort answer? If you're ill, Dwyer says, visit your doctor to rule out any serious medical conditions. And alert your GP if you're planning radical changes to your diet or lifestyle. Some "natural" remedies can cause serious reactions and affect the action of prescription medications.

At the end of my journey, had I found the antidote to my fatigue? I opened an iridology report mailed to me by a Brisbane naturopath. My problems barely fitted onto two crammed pages. At fault was every major body system, including my circulatory, nervous, lymphatic and adrenal systems. My liver, pancreas, kidneys and stomach all had problems. I had eye weakness and hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), a suspected bowel infection, chronic digestive disturbance, a hormonal imbalance, damaged cells, as well as a toxic liver and kidneys. Knowing that the naturopath belonged to ANTA, which urges in its Code of Ethics that a patient's condition is not to be exaggerated, I rang the woman. "Your eyes reveal what you had in the past, what is happening now and what can happen," she told me.

Next time, I'll go direct to a fortune teller.