Your MD frowns at your blood test results, weight or lifestyle and warns that you could be headed for heart trouble. What's a smart next move? Adding a naturopathic doctor (ND) to your health-care team could work wonders for your heart, a recent study shows.

Why an ND-and not automatically a cardiologist? Naturopathic medicine is a holistic medical system that emphasizes the importance of a healthful diet and lifestyle. Practitioners believe that the body has an innate ability to heal...that many common health problems can (and should!) be prevented. and that natural treatments, such as dietary supplements, can be preferable to drugs and/or invasive procedures. For the new study, researchers set out to examine the effects of adding naturopathic care to conventional medical care for people who were already at risk for cardiovascular disease based on their cholesterol levels and other modifiable risk factors.

Participants included 246 adults ages 25 to 65. At the start of the study, all participants received physical exams and blood tests to determine whether they had metabolic syndrome, a constellation of risk factors that increase a person's odds of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Metabolic syndrome is defined as having at least three of five risk factors-abdominal obesity, elevated triglycerides (a type of blood fat), low HDL "good" cholesterol, high fasting blood sugar and high blood pressure.

In addition, the researchers used a risk score calculator from the large-scale Framingham Heart Study to estimate participants' likelihood of experiencing a "cardiovascular event" (heart attack, stroke or heart-related death) during the subsequent 10 years.

For the following year, all participants remained under the usual care of their primary care MDs...and half of the the participants were randomly assigned to also see a naturopathic doctor seven times throughout the year for visits lasting 30 to 60 minutes. Though the NDs prescribed specific interventions based on each patient's individual needs, typical recommendations included dietary modification to reduce unhealthful fats and increase fish, fruit and vegetable consumption...weight loss... physical exercise... nutritional supplements such as fish oil, soluble fiber, plant sterols and/or coenzyme Q10...and/or stress relieving breathing exercises.

Results: At the end of the year, all participants were examined and tested again. In the group that received conventional MD care only, the percentage of those who met the criteria for metabolic syndrome rose from 43% at the start of the study to 48% after one year. However, in the group that also received ND care, the percentage of those who had metabolic syndrome dropped from 55% at the start of the study to 32% after one year.

That's a big (and healthful) drop!

As for the Framingham risk score, among participants who received conventional MD care only, the percentage of participants deemed likely to experience a cardiovascular event within 10 years increased from 6.9% at the start of the study to 10.8% after one year. In contrast, in the ND-care group, the percentage deemed at risk decreased from 8.1% at the start of the study to 7.7% after one year.

Finding a naturopathic doctor

Of course, if your MD recommends it or if you are concerned about your current heart health, it would be wise to see a cardiologist. But do keep in mind how much you could gain from adding a naturopathic doctor to your health-care team, too. If your MD dismisses the idea of consulting an ND, show this article to him or her and ask why the benefits seen in this study wouldn't apply just as much to you. Most recommendations that an ND would make are not difficult to follow through on, especially when you have the support of a knowledgeable and attentive physician.

Important distinction: A "naturopath" is not the same as a naturopathic doctor. Naturopaths (sometimes called "traditional naturopaths") aren't licensed... and their education may consist of correspondence courses or an apprenticeship, or they may be self-taught. In contrast, NDs must complete a four-year, graduate-level program that includes many of the same courses taught in conventional medical schools, with an added emphasis on nutrition, preventive care and natural treatments. In many states, NDs also must pass standardized board exams to earn licenses to practice.

There are five accredited naturopathic medical schools in the US and two in Canada-Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington... National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon... National University of Health Sciences in Chicago... Southwest Collège of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona... University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, Connecticut... Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in Vancouver, British Columbia... and Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto, Ontario. To find a naturopathic doctor who graduated from one of these accredited programs, check the website of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians or the website of the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors.

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