In 2014, Britt Hermes stood in the middle of the produce section of her grocery store, having an existential crisis. She looked, bewildered, at the fruits and vegetables around her. What did healthy even mean? Did organic matter? What was wellness?
Hermes was a licensed naturopathic doctor in two states. That is, until she discovered her boss was importing non-FDA approved supplements and giving it to cancer patients. She hired a lawyer, quit, and reported him to the state’s naturopathic board. Then came a “full-on life crisis.”
“I didn’t even know how to pick out fruit,” she says. “Everything was suddenly called into question. I didn’t know anything.”
Naturopathy is a form of alternative medical treatment. The Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC) describes a “naturopathic physician” as a doctor that can “artfully blend modern, cutting-edge diagnostic and therapeutic procedures with ancient and traditional methods.”
What this actually means, Hermes tells me, is that while naturopathic doctors attend accredited programs and get certified as “NDs,” they engage heavily in practices with questionable credibility. This includes homeopathic medicine, inert pills with extremely diluted active ingredients, detox regimens, energy medicine, healing touch, alternative cancer therapies, infrared treatments, hydrotherapy, and—like Hermes had uncovered—extensive use of unregulated supplements.
Suddenly leaving a job, for any reason, can be upsetting. But for Hermes, it wasn’t just her profession that she was walking away from. It was a way of life. As Hermes tells me her story of how she fell into naturopathy, how she clawed her way back out, and the hostility she now faces from its community, it reminds me not of a career change, but of someone being excommunicated from a stringent form of faith. She agrees; all that time she thought of herself as a doctor, the truth was, she was more of an agent of belief.
In the years since she quit, Hermes has positioned herself as a powerful opposing voice to naturopathy. Her blog, Naturopathic Diaries, where she bluntly calls out and debunks naturopathic treatments, received the “best blog of the year” award from a scientific skepticism magazine in the UK.
But the backlash against her has become powerful too. She is currently tangled up in a lawsuit from another naturopath, and has received cease and desist letters from the university that she got her degree from. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) called a petition she started against naturopathic expansion “defamatory and libelous” in a Change.org counter-petition. In 2016, Forbes wrote an article about her titled, Why Is Big Naturopathy Afraid Of This Lone Whistleblower?
Naturopaths “loathe Britt because she’s a traitor,” David Gorski, a doctor and the managing editor of Science-Based Medicine, told STAT News. “They really, really, really hate her.”
When Hermes was a teenager, she developed pink, rashy lesions all over her body and went to see a dermatologist. He diagnosed her with psoriasis. Her symptoms were more upsetting than just the pain and itchiness. She asked the doctor why this was happening to her. What could she do besides taking steroids? Was her social life going to be affected? “I was looking for more than medical advice,” she tells me. “I was seeking something more like sympathy or empathy.”
But the doctor cut her short. “I remember him saying, ‘Nope, sorry kid, steroids are your only option,’” she says. “You’re gonna have this for the rest of your life, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Looking back, Hermes realizes this was her first push towards the world of alternative medicine. This is a common road that people travel: When they can’t find the solution, empathy, or emotional support they’re looking for from a medical doctor, they turn elsewhere, to people who put the power back into their hands. People who say, there is a solution outside of medication; a more “natural” solution.
For Hermes, this was supplements, dietary changes, and other lifestyle factors that could help her skin. It didn’t start as a bad thing. She cleaned up her diet, started exercising, all while continuing to use the steroid creams her doctor had given her. Her skin cleared up. But in her mind, she attributed her improvements to the lifestyle changes. “It gave me a sense of control, a feeling like there was something I could do besides taking more prescription medication,” Hermes says.
When she got her degree in psychology from San Diego State, she focused on health psychology, or the aspects of health that people can control, like exercising, food, smoking, and sleep. After graduating, she came across Bastyr University, an alternative medicine university that advertises itself as "leading innovation in natural health education." She was intrigued.
“They used a lot of language like, 'science-based alternative health care,' 'science-based natural medicine,' or 'focusing on the whole patient'—things that really spoke to me on a philosophical level,” she says. “I thought: this is the best of both worlds. I could have one foot firmly planted in science and one foot firmly planted in this philosophy of health that I so deeply resonated with.”
Hermes had started adding supplements to her own regimen, like cod liver oil and antioxidants. Her diet also was becoming more restrictive. She wasn’t eating gluten. She wasn’t eating dairy. She started to teeter into over-exercising. “I didn’t know it as detoxing at the time, but I was engaging in a lot of detox-type activities,” she says. “I practiced hot yoga obsessively, really obsessively, like seven to ten classes a week of hot yoga.”
She took probiotics, drank kombucha, ate spicy foods for her circulation, added turmeric to her foods, and ate a lot of tofu. “I was definitely known as the health freak among my friends," she tells me.
And when Hermes went to Bastyr, the whole naturopathic world opened up to her. She says that while they did learn biological basics like anatomy and pharmacology, they were also taught about botanicals that people could use in place of medication, or the principles of Ayurvedic medicine.
“Naturopathic clinical sciences, like pediatrics, contained material that would never be taught in medical school,” Hermes wrote in a 2016 confessional essay. “We read Dr. Bob Sears’s Vaccine Book and were lectured on flawed reasons why vaccines should be avoided or delayed. We learned to put sliced onions over a child’s ear for an infection and other folk remedies, like wearing wet socks at night to ‘boost the immune system.’”
She says her teachers often referred to a patient’s “vital force.” Patients who had vague symptoms were diagnosed with food allergies or intolerances, chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue, or yeast overgrowth—all conditions that many traditional doctors aren’t sure are true illness, or have defined etiologies.
“It is not unfair to say that my fellow classmates and I were brainwashed,” she wrote in another online essay. “We believed that we were being trained just like medical doctors but with the added bonus of learning the secret knowledge of harnessing the healing power of nature, which could somehow supersede science.”
After graduating in 2011, she did a one-year naturopathic “residency” at a private clinic in Seattle, where she mostly treated families. She tells me the clinic advertised itself as "vaccine neutral," meaning she often developed personalized schedules to give vaccines to children. She says they almost never followed the CDC recommendations, and usually kids got vaccines later than they were supposed to, and skipped some altogether. After giving a vaccine, they would give a homeopathic remedy to prevent any side effects.
After Seattle she moved on to Tucson, where she practiced alongside other alternative health practitioners. It was here that was most entrenched in the naturopathic world, she tells me. One patient she remembers wanted Hermes to design a detox treatment for her. She gave the patient a colon enema once a week, frequent infrared sauna treatments, and high dose intra-vein injections of vitamins; some common ones like vitamin C, and some more rare: glutathione, selenium, and magnesium. They gave her activated charcoal, "tons” of oral antioxidant pills, turmeric, and herbal teas. She was either on a very strict diet, or fasting with only water.
This didn’t seem extreme to Hermes, because her everyday lifestyle had evolved to match it. She had eliminated dozens of foods from her own diet. She tells me she was underweight and anemic. She was using the far infrared saunas frequently, getting enemas “whenever I felt like it,” and had a large drawer in her kitchen filled with supplements, that she would pick out of at will, like a kid fishing through a candy drawer.
It was at the height of this behavior that she found her boss had been importing a supplement, called Ukrain, and giving it to their cancer patients. Under his medical orders, she had given it to patients too. “I felt sick in giving something that was unapproved [for cancer treatment] to cancer patients,” she says. The best-case scenario, she thought to herself, was that the supplement had done nothing to her patients; had been a scam. But even then, they were spending lots of money—out of pocket—to afford this treatment.
Within just a few days , Hermes saw a lawyer, quit her job, and reported her boss to Arizona State’s naturopathic board. She says when she resigned, her boss tried to intimidate her. He said she would get in trouble too, because she had also administered the supplement. He also accused her of being against the naturopathic profession, because they all used herbal supplements, which are not subject to FDA regulation. It was part of the gig.
This news was earth-shattering. Hermes says that after two days of intensive Google research, she realized her boss was right. All the supplements she’d been giving to people—that she’d been taking herself—were barely regulated. And while the advice to exercise and eat unprocessed food wasn’t harmful, a lot of the more intensive treatments she’d been doling out had no oversight, no evidence behind them.
“I had this big blind spot about the profession where I just naively went along with whatever any naturopath told me was safe and effective,” she says. “To say I was a mess is an understatement. I was having a full-on life crisis.”
Everything she thought she knew about life, medicine, and wellness suddenly didn’t make any sense. She started having panic attacks. As she tried to educate herself on the other ways naturopathy had misled her, it opened new wounds. As she read more about naturopathy, she had flashbacks to times she gave patients wrong information, or treatments that had no effect. “I could only take in information in micro doses, and at a very slow pace,” she says. “I really cried my whole way through it.”
Hermes’ reaction, Alan Levinovitz tells me, wasn’t just the emotional trauma of losing her job in a dramatic fashion. It was more like the reaction of someone losing her faith.
Levinovitz is a professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University. His area of expertise is classical Chinese philosophy, and yet he’s become well known as a critic of the current wellness movement and dietary trends. What’s the overlap between Chinese philosophy and Goop? Levinovitz says that if you were to boil down what he studies, it’s about texts and ideas that call people to systems of belief. In an increasingly secular world, he's started noticing these same kinds of belief systems he studies in religion emerging in other ways.
“One of the things that kept coming up was the importance of what's natural,” he tells me. “It's a really powerful word, and people evoke it in the same way that someone might evoke the word 'holy' or 'sacred.' Natural is being evoked in the same way that God is evoked. I don't think you can understand the words 'nature' and 'natural' without thinking of them as religious terms, rather than scientific terms."
He thinks that it's been brought on by an objection to real problems. Like, the proliferation of ultra-processed foods that have been engineered to be tasty (or addictive) and yet have very little nutritional content. But the problem is that now, anyone can call anything natural. “Natural,” as a faith-based idea, can be applied to foods, medicines, and treatments that aren’t necessarily good for you. And it can lead to the idea that any kind of interference or manipulation is bad. In some cases it is, but in scenarios like vaccinations or chemotherapy, intervention can save your life.
The greater problem with naturopathy isn’t just that people are choosing to add on natural or questionable treatments, it’s that they often replace more traditional ones with them. A 2016 study found that breast cancer patients who seek alternative medicine treatments are 84 percent less likely to have received chemotherapy. Another study from last year found that people with all kinds of cancer who use alternative over traditional treatments were more likely to die.
Children are much less likely to get certain vaccines if they see a naturopathic doctor. Last year, a Canadian couple was found guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life after their 19-month-old son died of meningitis. They had tried to treat him with supplements from their naturopathic clinic, using natural remedies and smoothies containing hot pepper, ginger root, horseradish and onion, instead of antibiotics.
Naturopaths around the world are lobbying to be more official. In 2016, over a hundred aspiring or practicing naturopaths went to Washington D.C. in support of a federal program that would allow some patients to receive Medicare reimbursements for their care, STAT News reported at the time. The AANP's goal is to have all 50 states to license naturopaths by 2025.
Levinovitz tells me that he doesn’t want to imply there’s anything wrong with religion or faith—it’s what he’s dedicated his life to studying, so he obviously finds great value in it. “But when someone's appealing to the Bible, it's an explicitly a religious appeal,” he says. “What I think is really strange about 'nature' and 'natural' is that it is ultimately a theological apparatus for making decisions, but it doesn’t look like religion. It looks like it's science. 'Nature' and 'natural' are words that you associate with biology and the simple science, the natural sciences. That's where the danger lies.”
Last September, Arizona naturopath Colleen Huber filed a lawsuit against Hermes. “Huber is offended by a blog post I wrote in December 2016 in which I criticized her so-called cancer research and expressed skepticism about the dubious alternative cancer treatments used at her clinic,” Hermes wrote on her blog. Huber claims that she can treat cancer patients with baking soda, Hermes wrote, and used ethically questionable research methods to prove its efficacy.
When I reached out to Huber for comment, she defended naturopathic training, and said that “cancer patients from around the US have come here for natural, non-toxic alternatives to conventional cancer treatments.”
"I can try to be a little bit more eloquent about it,” Hermes tells me, laughing. “But, it’s a shitty thing to get sued. It sucks.” A fundraising campaign organized on Hermes’ behalf by Australian Skeptics Inc. (ASI) had raised €50,000 as of January to help pay for her legal fees. Any leftover money, Hermes is donating to the UK charity Sense About Science, or also a generalized legal defense fund set up to support others who might find themselves in similar situations.
The tone of her blog and her writings about naturopathy is harsh, but she says her goal is to have an honest place a patient can go, if they’re considering a naturopathic treatment, and read about from someone who knows all too well its allure. She also wants other potential naturopaths to avoid the crisis she went though. She took out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to go to Bastyr, she says, just as much as it would have cost to go to real medical school.
Now, she’s had to do her education all over again. In April of 2017, she graduated from Kiel University in Germany with a master of science degree. In May, she began a PhD program in evolutionary genomics in conjunction with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the Institute for Experimental Dermatology at the University of Lübeck. She will be studying associations between skin microbiota and candidate genes—an area of study that could, ironically, help people with skin conditions like psoriasis someday.
This all started because a teenage Hermes wanted to be heard at her doctor’s office. And she wanted to incorporate healthy lifestyle choices into her medical care. I ask her: Is this possible at all, without turning to bogus treatments? Hermes thinks that it’s not about adding on “alternative” medicine to traditional medicine, it’s more about reforming the medical system itself.
“Naturopaths in this way have been very savvy,” she says. “They use key talking points like ‘treating the root cause’ and hijack it for only their philosophy. Medical doctors absolutely have every intention to treat the root cause. This ‘root cause’ thing is not specific to the naturopathic profession. But naturopaths have cleverly picked up on the idea that doctors don’t care about what the patients concerns are, and they just throw pills at them.”
Creating this false division is the hallmark of the entire trendy wellness movement. Not the movement that says to eat your fruits and vegetables, but the one that claims you need expensive “natural” supplements and products to be healthy at all. Tim Caulfield, a professor of law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta who has spent his career studying science policy, says its one of this movement's greatest tricks: to assert that medicine is on one side of a ideological divide, and “natural” is on the other.
Some might balk at Hermes’ current aggressive approach to dealing with her former profession. But Caulfield says that if naturopathic doctors really want to be treated the same as other doctors, that means we need to subject them to the same level of scientific rigor that everyone else is.
“These people are claiming that their interventions can do something that is measurable,” Caulfield says. “That makes it entirely appropriate to use a science-informed critique. A lot of these alternative practitioners are adopting the language of science. They want the best of both worlds. They want the legitimacy that science gives them, and so you’ll see that sort of sciencey language in their descriptions of the work they do.”
The other false idea, Caulfield thinks, is that people like him or Hermes don’t wish for better interactions with traditional doctors. That they are somehow advocating for only pharmaceutical treatments, and are against preventative lifestyle strategies. What Hermes tells me she wants, and what she’s trying to offer through her writing, is simply place where these walls fall down. Nothing is "natural" or "unnatural," just evidence-based, or not.
But how can we tell when something crosses this line? If you want to live a healthy life, it requires navigating a flawed medical world and the questionable wellness world. Many doctors are understudied in nutrition. The food we're presented with can be overly processed. How do you know your health choices are based on evidence and not on faith, when one can sound so much like the other?
Levinovitz offers this piece of advice. Ask yourself: “Do I feel drawn to what's 'natural' in a kind of intuitive way? If so, I'm probably going to be biased. Step back, take a deep breath, and ask , 'What does the data show?' I think that's really important.”
And perhaps, he thinks, our obsession with everything natural stems from an even greater existential crisis than Hermes felt, standing lost in the grocery store. We're scared that we’re ruining the natural world. “I think that a part of what's going on is people are feeling lousy about what they see as a desecration of the natural world, and they want to reject that in their personal life.”
And for that, he offers his empathy. “I'm with you on wanting to treat the natural world better, and I'm with you on not wanting pharmaceutical companies to manipulate data or sell me drugs that aren't useful. But we must remember these issues are separate from worshiping nature as if it is a god. We can all get together on those issues without also having to subscribe to some kind of weird perfectionist understanding of what the natural world is and what our place in it is.”
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