A Cup of Joe: Holistic healers
By Craig Howard
While it may not feature white sand, turquoise waves or palm trees swaying in the breeze, Stevens Naturopathic Center on Country Vista Road in Liberty Lake is considered by many to be a rejuvenating oasis.
Jeremiah and Julia Stevens set up shop here in August 2010, relocating from Coeur d'Alene, where the practice originated in 2006 as Lake City Naturopathic Care. The couple met while students at Bastyr University in Seattle, one of the world's leading alternative medicine colleges. Both were studying for their doctorate degree in naturopathic medicine at the time.
"Looking at medicine to 'fix the body because it was broken' never made sense to me," says Julia. "Looking at medicine to nourish and remove roadblocks in the body so it can do its job better was the paradigm I was taught."
The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians describes the practice of naturopathic medicine as "combining the wisdom of nature with the rigors of modern science." Naturopathic doctors "identify and remove barriers of good health by helping to create a healing internal and external environment," the AANP says. ND's can perform minor surgeries and are trained to incorporate prescription drugs, although most of the methodology revolves around natural healing agents.
Jeremiah graduated from Coeur d'Alene High School and went on to earn his undergraduate degree from the University California-Berkeley in molecular and cellular biology with an emphasis in biochemistry. With a medical doctor as a father, Jeremiah grew up around traditional medicine. His mother, however, found relief from health issues through alternative medicine.
Jeremiah transitioned from the Bay Area to Seattle after college where he debated between enrolling in a conventional medical school or a naturopathic medical school. He eventually landed at a clinic that included physicians from both traditions.
"There were medical doctors working alongside naturopaths, acupuncturists and other alternative practitioners," he said. "Working in this setting convinced me that naturopathic medicine was what I was called to do."
Julia's family tree includes medical doctors, nurses and chiropractors. She grew up in the San Diego area and graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of California-Santa Cruz. Following college, she applied to several chiropractic schools before discovering Bastyr University. Her decision to enroll drew a "mixed response" from her family.
"While explaining my choice to my great grandmother, who lived to the ripe age of 106, she asked, 'What is this naturopathic?'" Julia recalls. "I said, 'I am going to school to be a doctor and to teach people how to take better care of themselves, like eat their vegetables, get their rest and avoid toxic substances, so their bodies can heal and not get as sick in the future.' She looked at me strangely and said, ‘You mean to tell me you need to go to a special school for that? That's common sense!' I know, grandma, I know."
When it comes to addressing issues like stress - one of the leading causes of chronic disease based on the way it compromises the immune system - Julia offers insight that would make her grandmother proud.
"Acknowledging stress is a major issue and giving people permission to take care of themselves," she said. "Learning the tools to nourish ourselves so we are better able to handle stress is important."
Jeremiah relaxes by hiking, snowboarding, cooking and reading. Julia spends her spare time with hobbies like travel, theater and spending time with family. Jeremiah and Julia are parents to four children.
Q: For those who have never heard of naturopathic medicine, how would you describe the practice?
A: Jeremiah: Naturopathic medicine is a distinct primary health care profession, emphasizing prevention, treatment and optimal health through the use of therapeutic methods and substances that encourage individuals' inherent self-healing process. In the state of Washington, we are licensed as primary care providers, meaning we can accept insurance, order labs and imaging, refer to specialists and prescribe most medications. In general, we try to find natural alternatives to drugs and surgery using things like diet, lifestyle counseling, nutrition interventions, herbal medicines and hands-on physical therapies. There are, however, times and places where a pharmaceutical or surgical intervention is the best option, and we are not opposed to this if it is truly in the patient's best interest. We tend to spend a lot of time with our patients - usually an hour for a new visit and often 30 minutes for follow-ups. This is in order to really build a relationship with our patients and attempt to identify the underlying cause of illness and treat the whole person who is coming in to see us.
Q: I noticed Julia has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and Jeremiah has a degree in molecular and cellular biology with an emphasis in biochemistry. How do you think these fields of study lend themselves to naturopathic medicine?
A: Julia: Any field of medicine needs a strong undergrad in the sciences. My study of chemistry and the different energy fields and the intricacies of energy transfers for a simple molecule made me appreciate the workings of the human body early on in my formal studies. Both Jeremiah and I began with a pre-med basic science sequences with intentions of attending conventional medical school. Before I met Jeremiah, while I was working on my undergraduate work, I remember sitting in a medicinal chemistry class. The lecture was about changes that are made on a molecular level to make a medicine more potent and I thought, ‘Are we addressing the right side of the problem?' It takes a lot of research and development to make a single substance more potent, and yet if we increase the health of our entire immune system, we may be better off in the field of rapidly mutating infections.
Q: Do you find that the average person who pursues naturopathic treatment is doing so as an alternative to traditional Western medicine or as a supplement to it?
A: Jeremiah: I would say it is a mix. I usually say we get three groups of patients. First, those who have tried conventional medicine and have not received adequate relief from their concerns. They often seek us out for an alternative or to supplement what other care they are receiving. This is probably the largest group of patients we see. Second are those who are looking to be proactive in their health. We do a lot of work with general health and prevention and these patients are great to work with as they are looking for diet and lifestyle advice to stay healthy as long as possible. Third are those distrustful of conventional medicine. We get patients who don't normally seek out medical care except for emergencies. They may have had bad experiences for themselves or others and are not wanting to seek out care. This is a minority, but we can provide needed care and recommended screening procedures for this group of patients.
Q: I'm guessing it runs the gamut, but are there some more common conditions that you see as naturopathic doctor?
A: Julia: We work with chronic health conditions. Our conventional system is good at treating acute crisis. It's the long-term stuff that people have a hard time overcoming. We ask ourselves, ‘Why isn't this person healing? What are the roadblocks? How can we help this person heal?' For our practice, it translates to increasing nourishment and decreasing stress or toxins and many times nourishing specific organs or organ systems, and choosing therapies that encourage the bodies self-healing abilities. We rarely choose the same protocol for two different people. Every visit is personalized to that specific person, for that specific challenge that the body is having. It's where the art and science blend, and it can be a lot of fun. Our bodies are made to heal; our job is to play detective and to get curious to what the body is asking for.
Q: The Okinawan diet, focusing on an island in Japan with the largest percentage of centenarians (those who live to be 100 years or more) has been gaining popularity in recent years. Most of the food they eat is plant-based. How much does nutrition fit into the counsel you give at your practice?
A: Julia: Nutrition is vital. We are what we eat, and plant-based foods provide the appropriate soil for the vast microbiome that we have inside of us. The root of our immune system and our neurotransmitters are based in our gut. We need good food and a functioning digestive tract to have a balanced immune system and brain chemistry, solid energy, good sleep, good muscle tone, low inflammation in our bodies, balanced cholesterol, and the list can go on and on. So to circle back to your earlier question, we treat a lot of guts. Why? Because it's really important for your whole body. With 15 years of an ongoing personal pursuit of knowledge about our bodies, and wow, the 'soil' in our digestive tracts really matters to how our garden grows.
Q: Do you still see a general skepticism and/or unfair stereotypes about naturopathy among the general public, media and the mainstream medical community?
A: Jeremiah: Yes and no. The Northwest has become a hub for integrative medicine where different practitioners work together with their expertise for the betterment of their patients. With naturopathic schools in Portland and Seattle, there is more integration happening in these areas. More and more research is validating much of the nutritional and herbal interventions that we have been using for years. Mostly, patients are seeking out alternative care, so doctors are becoming more aware of the interventions that they are using. There may be some skepticism in the medical community, but I rarely encounter it personally. I refer patients regularly to specialists, and they accept our referrals. We do receive referrals back from many different health care providers in our community.
Q: Are there things you feel traditional Western medicine might be able to learn from naturopathy and vice versa?
A: Julia: All medicine needs a good clinical thought process - listening with open ears to the history, good physical exam, evaluating with labs, etc. Bedside manner is huge, often the patient will tell you exactly what's wrong and in the midst of rushed appointments and little time with the actual doctor it can get lost in translation. Also, to get on a soapbox, I'd love to imprint in everyone's heart that is involved with healthcare that our bodies are amazing. And to treat our bodies with respect and dignity is very important. As people we are all the drivers in our own vessels. Sure, we can take our vessels to different mechanics, if you will, but please don't lose sight that there is only one driver per vessel. Giving up a patient's personal power in the medical process I believe is a huge detriment to the whole process of trying to get people well.