Soul Mates: Naturopathic Medicine & Spirituality

 In Education

David J. Schleich, PhD


We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.

                                                (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

 Seasoned naturopathic doctors know that the spiritual history of a patient in a medical intake, while not routine, is not unusual. As they inexorably assimilate what’s useful, the allopathic professionals are now beginning to do it too. Many naturopathic physicians, though, have long incorporated a spiritual history into a patient’s file. Whether it is inner subrational wisdom, some kind of basic cellular form of knowledge, or the human brain tied into a universal energy field, the spiritual dimensions of a patient’s experience can be a valuable part of the profile and relationship. Whatever experience a patient shares about being, essence, and divinity (to paraphrase Hawkins, 1995), there seems to be momentum in the broader medical landscape for reconciling both the soul and reason. Delving into this arena of discourse, we run headlong into a vast literature about everything from advanced theoretical physics (and the accompanying mathematics) to advanced behavioral kinesiology, neurobiology, epistemology, and ontology.

A scan of the growing allopathic literature on spirituality and medicine (serial publications, proceedings of seminars and conferences) reveals that MDs and DOs and even NPs label this practice as a “bio-psycho-social-spiritual” patient history. It’s probably fair to say that there is a ramp-up across the medical professions of this terminology and a growing interest in what it means. It’s probably hard to say where that ramp-up began. Probably in the late 1970s.

In 1977 George Engel published a remarkable article in Science entitled “The Need for A New Medical Model: A Challenge for Biomedicine.” Engel was among the first to proffer the term, “biopsychosocial.” He was challenging the perceived, prevalent limitations in the “biomedical” model which persist 40 years later despite an ever-increasing body of clinical evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of our natural medicine approaches to health and wellness.

Biomedicine & the Soul

More and more physicians and healers from many systems accept the possibility that human beings have a subtle energy body “inside” the physical body. Even so, the “soul” still has had no real place in the theories of scientists and in academic medicine, largely because it is immaterial. In the biomedicine paradigm, the soul has no substance and therefore cannot be studied or proved. As a result, the institutionalization of medical culture, including aspects of naturopathic medicine, includes sizeable dollops of medical science that are indistinguishable from biomedical science. Thus, we see that contemporary medical doctors are going against convention and investigating higher states of consciousness and the realms of the “soul.”

Spirituality is an important, multidimensional aspect of our human experience. It is, though, a tough sell in mainstream medical schools, and among allopathic professional bodies, in particular, because spirituality is difficult to fully understand or measure using the complex and sometimes quite slow systems of the scientific method. Nevertheless, there is convincing evidence in the medical literature of benefits that can accrue to the practice of medicine. The world’s great wisdom and medicine traditions have long taught us that important aspects of spirituality lie in the experience of connection, inner strength, comfort, love and peace derived from the relationship with self, others, nature, and the transcendent.

Our US culture of religious pluralism manifests as a wide range of belief systems, with atheism and agnosticism on one end of the continuum, and a myriad assortment of religions and spiritual practices on the other. In such a milieu, allopathic physicians are challenged to understand the beliefs and practices of so many differing faith communities. Research indicates, though, that the religious beliefs and spiritual practices of patients are important vehicles for coping with serious illnesses, not to mention the accompanying pressure to often make personal and ethical choices about treatment options that are not just a function of fearful compliance. And, there are those painful, difficult decisions about end-of-life care to consider as well (Puchalski, 2001). The literature shows that religion and spirituality are associated positively with improved health better health and psychological well-being (Puchalski, 2001; Koenig, 2004).

The Cost of Neglecting Patients’ Spiritual Needs

As a backdrop to this conversation, it is useful for those interested in the relationship between spirituality and religion to review the data which show that religious belief and practice are pervasive in America, although less present in the biomedicine/allopathic profession itself. The 2008 Gallup Report, for example, consistently shows a high prevalence of belief in God (78%) and belief in a higher power (15%) (Newport, 2009). In an aggregate of the 2013 Gallup polls, 56% claim that religion is personally important, and 22% claim it is fairly important (Gallup, 2016). In any case, research indicates that approximately 43.1% of Americans reportedly attended religious services at least once a week (Newport, 2010). Seventy-seven percent of Americans identified themselves as Christian, 5% with a non-Christian tradition, and 18% did not have an explicit religious identity (Newport, 2012).

It also appears that physicians as a group are somewhat less inclined to believe in God. Whereas, up to 77% of patients prefer discussion about spiritual issues to be part of their health care, less than 20% of physicians currently discuss such issues with patients (King & Bushwick, 1994). Clearly, physicians are not inquiring about spirituality to nearly the degree that patients prefer (Puchalski, 2001; King et al., 2013).

Healing is the result of not just clinical processes but also of overall biological potentialities that often do not materialize without the unseen power of spiritual alignment.

                                                    (David R. Hawkins, MD, PhD)

Other data also indicate that religion and spiritual beliefs play an important role for many patients. When illness threatens the health – and possibly the life – of an individual, that person is likely to come to the physician with both physical symptoms and spiritual issues in mind. An article in the Journal of Religion and Health claims that through these 2 channels – medicine and religion – humans grapple with common issues of infirmity, suffering, loneliness, despair, and death, while searching for hope, meaning, and personal value in the crisis of illness (Vanderpool & Levin, 1990).

Naturopathic physicians contend that we are surrounded by elements in our environment that constantly push our bodies out of balance – whether pathogens, toxins, or emotional traumas. While biomedicine helps treat us physically, bodywork focuses on healing the spiritual and emotional aspects of illness. This work brings people back to their center, back to their essence.

Most chronic illness has an emotional/spiritual component. If a person has been treated by capable doctors and sees little or no progress over time, s/he may need to examine, for example, their belief patterns or unresolved emotional and psychological traumas, which can accumulate into health issues. These factors can create serious blockages to healing. Healing work unblocks issues, deletes these old programs from the mind, and replaces them with new, positive ones. This internal shift triggers change in the outer physical self, which leads to transformation of one’s outer environment. These are key elements linking spirituality with medicine.

Table 1. Top 10 Reasons for a Spirituality Focus in Medical Schools


To heighten awareness of ways in which their one’s faith system represents valuable tools for encounters with illness, suffering, and death

2. To foster understanding, respect, and appreciation for the individuality and diversity of patients’ beliefs, values, spirituality, and culture regarding illness, its meaning, cause, treatment, and outcome
3. To strengthen commitment to relationship-centered medicine that emphasizes care of the suffering person (rather than simply the pathophysiology of disease) and recognizes the physician as a dynamic component of that relationship
4. To facilitate recognition of the role of the hospital chaplain and the patient’s clergy as partners in the healthcare team in providing care for the patient
5. To encourage a program of physical, emotional, and spiritual self-care, which includes attention to the purpose and meaning of patients’ lives and work
6. To teach and practice the skills needed to elicit a “spiritual history” and a “cultural history” as a part of a patient/client intake (these histories elicit the patient’s cultural identity, experiences, and explanations of illness, self-selected health practices, culturally relevant interpretations of social stress factors, and availability of culturally relevant support systems)
7. To enhance an understanding that the spiritual dimension of people’s lives is an avenue for compassionate caregiving
8. To develop capacity and commitment to applying the understanding of a patient’s spirituality and cultural beliefs and behaviors to appropriate clinical contexts (eg, in prevention, case formulation, treatment planning, and challenging clinical situations)
9. To become more familiar with knowledge of research data on the impact of spirituality on healthcare outcomes, and on the impact of patients’ cultural identity, beliefs, and practices on their health, access to and interactions with healthcare providers, and health outcomes

To promote and support ongoing understanding of, and respect for, the role of clergy and other spiritual leaders, and culturally-based healers and care providers, and how to communicate and/or collaborate with them on behalf of patients’ physical and/or spiritual needs


Engel, G. L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine. Science,  196 (4286), 129-136.
Gallup News. (2016). Religion. How important would you say religion is in your own life? Available at: Accessed November 15, 2017.
Handzo, G., Koenig, H. G. (2004). Spiritual care: whose job is it anyway? South Med J, 97 (12), 1242-1244.
Hawkins, D. R. (1995). Power vs. Force: An Anatomy of Consciousness. New York, NY: Hay House, Inc.
King, D. E., Bushwick, B. (1994). Beliefs and attitudes of hospital inpatients about faith, healing and prayer. J Fam Pract, 39 (4), 349-352.
King, S. D., Dimmers, M. A., Langer, S., Murphy, P. E. (2013). Doctors’ attentiveness to the spirituality/religion of their patients in pediatric and oncology settings in the Northwest USA. J Health Care Chaplain, 19 (4), 140-164.
Koenig, H. G. (2004). Religion, spirituality, and medicine: research findings and implications for clinical practice. South Med J, 97 (12), 1194-1199.
Newport, F. (2009). State of the States: Importance of Religion. Gallup News. Available at: Accessed November 15, 2017.
Newport, F. (2010). Americans’ Church Attendance Inches Up in 2010. Gallup News. Available at: Accessed November 16, 2017.
Newport, F. (2012). In U.S., 77% Identify as Christian. Gallup News. Available at: 12-24-2012. Accessed November 16, 2017.
Puchalski, C. M. (2001). Spirituality and Health: The Art of Compassionate Medicine. Hospital Physician, 30-36. Available at: Accessed November 15, 2017.
Puchalski, C., Ferrell, B., Virani, R., et al. (2009). Improving the quality of spiritual care as a dimension of palliative care: the report of the Consensus Conference. J Palliat Med, 12 (10), 885-904.
Vanderpool, H. Y., Levin, J. S. (1990). Religion and medicine: How are they related? J Religion Health, 29 (1), 9-20.

Image Copyright: <a href=’’>mihtiander / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

David J. Schleich, PhD, is president and CEO of the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM), former president of Truestar Health, and former CEO and president of CCNM, where he served from 1996 to 2003. Previous posts have included appointments as vice president academic of Niagara College, and administrative and teaching positions at St. Lawrence College, Swinburne University (Australia) and the University of Alberta. His academic credentials have been earned from the University of Western Ontario (BA), the University of Alberta (MA), Queen’s University (BEd), and the University of Toronto (PhD).

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