Vitalism: Toward a Working Definition

Author: Judith Boice ND, LAc

In the early 20th century, the conventional or “allopathic” medical paradigm ascended to dominance in the United States without deep cultural scrutiny or debate. Funded by big business interests, particularly the profitable pharmaceutical industry, allopathic medicine became the measuring stick to guide legal precedents, insurance practices, and standards of care for physicians. In the process we have overlooked longer-standing, equally authoritative healthcare systems that offer valid alternatives to our expensive and often ineffective medical system.


Vitalists draw upon the vast repository of wisdom inherent in the Earth and the native intelligence that is embedded in the processes of life itself. Vitalists view the human body as a self-regulating organism rather than a machine with interchangeable parts. Unlike a dented car or a scarred wooden chair, the human body has the capacity to restore and revitalize itself. The aim of vitalistic medicine is to engage and augment these self-regulating, self-restorative pathways to heal damage, restore full function, and build optimal health.

All life forms are imbued with an innate intelligence that governs the processes of birth, maturation, restoration, and death. Both the human body and the planetary body are informed by this “vital force,” an indwelling wisdom that orchestrates complex processes and systems to restore, maintain and build health.

This innate intelligence is known by many names including vital force, life force, vitality, animating force, élan vital, soul, spirit, vis vitae and qi.

Classical systems of medicine

All systems of “classical” medicine recognize this vital force and aim to cultivate vitality, not only to resolve symptoms but also to create greater levels of health.

Classical medical systems include:

  • Ayurvedic medicine
  • Classical Chinese medicine, i.e. the more ancient Taoist traditions, not contemporary “Traditional Chinese Medicine,” which is a 20th century reconstruction of Chinese medicine (Lihong, 2019)
  • First Nations/indigenous medicines
  • Naturopathic medicine
  • Persian medicine
  • Tibetan medicine
  • Traditional western herbalism

Practitioners of these ancient, deeply rooted systems of medicine have long understood that health rests upon the foundations of living in right relationship with self, family, community, planet and Creator. A full description of health in the Vitalistic paradigm therefore embraces physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Our daily actions can either augment or undermine the vital force. Health or disease is therefore the result of the way we live our lives.

Classical medicine recognizes that the health of our physical bodies is inextricably linked with the health of the Earth. In truth, the physical body is a microcosm of the planetary body of our Earth. The same laws that govern human health also inform the well-being of planetary and galactic systems. Like Matryoshka dolls, human health nests inside the wisdom of larger systems of life.

We are both informed by and dependent upon these vast cosmic systems.

Planetary Health: The Gaia Hypothesis

In the 1970’s the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hired British chemist James Lovelock, PhD to create a definition of life in order for planned space probes to assess if there is life on other planetary bodies. How would we determine that another planet supported life? Lovelock turned his attention to an already agreed upon “living” planet, the Earth, in search of a scientific definition of life.

Together with microbiologist Lynn Margulis, Lovelock discovered that, like our human bodies, the earth has a series of complex self-regulating mechanisms that have maintained homeostasis over eons. Examples include the salinity of the ocean, oxygen content of the atmosphere, stability of surface temperature, diversity of species, and processing of carbon in the biocycle (Harvard, Creative Commons). Lovelock named his work “the Gaia Hypothesis” in honor of the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. Lovelock’s and Margulis’s work spurred the development of the field of bio-geophysiology.

Margulis (1998) emphasized that Gaia is “not an organism” but rather “an emergent property of interaction among organisms.” She defined Gaia as “the series of interacting ecosystems that compose a single huge ecosystem at the Earth’s surface. Period.” Notwithstanding her reticence, she argues that “the surface of the planet behaves as a physiological system in certain limited ways.”

Human and Planetary Health

OR My Body, My Earth

These same principles guide the health of our own bodies, our beloved planet earth, and likely life throughout all of creation.

Like the Earth, we generate heat at our core. Our blood and saliva register the same salinity as the Earth’s oceans, and our bodies are comprised of the same percentage of water as the planet’s oceans and waterways (roughly 72%).

Like the Earth, we rely on complex, interdependent systems to maintain dynamic equilibrium in the body. These interlocking systems maintain steady body temperature, electrolyte balance, blood sugar, heart rate, blood pressure and a myriad of other vital life processes, primarily without our conscious intervention.

The Earth also has complex systems that have maintained a remarkably stable equilibrium in surface temperature, ocean salinity, and atmospheric gases, millions of years beyond what the laws of physics and biology would have predicted. The oceans should have long since increased their salinity, the planetary temperature fluctuated beyond habitable levels, and the atmosphere’s oxygen bonded with other gases and minerals of the Earth’s crust. Instead, “the Earth’s atmospheric composition is kept at a dynamically steady state by the presence of life [italics mine]” (Lovelock, 2009).

Human Biome, Earth Biome

Our bodies, like the Earth, are filled with more mystery than certainty. Science continues to reveal new realms of life, within our bodies and in the Earth. Research in the last decade has sparked a deeper understanding of the complexities of the human biome. We begin life as 99.9% our own unique human cells. As we mature, that ratio changes, and only 43% of our total cells are human (Gallagher, 2018). The other 57% are the “biome” consisting of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea. These organisms and their balance (or imbalance) play a critical role in human health and disease.

Over the last decade scientists have made a parallel discovery in the Earth’s body. The “biosphere” is a subterranean ecosystem that is “almost twice the size of the world’s oceans” (Watts, 2018). This underground biosphere is comprised of “between 15bn and 23 bn tonnes of micro-organisms, hundreds of times the combined weight of every human on the planet” (Watts, 2018). Many individual organisms in this subterranean world can live for millennia.

Restoring Planetary and Human Health

This recent subterranean biome discovery highlights the complexity of factors that contribute to life on Earth. The Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, meant to replicate a self-contained, self-sustaining ecosystem, also yielded much information about the complex array of factors that support planetary life in its initial experiments (Nelson, 2018). Within the first year, atmospheric levels of oxygen dropped from 20.9% to 14.2%, and scientists had to pump fresh air into the system to sustain the lives of the inhabitants. Carbon dioxide levels also fluctuated dramatically from day to night. One of several factors the scientists did not consider was the importance of wind in generating “wood stress” to strengthen the trees within the enclosed system.

In the process of creating the Biosphere 2, scientists began to understand the limits of their knowledge about the complexities of life on Earth. They did not, and perhaps cannot, understand the intricacies of the systems and interactions that support life on Earth. The scientists’ efforts at mimicking the interdependent, interconnected planetary systems may have exposed more gaps in knowledge than it confirmed about their current understanding of planetary ecosystems. In the process, we discovered that larger, more intricate self-governing forces guide the complex array of planetary systems than we previously had imagined.

Like the scientists of the Biosphere 2 project, the functional medicine physician attempts to alter the biochemical processes of the body to achieve an ephemeral “balance” that can lead to health. Much of this biochemical “tinkering,” however, is done without a full understanding of the interconnected nature of the larger systems or the self-governing intelligence that guides these life processes. Just as the Biosphere 2 scientists neglected the importance of wind and other factors in the ecosystem, so, too, have the functional medicine practitioners failed to consider important aspects of the body’s inter-related systems. By attempting to replace the wisdom of the body’s indwelling, self-regulating intelligence, the functional medicine practitioner lacks the key to health and healing: the vital force that ultimately orchestrates the body’s complex, interrelated processes.

Earth restoration provides models to understand the potential for health regeneration. The field of restoration ecology aims to protect areas of biological health and diversity so that they can expand into surrounding damaged areas. Restoration ecology scientists are exploring how chemically damaged areas can be returned as closely as possible to their original state (Rohr et al., 2015), and are monitoring whether the soil biome can be restored with the reintroduction of native species (Yan et al., 2019).

Practitioners of Vitalistic medical systems engage the body’s innate intelligence and augment the regenerative processes, much like the work of restoration ecology and ecological engineering to restore environmental damage. Working with the vital intelligence can exponentially speed these processes, while suppressive therapies tend to thwart the innate repair systems and create further symptoms.

Revitalization requires finding and addressing the underlying causes of a condition. Classical Chinese medicine recognizes the bao ben, the roots and branches of a disease. Addressing only the leaves and branches of a condition will provide temporary relief. Focusing on the roots opens the pathway to a “cure” for the condition.

Genetics plays a role in our health but is not the final arbiter. Genes are the architects of human design, but the cell membrane guides the construction (Lipton, 2005). The cell membrane makes moment by moment decisions that modulate and sometimes override the genetic blueprint.

Genes are not destiny but rather templates rich with possibilities, and the substrate of our daily lives determines their expression.

The science of vitalism explores how to catalyze similar restorative processes in the human body. The foundations of health are built upon the way we live, how and with whom we work, what we eat, how we move, how we think and what we say. The substance of our daily lives forms the substrate of health or disease.

The Earth does not require human support to thrive. Humans, however, are completely dependent on the Earth’s vitality for survival. Life as we know if, for both humans and the Earth, is far more mysterious, far more complex, and far more interdependent than scientists previously had understood.

Navigating Health with Science and Soul

In the Vitalistic paradigm, we recognize that the human body is filled with as much mystery as certainty, and that the worlds of both science and spirituality contribute to the full experience of health. One might say that the boat of our lives moves forward under the power of two oars: science, the world of measurable certainty; and spirituality, the world of the ineffable mystery. Rowing with one oar guides us in endless circles. Rowing together, these dual oars move us toward our goal of vibrant health.

Vitalists understand that all aspects of a patient’s life have the potential to impact health. Disease may have physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual causes. All aspects of a patient’s life are important in developing full, vibrant health.

Health is more than the absence of disease. The vitalistic Naturopathic Physician aims to educate and engender life changes that will lead to sustainable health and well-being. The Vitalist also has the skills to move beyond disease prevention to health creation.

The ultimate goal of vitalistic health care is to support patients in doing what is most important for them in their lives in a way that aligns with and supports the life, health and diversity of all of creation.


Gallagher, James. 10 April 2018. More than half your body is not human. Retrieved from

Harvard Commons, Gaia Hypothesis. Retrieved from

Ligong, Liu. 2019. Classical Chinese Medicine. Hong Kong, The Chinese University Press.

Lipton, Bruce. 2006. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

Lovelock, James. 2016. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Margulis, Lynn. 1998. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Nelson, Mark. May-June 2018. Biosphere 2: What Really Happened? Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Retrieved from

Rohr, J.R., Aida, M.F., Cadotte, M.W., Clements, W.H., Smith, J.R., Ulrich, C.P., & Woods, R. (2015). Transforming Ecosystems: When, where, and how to restore contaminated sites. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, 12(2), 273-283.

Watts, Jonathan. Mon 10 Dec 2018. Global team of scientists find ecosystem below earth that

is twice the size of world’s oceans. Retrieved from

Yan, D.F., Gellie, N.J.C., Mills, J.G., Connell, G., Bissett, A., Lowe, A.J., & Breed, M.F. (2019). A soil archaeal community responds to a decade of ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology. Doi:

A Defense of Homeopathy

A Defense of Homeopathy

Jared Zeff, ND, VNMI

There is a growing clamor coming from some of our schools, if not elsewhere, that it is time to divest our Naturopathic curricula of homeopathic medicine.  It has been stated, incorrectly, that homeopathic medicine is nothing but placebo, and is “unscientific”, irrational, and stains us with this label in the eyes of the larger, rational, conventional medical community.  Divesting ourselves of the ‘albatross of homeopathy’ is even being proposed at the level of intercollegiate curriculum agreement.

As a practitioner of Naturopathic medicine for 40 years, a Professor of Naturopathic Medicine, a former Dean of Academics (NCNM, 1988 – 1993), and one who loves this medicine, I have to protest such foolishness.  I propose that we, as a profession, do not succumb to this. The assumption that homeopathic medicine is simply placebo, and is “unscientific”, is based at best on ignorance, laziness, or perhaps something darker.  One has only to type something about homeopathy into the search bar of PubMed and one can find many journal articles, including double-blinded studies, most of which are positive, and demonstrate the “scientific” efficacy of this old medical practice.

As one who has practiced this art and science on a nearly daily basis for the past forty years, I can only marvel at the puerile absurdity of this proposition.  I have seen homeopathic medicine save lives.  I see it reduce pain and suffering in predictable ways on a daily basis, which demonstrates its “scientific” efficacy.  I have effectively treated babies with it, or seen one remedy fail and then a second one succeed, both nullifying the “placebo” argument.

Let me return to PubMed for a moment.  Here are three simple examples of the “scientific” basis of this medicine, in modern terms, which I quickly grabbed from the PubMed site:

  1. Homeopathy. 2019 Apr 20. doi: 10.1055/s-0038-1677495. Effects of Ultra-Low-Dose Aspirin in Thrombosis and Haemorrhage. Eizayaga F1, Belon P2, Desplat V3, Aguejouf O3, Doutremepuich C3.Abstract: Homeopathic dilutions of aspirin, notably 15 cH, have shown a pro-thrombotic effect in humans and in in-vivo animal studies.
  2. Homeopathy. 2006 Oct;95(4):223-8. Effects of homeopathic medications Eupatorium perfoliatum and Arsenicum album on parasitemia of Plasmodium berghei-infected mice.Lira-Salazar G1, Marines-Montiel E, Torres-Monzón J, Hernández-Hernández F, Salas-Benito JS.

    Abstract: Malaria is one of the most important parasitic diseases in the world and a major public health problem because of emerging drug-resistant strains of Plasmodium. A number of synthetic and natural compounds are now being analysed to develop more effective antimalarial drugs. We investigated the effect of homeopathic preparations of Eupatorium perfoliatum and Arsenicum album on parasitemia using a rodent malaria model. We found significant inhibitory effect on parasite multiplication with both medications with a level of 60% for Eupatorium perfoliatum at a 30 CH potency. Arsenicum album gave 70% inhibition…

  3. Sci Total Environ. 2007 Oct 1;384(1-3):141-50. Epub 2007 Jul 12.Homeopathic remedy for arsenic toxicity?: Evidence-based findings from a randomized placebo-controlled double blind human trial.Belon P1, Banerjee A, Karmakar SR, Biswas SJ, Choudhury SC, Banerjee P, Das JK, Pathak S, Guha B, Paul S, Bhattacharjee N, Khuda-Bukhsh AR.

    Abstract: Millions of people are at risk of groundwater arsenic contamination, but supply of arsenic-free drinking water is grossly inadequate. The present study was intended to examine if a potentized homeopathic remedy reportedly showing ameliorating potentials in people inhabiting high-risk arsenic-contaminated areas but drinking arsenic-free water, can also ameliorate arsenic toxicity in subjects living in high-risk arsenic-contaminated areas, and drinking arsenic-contaminated water. This pilot study was conducted on 20 males and 19 females of village Dasdiya (arsenic contaminated) who initially agreed to act as volunteers; but as many as 14, mostly placebo-fed subjects, later dropped out. 18 volunteers, 14 males and 4 females, from a distant village, Padumbasan (arsenic-free), served as negative controls. In a double-blind placebo-controlled study, a potentized remedy of homeopathic Arsenicum Album-30 and its placebo (Succussed Alcohol-30) were given randomly to volunteers. Arsenic contents in urine and blood and several widely accepted toxicity biomarkers and pathological parameters in blood were analyzed before and after 2 months of administration of either verum or placebo. Elevated levels of ESR, creatinine and eosinophils and increased activities of AST, ALT, LPO and GGT were recorded in arsenic exposed subjects. Decreased levels of hemoglobin, PCV, neutrophil percentages, and GSH content and low G-6-PD activity were also observed in the arsenic exposed people. The administration of “verum” appeared to make positive modulations of these parameters, suggestive of its ameliorative potentials. Most of the subjects reported better appetite and improvement in general health, thereby indicating possibility of its use in remote arsenic-contaminated areas as an interim health support measure to a large population at risk.PMID: 17628642 DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2007.06.001

My teachers all used homeopathy to great effect.  John Bastyr, known for the “scientific” basis of his practice, used it. It is reliable, safe, effective, predictable in its effects, and among the most important medical tools with which I have to work.

When I first encountered homeopathy in school, in 1975, I was a bit confused by it, and then decided that this was a self-deluded placebo cult in which a number of my less-than-scientific classmates had indulged. I am a scientist, with degrees in science. I heard my teachers telling me that “nothing” is “something”, and that the more dilute the greater effect, even beyond Avogadro’s number.  I did not believe that at all.  But in the school clinic I was required to use it. I saw it seemingly work, much to my consternation.  And then it worked again. And then it worked on me!  Being a scientist, when I witness a phenomenon that challenges my assumptions, I must explore it and either negate my presumed observation or change my assumptions.  I found it necessary to change my assumptions. I could see that homeopathic treatment was clearly an effective and real phenomenon, and so I needed to continue to explore it and adopt it into my clinical practice, because it worked.  And it worked elegantly.

There is a problem with the teaching of this art and science in our institutions, however, which may be the origin of at least part of this current argument against homeopathic medicine.  Given only the most formal of presentations, many students become intimidated by the apparent complexity of this medicine, and tend to avoid it. They are essentially taught that it takes 2 hours to take a case, and another two hours to “repertorize” the case and arrive at an appropriate medicine.  They are taught that one must be critically careful to obtain the correct medicine, and that an error may have significant consequences.  But when one encounters doctors in the field, the older, respected practitioners, the majority of then use homeopathic medicine daily in practice, and do so in such a fashion that they provide a reasonable and effective medicine to each patient, even seeing several patients in an hour.  One usually sees the effect of a well-chosen remedy almost immediately.  It does not take hours to prescribe effectively; it generally takes minutes.  I have developed a short course, two hours long (available on-line through NMI), which I call “Rapid Prescribing”.  Thom Kruzel, ND, a former President of the AANP and a highly regarded colleague, has a similar course.  Eli Camp, ND, has an excellent presentation that explains the basics in a non-intimidating fashion.  And there are others.

Several years ago I was talking with a colleague who told me that he didn’t use homeopathy.  I was surprised, because of its obvious clinical successes. So I prepared a little instruction sheet, and sent him several reliable remedies for common clinical situations.  He then contacted me back, thanked me for the effort, and laughingly informed me that it was not that he didn’t know how to use it, it was that he did not believe in it. I was surprised.  This is a medical practice, not a religion.  It either works or it doesn’t.

I am concerned for our little profession, that there are internal forces attempting to remake us and our fundamental assumptions for reasons that have nothing to do with efficacy. We have struggled for over a century to survive as a separate and distinct branch of the healing arts.  We have created a significant infrastructure of our own standards and institutions, and we have succeeded.  Misguided attempts to make us appear more acceptable in the eyes of those who have sought to eliminate us seems unwise to me, and destructive. If one wants to be a conventional medical doctor, they should become one.  Do not try to re-sculpt our profession into one more acceptable to those who do not understand our basic philosophy and reason for existence.

Beyond this, I would urge that we must insist in the strongest way that homeopathic medicine is a respected element of naturopathic medicine in modern times, and insure its continued inclusion in the curriculum of any accreditable naturopathic college.

Jared Zeff, ND, VNMI

Response to:
Naturopathic Medicine in the 21st Century: Time for a Seventh Guiding Principle – Scientia Criticus

In response to the recently published article entitled “Naturopathic Medicine in the 21st Century: Time for a Seventh Guiding Principle – Scientia Criticus:”

It seems to us most peculiar that the authors chose to begin a discussion of changing the established principles of naturopathic medicine in an interdisciplinary journal whose primary audience is members of the Association for the Healthcare Environment (AHE) of the American Hospital Association. We are especially alarmed that a few naturopaths would choose such an avenue to propose a major change to the tenets of our profession when, as far as we know, no appropriate input or comment was solicited from the board members of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the AANP House of Delegates, the state associations, any of the affiliated organizations, or “elders” in the profession.

Outreach to others in the healing arts is laudable. What concerns us are the numerous unsupported assertions or outright mis-characterizations in the article as well as its generally apologetic and disparaging tone. It belittles or demeans much of what licensed naturopathic physicians do and have done with great success and virtually no harm for over a century.

Self-examination is always warranted for the advance of any profession. The ability to evaluate evidence critically is a basic requirement for the successful practice of any medical approach. However, we believe that the advance of scientific knowledge is only slowly catching up with the observable truths handed down over generations by our predecessors. Furthermore, there is a wealth of discussion of how, all too often, modern scientific ‘evidence’ is easily skewed by things like prejudice, pride, greed, and corruption.

Projecting the weaknesses of the conventional medical system onto the naturopathic profession is unwarranted, misleading and divisive. Over the past 150 years, conventional medicine has been far more susceptible to the adoption and maintenance of dubious practices. There is a long history of now discredited drugs and surgeries that caused harm and death. The most recent examples include the opioid epidemic, harm from off-label prescribing of pharmaceuticals, surgical procedures that provide little demonstrable incremental health benefit, etc. Conventional medicine has a mixed record when it comes to successful application of scientifically valid and evidence based medicine. Today, Iatrogenic (medical treatment caused) is a leading cause of death in the United States. This is not and has never been the case with the care provided by licensed naturopathic physicians.

In our view, this poorly conceived article provides an inaccurate view of the naturopathic profession and its practices and is a disservice to your journal’s readers.