The Naturopathic Way: The Underlying Causes of Disease

This article maps out the basic principles of what we feel are the most common underlying causes of chronic illness. These principles are an amalgam of our combined schooling, training, research, study, and years of working with patients.

(If you missed the first article in our series on “The Naturopathic Way” about Cause and Effect, you may wish to read it as it provides a good introduction to this topic)

Treat the Root Cause

  • Why don’t I feel as well as I used to?
  • I eat right, I exercise, I follow a healthy lifestyle…so why am I sick?
  • What am I doing wrong?

All great questions… and unfortunately, questions that are asked all too often.

Most people want to feel better (and sometimes, a lot better!).  How many people do you know that truly feel great?  And how many of these people are taking great efforts to become healthier yet don’t seem to be getting anywhere?

Joining a gym, trying out a new way of eating, researching information on the web.  As a culture, we’re spending an awful lot of time, money, and energy laboring away looking for answers instead of enjoying our health.  By which we mean, going about our lives without spending too much time thinking about how we feel moment to moment.

While we are not at all claiming to know some secret information, this article is designed to map out the basic principles of what we feel are the most common underlying causes of chronic illness.  These principles are an amalgam of our combined schooling, training, research, study, and years of working with patients.

The Underlying Causes of Disease

As Naturopathic Doctors, we consider these four primary underlying causes of illness:

  1. Deficiency
  2. Toxicity
  3. Pathogens
  4. Stressors

In the most basic and essential sense, health results from proper nourishment of body, mind and spirit, elimination of harmful toxins, a strong immune system, a healthy adaptation to stress, and a strong vital force.  While these ideas are simple, we feel as though it is often difficult in today’s day and age to accomplish all of these health goals.  As Naturopathic Physicians, we believe in the body’s ability to heal itself.  Yet, if any one or a combination of the aforementioned causes of illness occur, our ability to self-heal is compromised.

Let’s break down these 4 causes in more detail:


Our bodies need health promoting nutrients.  We like to quantify this as more than just vitamins and minerals.  Proper nutrition is absolutely essential, but often hard to attain given how devitalized our food and water supply has become in the last hundred years.  Nutrient deficiency is common, in our opinion.  Beyond diet, however, we also categorize critical elements such as sleep and purpose in the category of deficiency.  It goes without saying how our health suffers if we aren’t sleeping well, but we propose that the same can be said for a life without purpose and direction.  Frustration and apathy may serve as examples of deficiency.


Toxicity receives a lot of attention in the media today, and deservedly so.  Recall our article, Is Your Bucket Overflowing?.  In it we made the argument that over time, we accumulate toxins and toxic stressors that leads to a total body burden upon our health.  Observations such as these are why detoxification and allergy elimination are popular amongst our patients.  Helping to eliminate toxins from the body is essential in the quest to address underlying causes of illness.


Pathogens may cause a chronic infection.  Essentially, pathogenic microorganisms like viruses or bacteria may stealthily persist in our bodies causing chronic illness.  While we are always exposed to trillions upon trillions of microbes, long term health is dependent upon our immune system strength to fight off pathogens and their toxic effects.


Stressors may come in many shapes and sizes.  Health, relationships, money, our jobs, our families, responsibilities are but a few of the examples people cite when listing the things that stress them out.  A physical, mental, or emotional trauma may strike (or worse, persist).  All of these by themselves or in combination stress us and demand that we draw upon our reserves.  If we are not able to adapt to the stress at hand, our health likely suffers for it.

The Underlying Causes of Illness Create a Stress Response in our Bodies

The sum total of factors (deficiency, toxins, pathogens, and stressors) accumulate to cause a stress response in our body.  A slightly different concept than a “stressor,” we define a “stress response” as the adaptive changes of our body.  A stressor causes a stress response effect.

In turn, this stress response effect is what we then feel symptomatically.  When we experience symptoms such as: fever, low energy, foggy thinking, gas, bloating, anxiety, pain…we feel the results of the effect.  It is instructive to notice these symptoms, but they are not the underlying cause of disease.

From here we begin to ask “why?”.  Why do I have this symptom?  What is its cause?  Many concepts have been proposed to construct ideas about groups of symptoms that come together.  When we have itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and a runny nose, throat or sinus congestion we call it “allergies.”  If a woman experiences pain and cramping before her menstrual cycle, with moodiness or irritability, fatigue, and so forth we call it “PMS” or “a hormonal imbalance.”  These terms are descriptive and helpful to categorize information, but they are not causes–they are still effects.  We hear all the time, “I have allergies” or “I have PMS”…but that’s not entirely accurate.

On a larger scale, we read articles about degenerative disease such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and even cognitive conditions like dementia to be caused by inflammation or high blood sugar or high blood pressure.  Here, we may be getting closer because those signs (especially inflammation) are very often present in those cases.  However, you can still ask “Why?”  Why did inflammation become excessive?  Why did the blood sugar elevate?  Why do we have high blood pressure?

We feel the “why” is best explained by a combination of deficiency, toxicity, pathogens, and stressors combining in a way that compromise our body’s ability to adapt, recover, and heal itself.  Inflammation, high blood sugar, pressure, cholesterol, even allergies, hormone balance, digestive disturbances…these are all better described as the effects of a more fundamental cause.

In total, it seems apparent that these four underlying causes explain the vast majority of reasons why we get chronically sick and feel less than we deserve to feel.  In the path back to health, proper identification of these causes is vital.  Once we identify what is at the root of the problem, then we can take better steps on the road to recovery.

For more information, each of these underlying causes of disease will be discussed in greater detail in their own future articles.  We’ll expand on these topics, describe how they specifically affect our health, and most importantly, provide suggestions on how to remove these obstacles to health.  Additionally, we plan on comparing and contrasting differing lines of thought between naturopathic and conventional medical models of underlying causes.  What may be different, what is perhaps similar?  Stay tuned!

NEXT: Part 3:  Chronic Infection