Friday, February 6, 2015


Howard Harrington Owens (aka Howie), 47

Naturopathic Doctor, Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, Naturopathic Physician, Naturopath or ND.... take your pick!

I’m from Toronto, now located in Muskoka or more specifically the town of Bracebridge. That’s about two hours north of Toronto in our cottage country. Home of some beautiful landscapes, forests, parks, lakes and granite landscapes.

I am mostly self employed with my own full time small clinic. Muskoka Naturopathic Family Practice in Bracebridge Ontario. I work 1-2 days a month at another clinic, called Of Sound Body, in a small town an hour away. I also  work as a part of a bigger organization, 1-2 days a month, with First Nations  patients, on a local reserve called Rama Mnjikaning First Nations Health Centre.

Bracebridge, north of Toronto, Canada

How long have you been doing this work?

I opened my practice in October of 2002. I went back to University and grad school in the fall of 1997, six years after graduating with my BA, to complete some missing sciences and go through the naturopathic program. In some ways I feel I have been at this work for a much longer time.

What other lines of work have you had?

I have taught at colleges (English as a second language in Japan and Canada, I have also taught herbal medicine for first year naturopathic students and epidemiological health issues faced by first nations patients and natural / traditional approaches to managing it for  students in Aboriginal Studies).

I spent a couple of years importing and selling handicrafts from Asia to Canada.
I also spent many years in the restaurant industry. From dishwasher and busboy to waiter, bartender and eventually part owner. I have done this in Canada, Israel and Japan. Earlier I was a swim instructor and lifeguard in high-school / early university.

What does your work consist of?

I meet typically with five patients a day. We cover all aspects of health history, chief and minor complaints, health goals, current struggles, medication, supplement and laboratory report reviews. I treat infants to octogenarians. We approach health from an evidence based bio-medical model and a traditional model. I work hard to empower and enable my patients to take responsibility for their health in pleasurable, cost effective and sustainable ways that get results in a timely manner.

I see everything from cold and flu to gastroenteritis. Fertility issues are a forte of mine, I also see all kinds of menstrual, menopausal and other women's health issues, inflammatory and irritable bowel disease, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, weight loss, all kinds of pain, Multiple Sclerosis, asthma, allergies, arthritis, psoriasis, eczema and other autoimmune disease and increasingly mental health issues are rising to the foreground...anxiety, depression, ADHD, Autism spectrum disorder and insomnia.

What training does someone have to have to be qualified for this line of work?

A minimum of three years of undergraduate university with prerequisites in the bio-medical sciences... (I did about five years undergrad achieving degrees also in Theatre Arts and Philosophy as well as my sciences).

This is followed by a full time four-year program at an accredited Naturopathic College or University, and then successful completion of board exams, attaining malpractice insurance and being registered with your local board.

“my favorite 12-syllable word: oligomericproanthocyanadins”

What personal attributes must someone have in order to be able to do this line of work?

You must be a good communicator, a good listener, a critical thinker, a teacher, a scientist, empathy, compassion, non-judgment, a desire for lifelong learning, a desire to help people, humor, patience (with ourselves and is a journey and none of us are perfect or have all of these attributes to be sure...), and a desire to follow a path to better health utilizing simple yet powerful tools like lifestyle and nutritional changes and using plants as medicine. You also have to be able to challenge some conventional thinking, be comfortable standing up for what you believe in for a greater good and be prepared to have some prejudice and ignorance thrown your way.

Is there a class in school that you can look back on and say was essential to have taken for what you do?

Many. One of my first was in a theatre class, doing deep breathing exercises, body scans, relaxation exercises and thinking how much better I felt after those classes. I remember thinking everybody should do this! Later studying meditation in the East and mind body medicine in the West I realized they were all utilizing the breath in similar ways to generate a sense of calm control. Still later studying courses like physiology and neurology helped me make understand why and how this all worked at a physiological level. With my teaching background I find I can communicate this to may patients in a way they can understand. With greater understanding comes greater compliance. With greater compliance better results. Now simply by using better control of their breath and thoughts my patients see great improvement in problems ranging from insomnia, to anxiety, hypertension, cancer, pain management, autism, ADHD, athletic and academic performance.

I would also have to include my nutritional courses, traditional Chinese medicine, herbal medicine, counseling and anatomy ...especially being able to work with cadavers for two semesters. I feel pretty lucky to have had that privilege. Please, if signing donor cards, consider checking the box that makes your body also available to a medical school. That was invaluable learning yet I find people more squeamish with the idea of allowing their bodies to be used for that but are okay with their bodies being used as organ donors.

What lesson was the hardest to learn about doing this work?

All of the chemistry was the hardest for me... organic chemistry, nutritional biochemistry, etc., and laboratory studies.

“Yes I spend a part of each day discussing people’s poops!”

When you were a child, did you conceive of doing this sort of thing when you grew up? What did you want to be?

Partially. Being a lifeguard trained me to be the guy that helps when people’s health was in trouble. This served me well as I often was the only one in the crowd to help around car accidents, a double drowning in the dead sea, heart attack in a movie theatre, epileptic seizure on a bus, anaphylaxis at an exhibition... I found I was good at helping in these situations though am concerned who if anyone would be able to help if I was the person in need of saving.

I also had some aha! moments in theatre classes learning deep relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing. I found it very similar to the training I later received around meditation in Japan, China and Tibet as well as studying Mind-body Medicine briefly at Harvard and here in Canada. I thought many more people could really use this sort of training. Now breath-work and cognitive work is at the centre of much of my therapeutic approach.

I also wanted to be an actor, director, marine biologist, surgeon and veterinarian.

"With a name like Howard Harrington Owens is it any wonder I was nicknamed H2O and love water as a powerful and therapetic natural tool?"

How many hours are in your working week?


Do you do this work year-round? Do you get time off? Is it seasonal? Do you have a second job?

I do this year round. I volunteer for 1-2 weeks each summer at a summer camp as the camp doctor. As I work for myself I do make sure I get good time off. I usually finish work on Fridays by 2 or 3pm. In the summer I have long weekends almost every weekend. I will take a couple of hours off mid day mid week for recreation and exercise (disc golf, cross country skiing, trail running, mountain biking, swimming, yoga classes etc.).

Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?

Often if not with patients, yes. A very wide variety. usually my whole music collection on random. (Jazz, folk, reggae, classical, indie, rock, hip hop, pop, old and new). Otherwise CBC Radio 2 or occasionally new apps like Songza or 8Trax.

What do you typically wear to work?

Nice  casual dress clothes.

What raw materials do you work with?

Bodies, minds, acupuncture needles (copper and surgical steel), diagnostic equipment and plants.

Are there any words or terms used in your line of work that you could share and explain?

Psychoneuroendocrineimmunolgy.... basically the mind, hormones and immune system are connected... go figure. I love the Latin names of plants which is helpful when determining the difference between say poisonous hemlock and hemlock that could be therapeutic... i.e. Conium maculatum vs. Tsuga canadensis.

Omega 3 ecosapentaenoic acid (EPA) an inflammation off switch.

Antioxidants like my favorite 12-syllable word: oligomericproanthocyanadins...OPCs or why your red wine may be good for you... antioxidants I often explain are kind of like rust protection protecting us from the corrosive effects of oxygen to help slow aging, degeneration of tissues, heart disease and genetic changes that can lead to cancer. I also explain that while the chemistry may be a bit tricky and the words long to describe these antioxidants ...essentially they are just the colorful pigments in your fruits and veggies.

I also spend a lot of time teaching people about what their lab reports mean, how to read labels on natural medicines and food packages. We also use a lot of acronyms; UTIs, IUDs, OCPs, PID, URTI, MRSA...(urinary tract infection, intra-uterine device, oral contraceptive pills, pelvic inflammatory disease, upper respiratory tract infection, methycillian resistant staphylococcus aureus.

We also learn lots of Latin terms for anatomy and physiology which are often really logical descriptions of where something is and what it does. So much that you can often guess the names of parts of the body if you forget it or don’t know it yet. i.e. terms like proximal, distal, lateral, dorsal, supine, flexor, extensor. Lots of Latin in herbal medicine and loads more terms in microbiology and pharmacology... you have to love words to study this too I guess.

If you could change one thing about your work environment, what would it be?

I dream of building a truly healthy spa type clinic. We fell in love with the hot spring culture while living in Japan. We also have a place near by in Collingwood called The Scandinave Spa. I would love to build a clinic like this, (ideally using green technologies to make even the clinic a model of a healthy building) where my patients could take advantage of hot soaks, cold plunges, eucalyptus steam rooms etc. I would also want to have a teaching kitchen, studio space for lectures and classes like yoga, gardens for food and medicine on site and multiple treatment rooms filled with other NDs, midwives, RMTs, other therapists and ideally Nurse Practitioners and MDs who are passionate about a patient centered / collaborative team based approach to health that more than one thing? Kind of but ultimately my one thing would be to have the dream clinic.

“Most people would have no idea of the difference between a naturopath and a homeopath…”
Please tell us about what you are working on right now.

I have a new patient with Angelman Syndrome and another with glioblastoma and another with NF2. Looking to what I can do to support these patients through nutrition, to optimize brain health, immune system etc.

I am also trying to develop a new product line with better doses and quality extracts than I can find typically for my patients based on the latest research. So far I have one that is working very well for my MS patients and patients with other conditions effecting neurological my NF2 patient. I have another that is helping patients deal with anxiety and the for those looking to optimize athletic performance and the stressors that come with that training. I hope to develop a better cold and flu formula, an immune modulating formula, a libido formula  and a better sports drink.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about what you do?

That I am a quack or a witch doctor with no background in the sciences, evidence based medicine or much training. That we are anti conventional medicine. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most of would agree that as a culture we jump to quickly to drugs and surgery often without looking to the cause of illness or focusing enough on prevention (often diet and lifestyle are strongly related with today's top illnesses and killers). Most of us would prefer to be integrative healthcare practitioners working together within the conventional medical system. Send us those patients that want to take responsibility for their health but are overwhelmed by conflicting info found online. Give me the patient with early cholesterol, hypertensive or pre-diabetes that doesn't want to spend the rest of their life on pills that wants to be proactive and beat it naturally.

Most people would have no idea of the difference between a naturopath and a homeopath... my father in law initially called me a homopath!

Homeopath is not a protected title in Canada. Anyone can call themselves a homeopath. Homeopathy deals with micro doses of homeopathic medications. Doses lower than most chemistry could verify being effective via what we know of pharmacology. Homeopaths typically have no University training, no medical school type training, no training in lifestyle counseling, clinical nutrition, herbal medicine, physical therapies or Traditional Chinese Medicine as a naturopath does. ND, naturopath, Naturopathic Doctor, Naturopathic physician and doctor of Naturopathic Medicine are all protected titles here... though we do study homeopathy as well it is certainly at the more esoteric end of what we do. That said, I saw an MD give a lecture at Harvard who had completed a meta-analysis of homeopathic research and found something is going on more than any placebo can explain...we just don't know how it works.

Also that we are expensive. Especially in Canada where people don't typically pay anything for their healthcare directly. They think it is "free," forgetting it takes up one of the biggest, if not the biggest, chunk of our tax dollar. I would argue that our focus on empowering people to take responsibility for their health, focusing on prevention, using cost effective and sustainable tools like diet, counseling and exercise would save our healthcare system money. Dealing with heart disease at the surgical end of the problem is much more expensive... for example.

What is the hardest part of your work?

The difference between the knowing and the doing.... that patient that knows what they should do to get better results (i.e. eat less and move more to lose weight)...but they fail to do it. That is where my art of trying to make them understand why I am asking them to do it and trying to make it pleasurable and cost effective so their compliance goes up and they get the results.

Apathetic, fatigued, shift workers and overwhelmed patients can be difficult to motivate but typically people who come to see me are fairly motivated. Also convincing a population to get beyond the stereotypes of naturopathic medicine and utilize extended healthcare dollars or spend their own hard earned dollars so that I can make a better living. It is tough looking at the salaries and security in conventional healthcare and looking forward to a time when we will be better integrated in the system. I would like better financial security. I will finish paying off my student loans, of nine years of post secondary education, just before I turn 50. A government healthcare salary would have had it paid off much sooner. Also no one pays me when I am not working on sick days or holidays or helps with a pension through work...that would be nice to have...though this has been the cost for pursuing my dreams of a better healthcare system and I wouldn't trade it.

What is the most mundane part of your work?

Administrative and bookkeeping stuff related to running my own clinic.

What is the most rewarding part of what you do?

Helping patients get better! I especially love seeing young families around town whom I have helped with fertility issues.

Seeing heavy patients achieve a healthy body and BMI. Cancer patients live longer than expected. Seeing MS, diabetes and heart disease symptoms disappear.... chronic migraines or headaches vanish, sleep return to the insomniac, positive attitude to the depressed, bowels moving daily in the constipated... it may seem odd but these things I find very rewarding especially when accomplished with simple adjustments to diet and lifestyle with minimal interventions from pills and needles.

What is it you love about what you do?

Mostly the above stuff. Helping patients regain and maintain health themselves. Seeing babies who may not have been born without my help. Empowering a child to regain control of emotional and digestive health, controlling my own schedule, believing that I am making a positive difference in the world for many people around me.

People would be surprised to know that:

...Some days I would make more money if I worked at Wal-Mart for minimum wage. Five patients booked, four reschedule due to a snow storm or forgetfulness and I lose 80% of my income that day.

..... it takes a minimum of seven years of post secondary education to do what we do.

....A large part of what is do is based on evidence based medicine. We are well versed in research methodologies.

....I do acupuncture daily as a part of my scope of practice.

What advice would you give someone interested in being a naturopath?

Have a partner with a reliable income for your first few years getting started.
be passionate about helping people, study hard but ultimately go for is an awesome career.

Can you please share an anecdote about your work?

I had a patient a few years ago who was afraid of doctors. He didn't want to do any blood tests or even see a conventional doctor. His wife had gotten rid of her migraines with my help and he liked the sound of my approach so he decided to come in to see what he needed to do to get healthier and not have to see doctors. I did a good intake, went over his complaints and looked at his body composition. He needed to drop about 50 lbs, deal with rosacea, digestive issues, hypertension among other things. We discussed the basics about food, calories, nutrients, colors, plants vs. animals, good carbs vs. bad, good fats vs. bad, how to recognize them simply and visually. We discussed the basics of eat less, move more, more plants less animals, more from scratch much less processed, managing stress with healthy tools like exercise, playing more guitar and some breathwork and meditation basics. I also asked him to think of this as steps to healthier living not dieting. We met once a month to keep him on track. He was a financial person in his work life so he liked to work with numbers. He bought himself a body composition machine like mine and started to plot his own results, progress, symptoms etc. In less than a year he had dropped all of the weight, normalized his blood pressure, excess body fat and built muscle. His attitude was more positive, his skin cleared up, he was sleeping better, drinking alcohol much less, playing guitar more, was utilizing simply culinary herbs and teas to manage the odd digestive symptom.

Is there anything else you would like to share with Forte readers?

That there are some really simple rules we can follow to be healthier and that these changes can make us happier and that healthy living does not need to be bland, difficult or expensive. 

Things like: Eat less, move more. Eat less live longer. Move it or lose it. More plants, less animals. Eat more beans, lentils and other legumes. Oatmeal and barley are great whole grains. Eat way less of the refined / floury / processed carbs. 

Aim to have a good BM daily. As my old nutrition prof said..."If you are eating enough fiber you should have a foot long floater every day! If it leaves streaks in the bowl you likely have too much fat in your diet." If it is loose or with it. Yes I spend a part of each day discussing people’s poops! It is an important indicator. 

Eat ideally five different colors of fruits and veggies daily. If not daily try not to go more than three days without one of the colors. Five handfuls of veggies a day. I use handfuls as my portion size. small handfuls and your handful is relative to your size typically. Easier than using cups or grams. Two - three handfuls of fruit. 

Consume more of your fats that are liquid at room temperature not solid. (Think olive oil vs. cream cheese....if your liver is your filter and your heart is your pump....which fat do you think will go through the filter and pump better?) For men especially this engine / viscosity of oil metaphor seems to help a light bulb go on. Compliance goes up and cholesterol and blood pressure go down.

Positive attitude may be as important as eating more vegetables and being more active if you want to live also tends to make your daily interactions and general communication go better.

Plants are some of the best and most cost effective medicines. (finding the right dose and quality of extract today can be tricky though for the lay person). 70-80% of the world’s medicines come originally from plants and this percentage of the world’s population still uses them as their primary medicine...and is encouraged to by the UN for cultural and cost reasons. Many taste good and can be used therapeutically in your cooking. (Think turmeric, garlic, ginger, mint, fennel, cayenne, salt.)

Yoga is awesome. If you didn't like it...try another style or another teacher. It, along with certain herbs, acupuncture and nutritional changes is among my favorite tools to get rid of all kinds of pain. Flexibility is a good thing.

We need cardio / aerobic exercise, strength or weight training, walking, flexibility and balance practice. Make it fun. Do it with a friend. Have a schedule and a goal. Mix it up....there is strength in diversity! 

Follow this principle with your food and your exercise and you are more likely to cover your bases and much less likely to get bored. Learn to breathe better. Learn to think and communicate better. Learn to be a better cook. Volunteer or help people in your community somehow. Stay connected with people and meet with them regularly.

Dambula Cave Temple in Sri Lanka.
Ever including the spiritual journey as a part of health and appreciation of the beauty of UN World Heritage Sites

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