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Dr. Asa Andrew sells health and hope at a steep price. Behind the scenes, however, the man’s practice may not match what he preaches.

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To be sure, considerable controversy exists over the practice of naturopathy, a field that prescribes natural remedies to facilitate the body's ability to heal itself. Proponents call it a treatment that works with instead of against the body's natural processes, employing commonsense approaches to diet and health. Opponents say it lacks the hard scientific grounding and rigor of conventional medicine, and they argue that it's easy to fudge.

As proof, critics cite horror stories like that of Ben Goldacre, the "Bad Science" columnist for The Guardian, who secured a 2004 certification in the American Association of Nutritional Consultants for a practitioner named Henrietta Goldacre — in truth, his dead cat. By coincidence, that association's former leader, naturopath Wendell Whitman, was founder of Indiana's Trinity College of Natural Health — which awarded Dr. Asa Andrew his degree in naturopathic medicine.

Naturopathy has traditionally been outlawed in Tennessee. This year, however, state legislators gave its practitioners an opening by allowing naturopaths to sell supplements. The catch is, they must not offer treatment or diagnoses for injuries or illnesses. Furthermore, they must provide a disclaimer stating they aren't qualified to provide that kind of patient care.

Yet according to Sherry Hows, a licensed practical nurse who formerly ran Dr. Andrew's X-ray and clinical departments, he may have overstepped those bounds. Among his patients, Hows recalls, was a young woman who suffered from longstanding stomach problems. According to Hows, Dr. Andrew told the patient she should engage in a 10-day fast as a way to flush her system — even though her medical history included anorexia.

"You don't do that with a patient with a history of anorexia," Hows tells the Scene. "I told him there needed to be some communication with the primary care provider. That's just insane!" The young woman, Hows says, soon left the practice.

In another case, a woman brought her daughter in because of dizziness and fainting spells. In the clinic, the young woman passed out and struck her head on some furniture — at worst, an indication of a potentially serious disorder. According to Hows, however, she was treated at the clinic as usual. Hows believes the girl should have been immediately referred to a specialist or her primary care physician.

"That's absolutely the first thing that should have been done with this patient," Hows says, "rather than, 'Let's give you $500 in supplements.' "

According to Hows, Dr. Andrew was similarly lax about notifying patients who may have been diabetic. Part of every new patient orientation is what employees say is a $2,500 blood panel that tests everything from blood-sugar levels to mineral deficiencies. Yet no one was required to notify the patients of their lab results, Hows says, if they hadn't already scheduled a follow-up appointment.

"With these diabetic patients," she cautions, "you're talking about loss of eyesight, loss of limbs if those blood sugars continue to go out of control like that."

However much patients may complain about three-hour waits and unreturned phone calls, Dr. Andrew's clinic has profited from a fast-growing trade: dietary supplements. Supplement sales are big business in the United States. In 2007 the industry's trade publication, Nutrition Business Journal, estimated dietary supplements grossed $23 billion a year. This year, estimates put that figure as high as $26 billion, with half of all adults having at least a few in the medicine cabinet.

Not surprisingly, former employees, including Center for Natural Medicine supplement-store managers, say the sale of supplements is the cornerstone of Dr. Andrew's business. On a very good week, they say, the store can bring in as much as $26,000.

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