View all news

The science of feeling good: Southern Cross University delivers a new era for naturopathic medicine

Thyme plant


Jessica Nelson and Karlyn Gibson
8 November 2023

Southern Cross University’s National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine is brimming with enterprise. Alongside clinical trials into natural treatments for debilitating conditions, the Centre is pioneering integrated medical knowledge to deliver premier academic courses and advocate for holistic, patient-centric healthcare.

Professor Jon Wardle standing in front of greenery

The science of feeling good

Walking the lush, sub-tropical grounds of Southern Cross University’s Lismore campus, Professor Jon Wardle inspects the flourishing plants beside Australia’s only certified medicinal herb garden.

Drawn to an Echinacea plant – a purple, daisy-like flower known for its immune-modulating activity – he notices other plants in bloom, such as the seemingly innocuous elderberry shrub. 

“Elderberry is showing promising results for its antiviral potential,” says Professor Wardle, Foundation Director of the University’s National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM) and Maurice Blackmore Chair of Naturopathic Medicine. “We are working with international bodies to review the plant’s role in a comprehensive suite of natural therapies.”  

Elderberry is far from the only plant in the NCNM’s focus.

Nestled in the picturesque landscape of Northern NSW, the Centre is transforming the global conversation about health through advocacy for patients and the naturopathic profession, and by playing a leading role in the natural products sector.

Southern Cross was the first Australian university to offer degrees in naturopathy and integrative medicine and is one of just two Australian universities in the US-based Academic Consortium of Integrative Medicine and Health, alongside institutions like Harvard and Stanford universities. 

It is also the only public university in Australia that qualifies graduates as clinical naturopaths able to practise in specialised and integrative settings in four years. Furthermore, the NCNM’s team of international experts is pioneering new integrated medical knowledge while delivering world-class Bachelor and postgraduate courses in Naturopathic, Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine. 

All this is happening at a time of enormous industry growth.

“The complementary medicine sector is a $5.6 billion industry in Australia and is one of Australia’s most successful export industries. It is poised to become a booming industry on the Gold Coast and in the Northern Rivers,” says Faculty of Health Executive Dean at Southern Cross University, Professor Julie Jomeen.

“We offer unparalleled infrastructure to support naturopathic training and research, including one of only two Therapeutic Goods Administration-certified natural product analytical laboratories in Australia. 

“Our Gold Coast and Northern Rivers campuses are acknowledged as a hub for expertise. There is no better place in the world to train the next generation of healthcare professionals.”

Peter Mouatt examining Echinacea with student in the medicinal herb garden
Echinacea plant in medicinal herb garden.

Since the NCNM was established in 2020 – the result of an historic $10 million donation from the Blackmore Foundation – it has become synonymous with internationally-recognised research in integrative medicine.

"The philosophy of naturopathic medicine is about supporting the body’s own ability to heal itself, and of empowering patients to be an active part of their healthcare journey,” says Professor Wardle.

“There is so much we can do to improve healthcare beyond our traditional approaches. It might be new plant-based or natural therapies, better use of Indigenous and traditional knowledge, or creating healthcare teams that look at a person’s wellbeing from multiple angles. We are also seeing great results in group care models for better healthcare outcomes.”

Professor Wardle’s area of clinical focus has long centred around endometriosis, a disease where tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows outside it and in other parts of the body, causing life-disrupting pelvic pain.

For the estimated one in nine women in Australia who struggle with endometriosis, often there is an accompanying story of either having symptoms downplayed or subject to delayed diagnosis. Accordingly, and understandably, many women then seek out the care of a naturopath to help manage endometriosis.

Student preparing a herbal formula
Student Isabel preparing a herbal formula.

NCNM PhD candidate Sophia Gerontakos is researching under the supervision of Professor Wardle and has developed a new naturopathic group care model for women with endometriosis.

“We’re still analysing the final results,” says Ms Gerontakos, “but from initial patient reports there appears to be a therapeutic aspect to the empowering nature of being part of these groups, as well as the educative nature of the visits which helped women better self-manage their endometriosis using the therapeutic treatments.” 

Professor Wardle says that while endometriosis has largely been overlooked or neglected by clinical communities, it is a naturopathic research priority for the NCNM. Areas of focus include –  

  • examining the potential role of cannabis in treating pelvic pain 
  • a collaborative project with Western Sydney University and Endometriosis Australia about the positive health impacts of more flexible working arrangements to help women manage their endometriosis 
  • a research project with University of Technology Sydney, led by NCNM naturopathic course coordinator Ms Rebecca Redmond, which is looking at historical and traditional interpretations of symptoms that are suggestive of endometriosis, to see what might be learnt from those traditional medicines.

“Our Gold Coast and Northern Rivers campuses are acknowledged as a hub for expertise. There is no better place in the world to train the next generation of healthcare professionals.”

Potentially transformative research is happening throughout the NCNM.Dr Andrea Bugarcic is another example as she leads multiple pre-clinical trials using traditional knowledge to guide laboratory research, all of which is informing the US National Institutes of Health recommendations for natural products research. 

“I work in the pre-clinical space, listening to patient experiences and figuring out how we can test traditional knowledge at a cellular level to help fight disease,” says Dr Bugargic.

“For example, we are working with Parkinson’s disease patients to hear what works in terms of their health. One of our projects is investigating their experiences with using cannabis and cannabidiol oil (CBD) and how that either helps or hinders their health. 

“Based on what they tell us, we then pose scientific questions and design experiments to understand their experiences.”

Dr Bugarcic is also spearheading a project looking at traditional knowledge in treating cancer, particularly lung and colorectal cancer and bacterial infections.

“This is really interesting work. We are looking into the suite of traditional evidence and examining the impact on human health,” she says. “We will use this knowledge to identify novel herbs and compounds for treating bacterial infections (specifically biofilms) and understanding any anti-cancer properties.” 

Dr Bugarcic works closely with Clinical Research Fellow Dr Janet Schloss, who is leading several projects at the NCNM. Among them is Australia's including largest clinical trial on medicinal cannabis oil to establish evidence for its use to treat sleeping problems; a drug-absorption study looking at how CBD is absorbed and excreted from the body; and a novel herbal formula to relieve anxiety during menopause.

The NCNM’s Deputy Director of Education, Associate Professor Matthew Leach, says there is a growing body of evidence to support integrative medicine in mainstream healthcare settings. 

“Southern Cross University is trailblazing the development of new shared models of healthcare. We know team-based care is best practice care – this is where every patient has a team around them to support their health and wellbeing – it is a whole-person approach,” he says.

“Every Australian should have a naturopath who works collaboratively with their GP and other relevant health professionals, including nurses, osteopaths, psychologists and occupational therapists, to ensure their health and wellbeing needs are met.”

“We know that around one-half of Australians live with a chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, and about 80 per cent of these chronic illnesses are influenced by lifestyle factors.

“Many of these factors can be addressed early through naturopathic care and lifestyle medicine, which in turn can drastically improve quality of life and optimise health across the population.”