What Is Naturopathic Medicine? (+ 6 Benefits of Natural Medicine)
Many people who come to my practice are frustrated with conventional medicine. Tired of taking multiple medications that often cause side effects and negative interactions, they are often looking for natural treatments and a deeper understanding of their concerns. They feel like a number when they visit conventional doctors, and they are stressed out by rising healthcare costs.
Natural medicine, or naturopathic medicine, offers solutions to all of these concerns. Patients are seen as individuals and given the tools and resources they need to take control of their health and wellness. But what is naturopathic medicine and what do naturopathic doctors do? Keep reading more to learn about this growing field of medicine and why I decided it was the right path for me.
What Is Naturopathic Medicine?
Naturopathic medicine focuses on the body’s innate ability to heal itself. Doctors who practice naturopathic medicine (also known as NMDs in the U.S. and NDs in Canada) focus on preventive care and using natural remedies to treat illness. NMDs follow a holistic philosophy that treats the whole person. Finding the root of a patient’s symptoms rather than just treating the symptoms themselves is key to natural medicine. Treatment is focused on natural remedies that address the root of the patient’s condition.
These approaches provide less expensive diagnostic and treatment options for patients. Surgery and other invasive procedures and malpractice rates are all lower among naturopathic physicians, which also helps to keep costs down, according to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. 
Naturopathic doctors believe in the “doctor as teacher” model. Because of this, an important part of an NMD’s practice is educating their patients so that they may be empowered and motivated to take responsibility for own their health. Like I always say, you have the power to be well.
My Story: Why I Became a Naturopathic Physician
If you’re frustrated with conventional medicine, believe me, I get it. You may be surprised to learn that I initially planned to become a veterinarian. In fact, I was planning to apply to veterinarian school when my dad had a stroke and went into a coma. While he was in the hospital, I was very frustrated with the lack of information his conventional doctors provided. I felt like my questions fell on deaf ears. I wanted to understand his condition and why certain things were happening, yet his doctors either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer me.
This experience was one of the major catalysts that led me to natural medicine. The more I discovered about the field, the more I realized how it aligned with my beliefs. I decided to become a naturopathic physician so that I could provide the kind of care and knowledge to others that I so desperately needed when I was losing my father.
11 Frequently Asked Questions about Naturopathic Medicine
If you’re curious about naturopathic medicine, you may have a lot of questions. Here are 11 of the top questions that I often hear when patients are first learning about natural medicine.
1. What is the difference between a naturopath vs. naturopathic doctor?
The terms naturopath and naturopathic doctor can be confusing. While both stem from a health and wellness philosophy rooted in a core belief in the body’s innate ability to heal itself, these paths each have different educational requirements and end goals.
Naturopathic physicians or doctors complete a four-year, in-residence degree program that is accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME), which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The CNME is the accrediting board for ND/NMD programs in the U.S. and Canada. According to the CNME, there are currently seven (as of 2019) accredited naturopathic medicine schools in the U.S. and Canada.
Graduates of these programs must complete 4,100 hours of instruction plus 1,200 hours of supervised, in-person clinical training with patients. Students in NMD programs sit for the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Exam, also known as the NPLEX. This is an intense two-part national board exam that graduates of naturopathic medical programs must pass in order to become licensed. Part one is comprised of five science exams taken in one day. Part two includes testing on a wide range of topics, including herbs, nutrition, pharmacology, physiology, biochemistry, physical medicine, acupuncture, minor surgery, homeopathy, pathology, anatomy, diagnostics, and lab interpretation. The exams in part two are completed during a three-day period with eight hours of testing each day.
By contrast, naturopaths, also known as traditional naturopaths, are not licensed physicians. Training for naturopaths varies by program, and there is no standard curriculum or accreditation by the CNME, although there may be accreditation offered through other organizations. Naturopathy programs vary in length and content and are often offered online. There isn’t any standard clinical training for these programs.
Graduates of traditional naturopath programs may work as health coaches or consultants, but they may not diagnose or treat medical illness. Many of these programs are also well-suited for individuals who are interested in using their knowledge to help family and friends with health goals or to improve their own health. 
In addition to these shorter naturopathy programs, sometimes MDs, DOs (Doctor of Osteopathy), and DCs (Doctor of Chiropractic) will take additional certification programs in natural health and wellness in order to supplement their knowledge. While completing these certification programs adds to their knowledge base, these programs are not as comprehensive or rigorous as a natural medicine degree program.
2. Do naturopathic doctors have medical degrees?
Yes, naturopathic doctors in the U.S. and Canada receive a medical degree in naturopathic medicine and are known as NDs or NMDs. They then must pass the NPLEX in order to be licensed.
3. How long does it take to become a naturopathic doctor?
Naturopathic doctors attend four years of graduate-level, in-residence naturopathic medical training after receiving an undergraduate degree with a minimum GPA requirement and meeting specific prerequisites. Prerequisite requirements include courses in biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, psychology, social sciences, and humanities.
The first two years of the curriculum of naturopathic medical school programs are similar to that of conventional medical school programs and include anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, and radiology. However, years three and four are significantly different and, in many ways, much more comprehensive than a conventional MD program. NMD programs focus on nontoxic, non-pharmaceutical and non-surgical approaches to patient care. Because of this, students receive substantial training in nutrition, lifestyle counseling, and preventive care, in addition to natural treatment modalities, including botanical medicine and homeopathy. Some programs also offer acupuncture.
Meanwhile, during the third and fourth years, NMD students also learn the same content as MDs, including pharmacology, minor surgery, physical examination, emergency medicine, plus a deeper understanding of pathology.
NMD students receive equivalent diagnostic training to students in conventional programs, but they are trained in alternative ways to treat a diagnosis in addition to the conventional model.
Some graduates of naturopathic medical programs also complete post-doctoral programs to receive further training in specialized areas. 
4. What are the guiding principles of naturopathic medicine?
There are six guiding principles of naturopathic medicine: 
- First, do no harm: Use the most natural, nontoxic, and least invasive treatments possible.
- The healing power of nature: Trust the body’s natural ability to heal itself.
- Identify and treat the cause: Rather than just focus on treating symptoms, find and treat the cause of the symptoms.
- Doctor as teacher: Educate patients on how to achieve and maintain good health.
- Treat the whole person: Take a holistic approach to patients by viewing the body as an “integrated whole” that also includes spiritual and emotional dimensions as well as the physical body.
- Prevention: Emphasize preventive care, which includes maintaining overall health and wellness and preventing disease.
5. What is the role of naturopathic medicine in healthcare?
The role of naturopathic medicine and the doctor of naturopathic medicine is to empower patients to be well by providing tools, resources, and education on how the body can heal itself when provided with the right foundation in healthy dietary and lifestyle habits, plus the use of natural remedies such as plant medicine when necessary.
6. What do naturopathic doctors treat?
Naturopathic doctors typically focus on primary care, women’s health and aging, and digestive disorders. However, many NMDs also treat other chronic conditions, including allergies, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, diabetes, HIV, infertility, and Lyme disease.
In my practice, I treat a variety of health conditions with a particular focus on adrenal fatigue and stress management. Because stress and adrenal fatigue also often influence the development of so many conditions, I also treat a lot of GI conditions, thyroid disease, anxiety, depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
7. How does a naturopathic doctor diagnose illness?
Naturopathic doctors focus on the art of healing. In a nutshell, a naturopathic doctor seeks to measure your health, not your BMI. Truly listening to their patient and understanding the patient’s story is critical to the NMD’s diagnostic process as they seek to identify and treat the cause of illness. Because of this, a visit to an NMD will typically be longer than a visit to a conventional doctor—usually about 45 to 90 minutes. Before your first visit, you will also likely fill out extensive paperwork to help give your NMD a more comprehensive picture of your medical history and the reason you are seeking care.
In addition to gaining a clear understanding of your health concerns, your NMD will likely use laboratory tests and other data to help gather more information about your health condition and any medical concerns.
Once your NMD has gathered these data, they will then determine a course of treatment for you, which may include lifestyle or dietary changes or possibly nutritional/herbal supplements. Follow-up visits will probably be scheduled to track your process. During your appointment with your NMD, you will be given time to ask questions and review your doctor’s wellness plan for you.  Naturopathic medicine is a collaborative effort—with the patient involved in every aspect of the treatment plan.
8. Is naturopathic medicine safe?
Yes, naturopathic medicine is generally safe. While side effects or allergic reactions may be possible from some natural remedies, in most cases, natural remedies and treatment modalities are gentle and safer than many pharmaceuticals.
9. Can naturopathic doctors prescribe medication?
Yes, licensed NMD/NDs can prescribe medication. However, in many cases, NMDs will prescribe lifestyle and dietary changes or nutritional supplements and botanical remedies rather than, or in conjunction with, pharmaceuticals to reduce traditional side effects.
10. How accepted is naturopathic medicine?
Naturopathic medicine is growing in the U.S. More consumers are seeking out complementary and natural health care providers. There are about 6,000 licensed naturopathic doctors in practice in the U.S. and 2,400 licensed NDs in Canada. As of 2018, 28 major health systems, hospitals, and cancer treatment centers had at least one or more licensed naturopathic doctors on staff. [6,7]
11. Where can naturopathic doctors practice?
As of May 2019, there are 22 U.S. states that license naturopathic physicians, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands territories. Five Canadian provinces also license and regulate NDs. These numbers continue to increase. 
6 Top Benefits of Naturopathic Medicine
While there are many benefits to naturopathic medicine, here are my top six:
1. Nontoxic treatments. Tying in with a non-pharmaceutical approach, NMDs rely on nontoxic, natural remedies to treat patients. These methods may include botanical medicine, homeopathy, dietary or lifestyle changes, natural supplements, or Eastern medicine techniques such as acupuncture.
All of these treatment modalities are natural and gentle and address the root of the patient’s condition and work with the body to produce healing. These nontoxic approaches help the patient to avoid any dangerous side effects that may be caused by pharmaceutical medications; address the root of the cause and not just the symptoms; and empower the patient to be an agent for change in their own health and wellness journey rather than relying on drugs or invasive procedures that likely only address the symptoms.
2. Non-surgical approach. Surgical and invasive procedures are much lower among NMDs, which not only allows the body to heal itself but also keeps medical costs down for patients.
3. Non-pharmaceutical. Natural medicine’s philosophy of relying on the body’s ability to heal itself and only using natural remedies when necessary allows patients to avoid taking pharmaceutical medications that often cause side effects and potentially dangerous interactions with other drugs.
4. Focuses on preventive care. By focusing on preventive care, patients learn to maintain their health by making positive lifestyle and nutrition changes, which helps them to stay healthy.
5. Saves healthcare costs. Because natural medicine typically does not use surgical or invasive procedures, diagnostic costs are low and malpractice rates are low. This, in turn, keeps costs down for patients.
6. Empowers patients. This is quite possibly the most important benefit. Naturopathic medicine teaches patients that they have the power to be well and provides the tools and resources to do so.
The Takeaway about Naturopathic Medicine
Naturopathic medicine empowers patients to heal themselves by relying on the body’s innate wisdom, natural treatment modalities, lifestyle changes, and preventive care. If you’re fed up with not seeing results by following a conventional medicine approach, you may benefit from visiting a licensed naturopathic physician who can educate you on how to regain and maintain your health.
To learn more about naturopathic medicine and the training required to become a naturopathic doctor, check out the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges.