What is Naturopathic Medicine?

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

One of the most common questions I’m asked is: “What is Naturopathic Medicine?” If you’re wondering what naturopathic medicine is, what training does a naturopathic doctor have, are naturopathic doctors licensed to practice medicine, what is the difference between a naturopathic doctor and a functional medicine doctor, and does naturopathic medicine really work, you’re in the right place.

In this article you are going to learn the answers to these questions, and tools for finding a legit naturopathic doctor who is trained to help you identify holistic treatments for your health that are rooted in traditional wisdom and modern science.

What is Naturopathic Medicine?

Naturopathic medicine is a system of medicine that is founded in the belief that the body is designed to heal itself and that we can use natural and holistic medicine to support that healing process.

Naturopathic medicine is deeply rooted in traditional healing wisdom from great thought leaders like Hippocrates of Kos (460 BC-370 BC) who focused on natural approaches to medical practice, Vincenz Priessnitz (1799-1851) and Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) forerunners of “water cure,”, Henry Lindlahr, MD (1862-1924) founder of Nature Cure, and Benedict Lust (1872 – 1945) who originated the term naturopathy.

Naturopathy, or naturopathic medicine, is practiced by medically-trained practitioners around the world, and naturopathic doctors can be found at urgent care centers, hospitals, clinics, they author books, conduct research, and are increasingly in demand as complementary and alternative medicine gains popularity.

The six principles of Naturopathic medicine serve to distinguish naturopathic doctors from functional medicine doctors, holistic doctors, integrative doctors, and other natural doctors.

The six principles of naturopathic medicine include:

What training does a naturopathic doctor have?

You might be wondering: Is a naturopathic doctor a real doctor? What training does a naturopathic doctor have, what is the difference between a naturopathic doctor and a functional medicine doctor, and what is the difference in training between a naturopathic doctor, medical doctor, osteopathic doctor and nurse practitioner?

Healthline summarizes naturopathic medicine in the following:

“[The naturopathic] system of medicine combines Western science, natural therapies, and holistic approaches to treat health conditions. Natural therapies may be used as both primary and complementary treatments.”

Naturopathic doctors receive extensive medical training in medical assessment and diagnosis, patient management, conventional treatments such as pharmacology and minor surgery, as well as holistic medical modalities including botanical medicine, lifestyle medicine, homeopathic medicine and other natural modalities.

Naturopathic doctors are regulated by the United States Federal Government, and graduate from federally accredited naturopathic medical schools, student doctors are required to pass two rigorous licensing examinations (NPLEX), and maintain continuing education requirements for licensure.

Below is a chart from the AANMC comparing training and coursework between naturopathic doctors, medical doctors, osteopathic doctors and nurse practitioners. Of note, naturopathic doctors complete significantly more credits during their first two years of medical school (191 as compared to 91 in MD/DO programs), and naturopathic doctors receive upwards of 220 hours of training in nutrition as compared to 0-70 hours in MD/DO programs and 10-19 hours by NP’s.

What about functional medicine clinicians? What’s the difference between a naturopathic doctor and a functional medicine doctor?

Any clinician can receive training in functional medicine. To answer the question, “what is the difference between a naturopathic doctor and a functional medicine doctor?” we have to identify “what is functional medicine?” According to the Functional Medicine Institute, an organization dedicated to teaching doctors how to test for the root cause, functional medicine is a training and certification that can be purchased and earned by attending seminars and courses put on by FMI.

Functional medicine and naturopathic medicine are similar in that both philosophies embrace root cause analysis and the use of holistic methods. Splendor of Youth explains it this way: “We can differentiate these two individually unique medications by saying that some Naturopaths practice Functional Medicine, but not all Functional Doctors can do naturopathy.”

However the author is omitting a distinct differentiating feature of naturopathic medicine, which is the understanding of what is disease versus what is health.

Traditional naturopathic medicine teaches that health occurs when the mind, body and spirit are in total alignment with the laws of nature. Symptoms are signs the wise body produces in order to bring awareness to an underlying illness. The tools used by the naturopathic doctor aim to restore health and then as a result, symptoms naturally remit.

A functional medicine doctor who is not a naturopathically trained doctor sees symptoms as indications of disease or dysfunction, which can be tested for and corrected by using either pharmaceutical or natural treatments.

Are naturopathic doctors licensed to practice medicine?

In order to be licensed as a primary care naturopathic physician, naturopathic doctors must graduate from a federally accredited medical school recognized by the United States Department of Education, pass two national licensing NPLEX examinations, pass jurisprudence examinations, complete annual continuing education, meet all additional state/provincial requirements including background checks, and maintain their doctorate in naturopathic medicine.

The two most common states asking about if naturopathic doctors can prescribe medicine:

Naturopathic doctors are licensed to practice medicine in many regions in the United States and the AANMC keeps an updated list of states that license naturopathic doctors.You can find the complete list by going to https://aanmc.org/licensure/

Does naturopathic medicine really work?

In other words: Is naturopathic medicine legit?

A discussion about how naturopathic medicine stands up in the face of evidence-based medicine question was published by University of Minnesota on their Taking Charge of your Health & Wellbeing page, authors summarized their research into this question by writing:

“Naturopathic medicine is personalized medicine that does not always lend itself to a strict adherence to treatments based on randomized controlled trials alone. It is essential to test the value of individual treatments, but the actual clinical application is much more complex. (And indeed the clinical application of conventional healthcare follows a similar model: according to a recent article in the British Medical Journal, only 13% of standard tests and treatments are supported by strong evidence.)”

It can be extremely challenging to find a medically trained, science-backed, and holistic doctor.

Every industry in the medical profession is riddled with imposters making all sorts of outrageous claims, putting patients’ lives in danger and giving their professions a bad name.

For example, a 2017 article in the National Post cited a story about a so-called naturopathic-doctor who was utilizing dubious treatments for their patients. There have been so many safety, legal and ethical issues in the medical doctors (MD’s) profession that MD’s are now required to to carry millions of dollars of malpractice.

While some naturopathic doctors are not legit, there are many that are paving the way for patients who want to use natural medicine with a foundation of legitimate medical science.

To find a highly trained and clinically excellent naturopathic doctor start by searching the state association databases:

Arizona Naturopathic Medicine Association: Link here

The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians: Link here

Oregon Association of Naturopathic Physicians: Link here.

The California Naturopathic Doctors Association: Link here.

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first.

Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational free resources, online courses, and membership group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.