Naturopathic doctors are primary and specialty care providers who are licensed to practice naturopathic medicine. They attend four-year, graduate-level accredited naturopathic medical schools where they study clinical and medical sciences, i.e. pharmacology, pathology, anatomy and biochemistry. They can order diagnostic testing such as blood tests, x-rays, MRIs, etc, and—in many states—prescribe prescription drugs as well as hormones, and perform minor surgery.
Traditional naturopaths have varied levels of education and experience primarily in naturopathy, wellness and patient education. They are not required to pass regulatory board exams, cannot be licensed, and therefore cannot diagnose and treat medical conditions or serve as primary care physicians.
The Six Principles of Naturopathic Medicine (in English and Latin) are:
- The Power of Nature (Vis Medicatrix Naturae): Naturopathic doctors recognize a person’s innate ability to heal. They act to identify and remove obstacles to healing and recovery to facilitate this inherent self-healing process.
- Identify and Treat the Cause (Tolle Causam): Naturopathic doctors seek to identify and remove the underlying causes of illness, rather than merely eliminate or suppress symptoms.
- First Do No Harm (Primum Non Nocere): Just like medical doctors, naturopathic doctors follow three precepts to avoid harming patients: 1) utilize methods and medical substances that minimize the risk of harmful side effects, using the least force necessary to diagnose and treat; 2) avoid when possible the harmful suppression of symptoms; 3) and acknowledge, respect, and work with the individual’s self-healing process.
- Doctor as Teacher (Docere): Naturopathic doctors educate their patients and encourage self-responsibility for health. They also recognize and employ the therapeutic potential of the doctor-patient relationship.
- Treat the Whole Person (Tolle totum): Naturopathic doctors treat each patient by factoring physical, mental, emotional, genetic, environmental, social, and the spiritual.
- Practice Prevention (Pravenire): Naturopathic doctors emphasize the prevention of disease by assessing risk factors, heredity, and susceptibility to disease, subsequently making appropriate
Bastyr University—one of the premiere naturopathic medical schools in the country—recently added a seventh principle, Wellness. Wellness is defined as a state of being healthy characterized by positive thoughts, actions and emotions. The principle of Wellness is about the establishment and maintenance of optimum health and balance—and achieving this is a primary goal of naturopathic medicine.
Naturopathic doctors utilize the Therapeutic Order to assess clinical situation, are thoroughly trained in conventional prescription pharmaceuticals and will use them as part of a treatment plan when indicated.
The Therapeutic Order is a core concept of naturopathic medicine, and governs the naturopathic doctor’s decision making. It refers to the order in which therapeutic techniques are used, and always begins with the gentlest and least invasive techniques. The seven steps in the Therapeutic Order are:
- Remove Obstacles to Health (most commonly digestive problems, poor diet, too much stress, too little sleep, environmental exposures).
- Stimulate the Body’s Ability to Heal
- Support Weakened Systems
- Physical Alignment
- Natural Symptom Control (using botanicals, nutraceuticals, etc)
- Synthetic Symptom Relief (pharmaceutical drugs)
Naturopathic doctors are effective in diagnosing and treating acute and chronic health problems. A typical visit with your naturopathic doctor could include the following:
- A detailed health and disease history
- A physical exam
- Targeted conventional and functional medicine laboratory testing
- Appropriate imaging: x-rays, ultrasound, MRI, and CT
- Assessment of diet
- Assessment of lifestyle habits and exercise
- Review of prescription medications and nutritional supplements
- A treatment plan designed to guide patients toward health care goals and desires
- Clinical exams could include physicals, gynecological exams, metabolic analysis, allergy testing, and nutritional. and dietary assessments
Licensed naturopathic doctors can order all blood and diagnostic imaging tests, as well as specialty functional medicine labs (for example, parasites, Lyme and hormones). However, naturopathic doctors will not only assess your lab results, but will also assess your lifestyle and educate you on how to eliminate the things that are preventing you from experiencing optimal health and energy.
Some of the common medical conditions that naturopathic doctors treat include, but are not limited to:
- Adrenal Fatigue
- Allergies and Asthma
- Autoimmune Conditions
- Chronic Fatigue
- Chronic Pain
- Digestive Issues
- Fertility Problems
- Healthy Aging
- Heart Disease
- Heart Health
- Hormonal Imbalances
- Immune Health
- Men’s Health
- Mental and Brain Health
- Muscle and Joint Health
- Respiratory Conditions
- Seasonal Health
- Sinus Infection
- Weight Loss
- Women’s Health
Some of the therapies used by naturopathic doctors include but are not limited to:
- Dietary and Nutritional Medicine is a cornerstone of naturopathic medicine. It refers to the practice of using food to maintain health, the therapeutic use of food to treat illness, and the utilization of targeted vitamin and nutrient therapy, given orally and by I-V, as part of their treatment plans.
- Botanical Medicine is the scientific application of herbs used to improve health and treat disease. Many plant substances are powerful, safe, and effective medicines when properly used and given in the correct dose.
- Naturopathic Physical Medicine, which includes Naturopathic Manipulative Therapy utilizing manipulation of the muscles, tendons and joints, application of hot and cold, electrical stimulation, therapeutic ultrasound, hydrotherapy, and exercise therapy.
- Environmental Medicine seeks to treat symptoms triggered by exposure to chemicals and toxins in food and the environment. Most often, exposure to multiple chemicals aggravates diseases.
- Life Style Counseling & Stress Management uses counseling, biofeedback, and mind-body and stress reduction techniques to help assess a patient’s mental attitude and emotional state, which can lead to wellness.
- Acupuncture involves inserting fine, sterile needles into the skin to relieve pain and improve the body’s function.
- Homeopathy is a powerful system of medicine that is more than 200 years old. This medical system uses diluted natural substances to stimulate a healing response to treat illness. Some people who do not respond well to conventional medicine may respond to homeopathy.
- Injection Therapy is an effective treatment to treat trauma and reestablish physical and structural health by reducing inflammation and chronic pain, and stimulate healing by injecting natural products and autologous platelets into the injured structures.
- Intravenous Therapies or “IV” therapy is a common method to deliver vitamins, minerals, and other vital nutrients to the body directly into the bloodstream.
- Minor Office Procedures* includes repair of superficial wounds and removal of foreign bodies, cysts and other superficial masses, including cosmetic procedures.
- Naturopathic Obstetrics is a treatment area that requires naturopathic doctors to undergo additional specialty training and offer prenatal and postnatal care using the most modern diagnostic techniques. When natural childbirth is not medically appropriate, patients are encouraged to seek additional care.
- Immunizations:* naturopathic doctors help parents make informed decisions and can administer vaccinations to help keep children healthy.
- Prescription Drugs* naturopathic doctors are trained in conventional prescription pharmaceuticals and in identifying their best role in a treatment plan when needed.
*Licensing laws may affect the types of therapies a doctor can administer.
In many regards, they are very similar. Both NDs and MDs take pre-med courses such as biology (with lab), general chemistry (with lab), organic chemistry (with lab), and physics. Both attend four-year, graduate level schools and both take rigorous professional board exams in order to be state licensed. But in addition to the regular medical curriculum, naturopathic doctors also study clinical nutrition, botanical medicine, homeopathy, psychology and counseling. They are trained in nontoxic and holistic approaches to treatment, and to emphasize disease prevention and optimal wellness.
Currently, naturopathic doctors (NDs) are licensed to practice as medical professionals in 17 US states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and five provinces in Canada. That number is only likely to grow as more people demand access to nontoxic, holistic therapies, and as organizations like the Institute for Naturopathic Medicine and the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians continue to push for rigorous licensing standards in all 50 states.
In order to be licensed, a naturopathic doctor has to attend medical school that is accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME), the accreditation agency recognized by the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners. Graduates of CNME-recognized ND programs (in both the US and Canada) are eligible to sit for the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examination (the NPLEX test).
In 2001, the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC) (LINK to AANMC) was established to support the efforts of recognized, accredited schools. There are currently seven accredited naturopathic medical programs in North America. They are:
- Bastyr University
- National College of Natural Medicine
- National University of Health Sciences
- Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine
- University of Bridgeport—College of Naturopathic Medicine
- Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine
- Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine
Yes. Naturopathic doctors are well trained on the uses and effects of pharmaceutical drugs.
Many insurance companies do cover naturopathic medicine. Look for the “definition of physician” in your policy. In the state of Arizona, for example, NDs are licensed to practice medicine, so naturopathic care is covered unless your insurance policy specifically excludes it.