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What Is a Naturopathic Doctor?

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Naturopathy is a form of complementary and primary care medicine that emphasizes prevention, natural remedies, and therapeutic processes that support and stimulate the body’s ability to heal itself. Naturopathic medicine treats the whole person—body, mind, emotions, and spirit. With holistic care and patient engagement at its core, naturopathic medicine has the potential to improve health outcomes and address today’s complex healthcare challenges.

Naturopathic doctors (NDs) are medically trained professionals who take a proactive approach toward health, prioritizing strategies that maintain and enhance wellness. NDs practice person-centered treatment, working with patients to evaluate personal risk factors, family history, and genetic susceptibility to disease. To manage symptoms, NDs look to uncover the underlying causes of illness and favor noninvasive, safe, effective, and affordable therapies.

What sets NDs apart is their ability to seamlessly navigate both conventional and naturopathic realms, offering a multifaceted approach to healing. While they have the authority to prescribe medications in certain states, it’s not their first course of treatment. NDs prioritize the therapeutic order, leveraging appropriate modalities and treatments in a logical and practical manner. This strategy complements conventional medicine and distinguishes naturopathic doctors as whole-health primary care providers.

What Does a Naturopathic Doctor Do?

A licensed naturopathic doctor treats patients from the inside out, identifying root causes of sickness and pain, minimizing factors that compromise good health, and supporting the body’s natural restorative process. As primary care providers, NDs oversee a patient’s care from diagnosis through treatment, ordering labs and imaging tests, prescribing pharmaceutical medications when needed and authorized, and referring patients for complex medical interventions. Many pursue a specialty such as pediatrics, endocrinology, oncology, gastroenterology, women’s or men’s health, environmental medicine, sports medicine, or psychology.

Naturopathic doctors adhere to six guiding principles that shape their approach to patient care. These principles factor into all clinical decisions, from diagnosis to treatment.

A naturopathic medical visit is typically longer than an appointment with a conventional doctor, more comprehensive, and may include a physical exam, diagnostic analysis, and functional medicine tests.

Naturopathic Education and Training

Naturopathic medical education combines rigorous academics with clinical experience and ongoing learning. Students spend four years in a graduate program at a recognized naturopathic medical school completing coursework in basic science, clinical science, diagnostics, and specific modalities such as herbal medicine, nutrition, homeopathy, and physical medicine.

Educational Requirements

  • Undergraduate education: Schooling starts with a bachelor’s degree, usually in biology, chemistry, or health science. Students develop an understanding of basic scientific concepts essential to naturopathic medicine.
  • Naturopathic medical schools: The Council on Naturopathic Medical Education recognizes four accredited naturopathic medical schools that offer a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND or NMD) program.
    • Bastyr University, San Diego, California; Seattle, Washington
    • National University of Health Sciences, Chicago, Illinois
    • National University of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon
    • Sonoran University of Health Sciences, Phoenix, Arizona
  • Practical training: Clinical rotations and internships provide students with real-world experience. Students hone skills in patient management and holistic treatment approaches under the supervision of experienced NDs. The Institute for Natural Medicine’s Residency Consortium (IRC) is a sustainable residency model that aims to streamline naturopathic residency by subsidizing resident salaries and standardizing practices across clinics.

Licensing and Certification

  • Testing requirements: After graduation, students prepare for licensing exams required in their jurisdiction. The Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Exam (NPLEX) assesses competency across the medical spectrum, including anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, immunology, and pathology. NDs are also evaluated on diagnostics, treatment modalities (nutrition, physical medicine, psychology, pharmacology), and medical interventions.
  • State or regional licensing: Requirements for licensure vary by location but often include passing exams, completing clinical hours, and meeting standards for continuing education.
Experience the benefits of personalized natural healthcare with a trusted, licensed naturopathic doctor in your area.
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Experience the benefits of personalized natural healthcare with a trusted, licensed naturopathic doctor in your area.
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Naturopathic Doctors and Medical Doctors: How Are They Similar?

Naturopathic doctors (NDs) and medical doctors (MDs) graduate from government-accredited medical schools. They work in various healthcare settings, including private practices, hospitals, community and university medical centers, telemedicine, and integrative care clinics. Both NDs and MDs can serve as primary care providers.

Approach to Patient Care

  • Naturopathic Doctors: NDs prioritize primary prevention services and behavior change strategies to address chronic pain and disease. Taking a person-first approach, NDs customize care to meet each patient’s individual needs. They use pharmaceutical interventions when necessary but strive to reduce medicine dependence for chronic conditions and facilitate safe deprescribing with one-on-one counseling and shared decision-making. NDs bridge the divide between conventional health care and whole-person care, integrating the advantages of both nature-based and modern medical perspectives.
  • Medical Doctors: MDs primarily diagnose and treat symptoms, illnesses, and health conditions. A medical doctor’s approach may incorporate prescription medication, surgical procedures, and other conventional interventions. MDs address preventive measures and lifestyle factors within the framework of traditional Western medical paradigms.

Scope of Practice

  • Naturopathic Doctors: In some states, NDs order lab tests, prescribe medications, perform minor surgeries, and deliver babies. However, their scope of practice varies significantly by jurisdiction.
  • Medical Doctors: MDs have a broad scope of practice that is generally consistent countrywide. They may specialize in pediatrics, internal medicine, dermatology, orthopedics, gastroenterology, or other medical areas. MDs have the authority to prescribe pharmaceuticals, order X–rays, and perform biopsies and surgery.

Guiding Principles

  • Naturopathic Doctors: NDs are guided by the therapeutic order, a philosophy of care that prioritizes the least invasive way to treat patients. They harness the curative power of nature, supporting the body’s inherent ability to heal itself.
  • Medical Doctors: MDs generally adhere to the principles of modern Western medicine, which focuses on treating disease symptoms through direct interventions.

How Naturopathic Doctors Work with Conventional Doctors

Integrative care prioritizes preventive measures to maintain and promote long-term health. This includes educating patients about healthy lifestyle practices, stress management techniques, nutrition, exercise, and regular screenings.

Naturopathic doctors adopt an integrative approach when working with MDs, merging the strengths of conventional and natural medicine to provide comprehensive care. NDs and MDs collaborate on holistic assessments of a patient’s health, exploring physical, mental, emotional, and lifestyle factors. This thorough evaluation often reveals the underlying causes of many health concerns. They also work together to diagnose conditions, which may involve laboratory tests, imaging studies, and physical exams.

A patient’s diagnosis and preferences shape the treatment plan. Treatment may incorporate a range of interventions, including natural therapies (such as herbal medicine, nutritional supplements, and acupuncture), lifestyle modifications, pharmaceutical medicine, and conventional medical procedures, if necessary.

What Is the Difference Between Naturopathic and Holistic Doctors?

While both NDs and holistic practitioners emphasize whole health and natural treatments, naturopathic medicine is guided by specific core principles such as the body’s innate capacity to heal itself, uncovering the root cause(s) of illness, and fostering overall well-being. NDs integrate these principles into everyday practice along with scientific knowledge, clinical expertise, and patient values, whereas holistic practitioners may have a broader range of philosophies and approaches depending on their training and background. NDs are also licensed in multiple states, fulfill primary care roles, and often accept insurance and Medicaid.

Education, Training, and Certification

  • Naturopathic doctors complete four or five years of formal education and training at accredited naturopathic medical schools, where they study conventional medical sciences and natural therapies including herbal medicine, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling. They receive an ND or NMD degree and must pass state licensing exams to practice. ND training is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Holistic practitioners may focus on specific modalities, including acupuncture, herbalism, energy healing, or mind–body techniques, and may not have the same medical training or authority to diagnose and treat specific conditions. Certification varies widely by specialty and approach.

Treatment Philosophy

  • Naturopathic doctors emphasize natural and preventive medicine, addressing factors that contribute to illness along with a patient’s unique situation. They rely on science-backed evidence to inform decisions about patient treatment. A comprehensive scope of practice allows NDs to provide integrated care that combines conventional and alternative approaches.
  • Holistic doctors emphasize the interconnectedness of the body, mind, and spirit and may integrate a broader spectrum of alternative and complementary treatments tailored to a patient’s unique needs.

Benefits of Consulting a Naturopathic Doctor

Naturopathic doctors acknowledge the uniqueness of each person and customize treatment plans to address patients’ individual needs and objectives. They promote pragmatic approaches to well-being, involving patients as active contributors to their health and empowering people through health education. “Doctor as teacher” is a fundamental principle of naturopathic medicine. With a greater understanding of prevention and treatment, patients can make informed choices to maintain a healthier lifestyle.

Clearing Up Confusion About Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic medicine blends modern science with traditional therapeutic practices. While specific treatments vary among practitioners, common modalities include nutrition and lifestyle counseling, botanical medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, mind–body medicine, detoxification, and other natural therapies.

Is Naturopathy Alternative Medicine?

Although naturopathic medicine is considered alternative in the sense that it differs from standard medical practices, many naturopathic doctors integrate treatments with conventional medicine when necessary. This approach is often referred to as “complementary medicine” or “integrative care.”

Do Naturopathic Doctors Believe in Medicine?

Of course! While naturopathic doctors may prioritize natural remedies such as herbs, dietary supplements, acupuncture, and lifestyle interventions, they are also trained in conventional pharmacology. Many NDs can prescribe medicine when necessary but seek to minimize reliance on pharmacological treatments for chronic conditions. They are specifically qualified to facilitate safe deprescribing through personalized counseling and collaborative decision-making.

Naturopathic Doctors Are Primary Care Providers

In many states, NDs are trained to provide comprehensive services, including preventive care, diagnosing and treating acute and chronic conditions, managing medications, ordering diagnostic tests, and coordinating care with other health practitioners.

Building the Naturopathic Medicine Evidence Base

NDs acknowledge the ongoing evolution of science, which is gradually encompassing the concept of whole-person health and exploring the combined effects of multifaceted strategies typically found in naturopathic treatment plans. While scientific research often prioritizes double-blind placebo-controlled trials as the pinnacle of evidence, naturopathic medicine’s complexity makes it less amenable to a rigid investigative approach. Moreover, studies on natural therapies have been hindered by inadequate funding, limiting the development of a robust evidence base.

NDs incorporate empirical practices into their care and support studies that build evidence on safety and efficacy. Ultimately, there is a need for transparency, collaboration between healthcare disciplines, and more clinical trials to ensure patients receive safe, effective, and evidence-based care.

Regulation and Scope Varies by State

Health care is primarily regulated at the state level for naturopathic doctors, resulting in widely different licensing requirements, permitted treatments, and boundaries for care. Some states allow NDs to practice independently and legally use the title “naturopathic doctor” or “ND.” In these areas, NDs must typically graduate from an accredited naturopathic medical school, pass licensing exams, and meet specific criteria set by the licensing board.

  1. Scope of practice defines what naturopathic doctors are permitted to do within a given state. This includes diagnosis and treatment: ordering and interpreting lab tests, performing physical exams, providing dietary and lifestyle counseling, and administering natural therapies like acupuncture and herbal medicine.
  2. Some states only allow NDs to prescribe vitamins and supplements, while others allow full prescription privileges that include pharmaceutical medications. 
  3. Insurance coverage and reimbursement for naturopathic services also vary by state. In areas where naturopathic medicine is recognized and regulated, NDs can accept Medicaid or may be reimbursed for their services. In other states, insurance coverage for naturopathic care may be limited or nonexistent.

Why Choose a Naturopathic Doctor?

Naturopathic doctors focus on treating the whole person and provide sustainable strategies for maintaining lifelong good health. They deliver comprehensive, individualized care that enhances their patients’ quality of life and overall well-being.

Finding a Qualified Naturopathic Doctor

A little research will ensure patients find a qualified naturopathic doctor. Here are some tips for choosing an ND:

  1. Check credentials and education: Verify that the ND graduated from an accredited naturopathic medical school. Look for certifications or memberships with reputable naturopathic organizations such as the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians or Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Practitioners may refer to themselves as naturopaths, but not all naturopaths are NDs.
  2. Licensure and regulation: Check with your state’s regulatory board or licensing authority to confirm the ND is licensed to practice.
  3. Experience and specialization: Ask the ND about their experience treating conditions similar to yours and any special training or focus areas such as women’s health, digestive disorders, or chronic pain management.
  4. Reviews and recommendations: Look for positive patient reviews and testimonials or request recommendations from friends, family, or healthcare practitioners.
  5. Insurance: If insurance coverage is a priority, make sure the ND accepts your plan. They may offer alternative payment options, like sliding scale fees or tiered payment plans.
  6. Collaboration with healthcare providers: Ask about your ND’s willingness to work with other healthcare providers, especially if you have complex health needs or manage multiple conditions.
  7. Comfort and trust: Choose a naturopathic doctor with whom you feel comfortable, respected, and confident. Trust your instincts, and don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion.

Search for NDs by name, location, or specialty using the FindanND database.

Additional Resources and Reading

This article is provided by

The Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. INM’s mission is to transform health care in the United States by increasing public awareness of natural medicine and access to naturopathic doctors. Naturopathic medicine, with its person-centered principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness overwhelming healthcare systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain optimal lifelong health. INM strives to fulfil this mission through the following initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of evidence-based natural medicine
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
  • Research – Expand quality research on this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

About The Author(s)

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Institute for Natural Medicine Staff

Our dedicated content team of professional staff writers represents decades of experience covering essential natural health topics in an accessible, evidence-based, and engaging way. Guided by a shared passion for holistic well-being, each and every one of our writers strives to empower our readers to take charge of their health.

Supported by a rigorous fact-checking and medical editing process from licensed naturopathic doctors that examines the latest in peer-reviewed research, our team brings their in-depth knowledge of natural health practices into every piece of content we produce. We strive to be the gold standard for evidence-based natural medicine, providing trustworthy information and inspiring narratives to help you live your best health, naturally.

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