Naturopathy (Naturopathic Medicine)
Naturopathic medicine is a system that uses natural remedies to help the body heal itself. It embraces many therapies, including herbs, massage, acupuncture, exercise, and nutritional counseling.
Naturopathy was brought to the United States from Germany in the 1800s, but some of its treatments are centuries old. Today, it combines traditional treatments with some aspects of modern science.
The goal of naturopathic medicine is to treat the whole person — that means mind, body, and spirit. It also aims to heal the root causes of an illness — not just stop the symptoms.
A naturopathic doctor may spend 1 to 2 hours examining you. They’ll ask questions about your health history, stress levels, and lifestyle habits. They may order lab tests.
Afterwards, they will typically discuss your personal health plan. Naturopathic medicine focuses on education and prevention, so your doctor may give you diet, exercise, or stress management tips. They might use complementary medicine — like homeopathy, herbal medicine, and acupuncture — in addition to naturopathic treatments. They may also use touch, such as massage and pressure, to create balance in your body. This is called naturopathic manipulative therapy.
Who Practices It?
You can find people who support naturopathic medicine in hospitals, clinics, community centers, and private offices. They fall into three groups, and they all have different educations and backgrounds:
- Naturopathic physicians: These are also called naturopathic doctors (ND) or Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (NMD). They usually attend an accredited four-year, graduate-level school. There they study basic sciences similar to those studied in conventional medical school. They also study nutrition, psychology, and complementary therapies such as herbal medicine and homeopathy. Some states and territories require naturopathic doctors to become licensed. That means they have to pass an exam to practice and take continuing education classes.
- Traditional naturopaths: These practitioners don’t attend an accredited naturopathic medical school or receive a license. Their education varies widely.
- Healthcare providers: Some medical doctors, dentists, doctors of osteopathy, chiropractors, and nurses have training in naturopathic medicine. Many are either NDs or they studied naturopathy.
Before choosing a naturopathic practitioner, ask about their education or training and your state’s licensing requirements.
What Includes Naturopathy Treatment?
The first consultation with the naturopath will last about an hour. The doctor will try to get as much information about your health as possible. He/she will ask questions about your condition, medical history, lifestyle and diet, and any other treatments that you may be undergoing.
Once this information is noted down, the naturopath will do a physical exam to get a complete picture of your health condition. In some cases, your hair, stool, or blood analysis may be done. Based on all the information that is collected, the naturopath will diagnose your problem.
The diagnosis is followed by a treatment plan that involves all areas of your life like lifestyle, diet, exercise, and supplements. The intention is to provide the body with the maximum chance of healing itself. The treatment includes a diet plan, lifestyle changes, exercise, any herbal medicine, homeopathic treatments (if required), and any other suitable remedies.
What Naturopathic Practitioners Do
Naturopathic practitioners use many different treatment approaches. Examples include:
- Dietary and lifestyle changes
- Stress reduction
- Herbs and other dietary supplements
- Manipulative therapies
- Exercise therapy
- Practitioner-guided detoxification
- Psychotherapy and counseling.
Some practitioners use other methods as well or, if appropriate, may refer patients to conventional health care providers.
Naturopathic medicine is used for a wide range of health issues. Some of the more common ones include:
- Fertility issues
- Digestive problems
- Hormonal imbalances
- Chronic pain
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
In some states, licensed naturopathic doctors can perform minor surgeries, like stitching up a small wound. They can prescribe certain medications. And they might even serve as your primary care doctor. Naturopathic doctors may receive additional training in natural childbirth.
You don’t have to be sick to try naturopathy. You may just want to boost your overall health or prevent an illness.
Don’t use it for an emergency or issue that requires a visit to the hospital, like major surgery. Nor should it be used in place of conventional medicine for serious conditions, like cancer and heart disease.
A few naturopathic treatments have known side effects and risks:
- Supplements (vitamin and herbal): Some of these may interfere with prescription medications. In large doses, certain vitamins may raise your risk of a disease like cancer.
- Spinal adjustments: As part of naturopathic manipulative treatment, your practitioner may apply pressure to your spine. This can damage arteries, nerves, bones, and spinal discs. In rare cases, it may lead to a stroke.
- Detox diets: These treatments are meant to rid your body of toxins. They involve cutting out certain foods or fasting. That means going for periods without eating. This can be dangerous for people with some chronic conditions, like diabetes. If you’re on the diet for a long time, you run the risk of not getting enough vital nutrients.
Tell your doctor if you’re thinking about trying naturopathy. They can make sure the treatments are safe and don’t interact with any other drugs you’re taking. You shouldn’t stop or delay your conventional medical care because of naturopathic medicine.
Education and Licensure of Practitioners
Education and licensing differ for the three types of naturopathic practitioners:
- Naturopathic physicians generally complete a 4-year, graduate-level program at one of the North American naturopathic medical schools accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education, an organization recognized for accreditation purposes by the U.S. Department of Education. Some U.S. states and territories have licensing requirements for naturopathic physicians; others don’t. In those jurisdictions that have licensing requirements, naturopathic physicians must graduate from a 4-year naturopathic medical college and pass an examination to receive a license. They must also fulfill annual continuing education requirements.
- Traditional naturopaths, also known simply as “naturopaths,” may receive training in a variety of ways. Training programs vary in length and content and are not accredited by organizations recognized for accreditation purposes by the U.S. Department of Education. Traditional naturopaths are often not eligible for licensing.
- Other health care providers (such as physicians, osteopathic physicians, chiropractors, dentists, and nurses) sometimes offer naturopathic treatments, functional medicine, and other holistic therapies, having pursued additional training in these areas. Training programs vary.
Remember that regulations, licenses, or certificates do not guarantee safe, effective treatment from any health care provider—conventional or complementary. To learn more, see the NCCIH fact sheet Credentialing, Licensing, and Education.
Tell all your health care providers about any complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.