What They Do and Why You’d See One

Naturopathic doctors (NDs)—also known as doctors of naturopathic medicine (NMDs) or naturopathic physicians—are healthcare providers who practice various kinds of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). NDs generally prioritize preventative and holistic approaches to medical care rather than more conventional treatments, such as prescription drugs. 

As primary healthcare providers, NDs can diagnose and treat various health conditions. They focus on treating underlying causes and may offer herbal medicine, nutritional therapy, and massage therapy, in addition to counseling and stress reduction techniques. Some of these modalities are clinically evidence-based, while others remain controversial. 

Naturopathic medicine first developed in Germany and other areas of Europe during the 19th century. It emphasizes disease prevention, health promotion, and treating the “whole patient.”

Naturopathic Principles

Naturopathic doctors adhere to the following principles of medical care:

  • First Do No Harm: Start with the most natural and least invasive therapies and refer the patient to another healthcare provider if something is outside your scope of practice.
  • The Healing Power of Nature: Use naturally occurring substances, such as herbs, to treat health conditions if possible. Promote the body’s ability to heal itself.
  • Identify and Treat the Causes: Find and treat the potential underlying causes of a condition rather than treating symptoms alone.
  • Doctor as Teacher: Honor the value of the doctor-patient relationship while empowering patients to take responsibility for their own health.
  • Treat the Whole Person: Treat patients emotionally and mentally as well as physically. 
  • Prevention: Support health by helping patients practice healthy ways of living.

Treatment Modalities

The scope of what naturopathic doctors can offer varies based on their particular specialty and training, as well as the regulations and restrictions in their state. They may work in a variety of modalities, including:

  • Nutritional therapy: Nutrition is a core component of naturopathy and might include specific dietary plans.
  • Botanical medicine: Also known as herbal medicine, this approach uses plants or substances derived from plants—for example, in supplement form.
  • Homeopathic medicine: This controversial medical system is centered around two theories—”like cures like” (use a substance that produces symptoms similar to the condition being treated) and “law of minimum doses” (use very diluted medications).
  • Manipulative therapy: Hands-on therapy might include massage therapy (manipulation of soft tissue, usually by applying soothing pressure to different parts of your body) and craniosacral therapy (applying gentle pressure to your head, neck, and back to reduce compression and tension in joints and connective tissue).
  • Lifestyle management: This might include sleep and exercise habits, relationships, stressors, and environmental factors like potential exposure to toxins.
  • Psychotherapy: Also known as talk therapy, this form of mental health treatment helps you process your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • Acupuncture: A form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TMC), this technique involves inserting tiny needles in your skin to stimulate specific energy points in your body.

Naturopathic doctors and medical doctors (MDs) need licenses to practice medicine. However, they receive different training—and different levels of training.

NDs must obtain a license to practice natural medicine. This requires the following:

  • Complete a four-year federally accredited naturopathic medical school program (accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education, or CNME, which is recognized by the United States Department of Education)
  • Receive a certain amount of hands-on clinical training
  • Pass the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examination (NPLEX)

MDs must do the following:

  • Pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
  • Complete a four-year medical school program
  • Pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) to become state-licensed
  • Attend a residency program (3-7 years depending on the program and specialty)
  • Pass board certification exams to become board certified (optional)

Naturopathic doctors undergo much of the same training in biomedical sciences as conventional medical students, including anatomy, immunology, and biochemistry, and they provide many services that MDs do. For example, they can prescribe certain medications, administer vaccines, and order diagnostic lab work (such as imaging and blood tests). Some naturopathic doctors also perform minor surgery. 

However, naturopathic doctors don’t perform major surgery or prescribe controlled substances. They also do not offer more invasive treatments, such as chemotherapy. Your ND will likely refer you to another healthcare provider if they can’t provide the treatment you need.

Naturopathic doctors provide primary care to both individuals and families. According to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), people frequently report visiting NDs for help with symptoms and conditions such as:

In some cases, NDs serve as part of an integrative team that includes several different healthcare providers. For example, they may provide complementary therapy to someone with cancer or a chronic condition like diabetes (a disease that occurs when you have higher than normal levels of blood glucose, or blood sugar) who are undergoing more traditional treatments.

In the United States, you can find a licensed naturopathic doctor on the AANP online database. You may also be able to ask for a recommendation from your primary care provider. 

As of 2023, naturopathic doctors are licensed to treat patients in 23 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is illegal to practice naturopathic medicine in certain states, including Tennessee and South Carolina.

Not all naturopathic doctors accept insurance. However, many NDs offer sliding scale fees and payment plans. Check with your insurance plan and healthcare provider to see if your care can be covered.

What to Expect When Visiting a Naturopathic Doctor

Your first visit with a naturopathic doctor will typically be a thorough assessment lasting 60-90 minutes. Your ND may ask you about your current symptoms, as well as your:

  • Family medical history
  • Personal health history
  • Current medications and supplements
  • Diet
  • Physical activity
  • Sleep
  • Mental health
  • Relationships
  • Current stressors
  • Energy levels

After the first visit, you and your ND may devise a plan of care together based on your unique health goals. This might include hands-on therapy, such as spinal manipulation or acupuncture, as well as lifestyle changes like modifications to your diet and exercise routine.

How to Prepare for a Visit to a Naturopathic Doctor

Your first visit with an ND may be more thorough and in-depth than you might expect from a typical check-up. Before visiting a naturopathic doctor, think about your health goals—for example, relief of certain symptoms, improved energy levels, or better sleep quality. 

You will likely complete some paperwork beforehand. Here are a few things to take with you or send to the NP before the appointment:

  • Medical records
  • Family medical history
  • A list of medications and supplements you currently take
  • Current symptoms or health concerns
  • What you eat in a typical day and if you notice any symptoms after eating certain foods

Naturopathic doctors (NDs) are healthcare providers who practice various kinds of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). NDs generally prioritize preventative and holistic approaches to diagnose and treat patients, and they provide many services that MDs do. For example, they can prescribe certain medications, administer vaccines, and order diagnostic lab work (such as imaging and blood tests).

You might consider visiting a naturopathic doctor if you’d like to improve your overall health and well-being using lifestyle changes and alternative medicine. Many people like to work with naturopathic doctors to reduce the risk of potential health conditions in the future. An ND may also be able to help you if you are experiencing symptoms that haven’t responded to more conventional forms of medical treatment.

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