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Naturopathic Medicine - Topic Overview

What is naturopathic medicine?

Naturopathic medicine (or naturopathy) is based on the belief that the body can heal itself. It aims to improve health, prevent disease, and treat illness through the use of organic foods and exercise; a healthy, balanced lifestyle; and the use of treatments from other areas of complementary medicine. (These treatments include ayurveda, homeopathy, and herbal therapies.)

Naturopathy was developed in the late 1800s in the United States. Today, a licensed naturopathic doctor (ND) attends a 4-year, graduate-level naturopathic medical school. He or she studies the same basic sciences as a medical doctor (MD). But the ND also studies alternative therapies, such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, and bodywork.

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Most traditional naturopathic physicians (naturopaths) believe in natural therapies, such as nutritional and lifestyle counseling. They tend to avoid prescribing medicines or doing surgery. Some naturopaths prescribe herbal medicines, homeopathic dilutions, or nutritional supplements. Some may perform minor surgeries.

The disagreement over practice guidelines and licensing requirements in different states has led to some public confusion about the role of the naturopath.

What is naturopathy used for?

People use naturopathic medicine to promote good health, prevent disease, and treat illness. Most naturopaths can treat earaches, allergies, and other common health problems. Naturopathy tries to find the cause of the problem rather than just treating symptoms. A properly trained naturopath works with other health professionals. He or she will refer people to other practitioners for diagnosis or treatment when needed.

Is naturopathy safe?

Two common concerns about naturopathy are the use of fasting and a bias against vaccines.

  • Talk with your MD before fasting. Fasting means not eating or drinking, or consuming only liquids for a period of time. Fasting can be dangerous, especially if you have a disease such as diabetes.
  • Some naturopaths do not believe that immunization is necessary. Before vaccines became available, childhood illnesses caused large numbers of deaths and long-term health problems but gave survivors natural immunity. The benefits of vaccines greatly outweigh the risks.1

Always tell your doctor if you are using an alternative therapy or are thinking about combining one with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to rely only on an alternative therapy.

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