What Is Naturopathic Medicine?

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on February 21, 2021

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 sme aspects of modern science.

How Does It Work?

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 doctors 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.

Will It Work for My Condition?

Naturopathic medicine is used for a wide range of health issues. Some of the more common ones include:

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.

Keep Your Doctor ‘in the Loop’

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.

Who Can Use It?

It may be an option for people who might not find relief for their chronic illness through traditional medicine.

In some cases, you can use both conventional and naturopathic medicine to treat an illness. For example, naturopathic remedies may help ease the side effects of chemotherapy. But remember to tell your regular doctor about any naturopathic treatments you’re on. And, you should tell your naturopathic doctor about your conventional medications. That way, both providers can work as a team for your health.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Association of Naturopathic Medicine: “Definition of Naturopathic Medicine.”

Mayo Clinic: “Complementary and Alternative Medicine.”

Bastyr University: “About Naturopathic Medicine.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Naturopathy”

Council on Naturopathic Medical Education: “Frequently Asked Questions.”

American Cancer Society: “Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer.”

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