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What is Naturopathic Medicine?

Higher Education Articles August 12, 2013

Naturopathic medicine is a unique system of health care that embraces safe, natural treatments. It is grounded on a philosophy that stresses prevention, self-healing and therapies based on nature.


Naturopathic medicine is also known simply as naturopathy. Mayo Clinic considers it complementary medicine and one of three types of whole medical systems. The others are homeopathy and ancient healing systems. The focus of naturopathy is the use of noninvasive treatments for self-healing. Among the most common therapies are massage, acupuncture, herbal remedies, exercise and lifestyle counseling.


Naturopathy has German roots. This medical system grew from a group of traditional practices in the 19th century, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) states. The term naturopathy derives from Greek and Latin. Its literal meaning is “nature disease.”

Naturopathic practices developed in the United States in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. NCCAM reports that according to a 2007 survey, 729,000 U.S. adults and 237,000 children had utilized a naturopathic treatment during the preceding year.

Proponents of natural healing see doctors of naturopathy for a variety of reasons, such as primary care and for natural treatment that complements traditional medical therapy.

The Six Principles

The Oregon Board of Naturopathic Medicine states that this type of medicine is based on six principles. Some resemble those of primary medicine practiced by traditional physicians. They include:

Healing power of nature

The focus is on self-healing. The human body has an inherent ability to create, keep and restore health. Nature instills an order to the healing process. The naturopathic physician fosters the process and removes obstacles from recovery.

Treating the cause

All illness has a cause. Before someone can completely recover, it’s necessary to find and remove any underlying causes of disease. It’s important not to suppress symptoms with treatment, because they’re signs of the body’s attempts to heal itself. Doctors must find the underlying cause of the illness.

First do no harm

All therapies should complement the body’s attempts to heal itself. Physicians should not provide treatment that interferes, but should concentrate on removing the root cause of the illness.

Treat the whole person

Health and disease involve the whole being and an interaction of spiritual, mental, physical, emotional, genetic, social and other factors and influences. A naturopathic practitioner must consider all of these. Only when all of them are in harmony can a person prevent illness or recover from it.

Physician as a teacher

Beyond diagnosis and treatment, a doctor’s primary role is to educate patients, counsel them and encourage them to take charge of their own health.


It’s the objective of naturopathy. It occurs after education and promotion of a healthy lifestyle. The physician’s responsibility is to evaluate risk and hereditary factors to help patients avoid further risk and harm from disease. This means building health instead of illness.

Naturopathic physicians

A naturopathic doctor (ND) combines modern science with an extensive knowledge of nature. Like practitioners of conventional medicine, these physicians have been trained in traditional ways of healing, but they focus on holistic methods that promote prevention of disease. When illness is present, they act as facilitators of the body’s natural ability to restore health, according to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP).

Hospitals, community health centers and clinics employ NDs, and most are in private practice. They provide individual and family care to treat conditions like chronic pain, digestive problems, obesity, allergies, respiratory issues and cancer. They can also perform minor surgery, such as suturing a wound, but do not practice surgery. While they utilize natural healing agents whenever possible, they can also use prescription medications.

NDs complete a four-year naturopathic medical school after college. In addition to traditional medical training, the curriculum includes clinical nutrition, acupuncture, botanical medicine, counseling, homeopathic medicine and psychology.

The AANP reports that sixteen states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have licensing laws for doctors who practice naturopathic medicine. Prior to licensing, NDs must pass rigorous professional board exams.

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in naturopathic medicine in the United States. For most patients, this distinctive health system collaborates rather than competes with traditional medicine.

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