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Naturopathic Doctor vs. Naturopath: Key Differences and Benefits

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Naturopathic doctor - Dr. Axe

Want to work with a doctor who will treat “all of you,” provide personalized care, and take steps to reduce your reliance on medications, surgery and other serious interventions? Then consider working with a naturopathic doctor.

What does a naturopath do exactly? Naturopaths practice “natural medicine,” but they do so using a combination of modern, traditional and scientifically-tested therapies. For example, natural remedies that can be used to help treat patients include nutrition recommendations, supplementations and stress-relieving techniques.

The idea of combining traditional healthcare practices with complimentary approaches is nothing new; this concept, which is the core of naturopathic care, became popular in Europe during the 19th century. As the National Center For Complementary and Integrative Health puts it, “today people visit naturopathic practitioners for various health-related purposes, including primary care, overall well-being, and treatment of illnesses.”

What Is a Naturopath and Naturopathic Medicine?

According to The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the definition of naturopathic medicine is “a distinct primary health care profession, emphasizing prevention, treatment, and optimal health through the use of therapeutic methods and substances that encourage individuals’ inherent self-healing.”

Is a naturopath a doctor? Yes. Accredited naturopathic physicians must graduate from medical school with a four-year degree, plus complete an in-residence, hands-on medical program. The entire training program must consist of a minimum of 4,100 hours of class and clinical training.

The AANP states that “The training that naturopathic doctors receive is comparable to that of conventional medical doctors (MDs) and osteopathic doctors (DOs). In all three medical programs.” Like other doctors, many naturopathic doctors also specialize in a particular field, such as endocrinology, gastroenterology, pediatrics, etc.

Naturopaths, like other doctors, are required to complete internships in in clinical settings under the close supervision of licensed professionals. Something that makes naturopathic medicine training unique, however, is that part of the standard medical curriculum is training in natural medicine disciplines such as nutrition, acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, etc.

How Does It Work?

Naturopathic practitioners utilize some of the following therapies/tools:

  • clinical/diagnostic testing
  • supplements
  • nutritional counseling
  • herbal/botanical medicine, or homeopathy
  • massage therapy
  • manipulative therapy
  • acupuncture
  • exercise advice
  • minor surgery
  • use of prescription medications
  • intravenous and injection therapies
  • naturopathic obstetrics (natural childbirth)

Below are the basic principles that naturopathic physicians adhere to:

  • Rely on the healing power of nature: Naturopaths believe in the inherent self-healing process of the human body, so they work to uncover and remove obstacles to allow for recovery.
  • Treat underlying causes: For naturopathy treatments to work, underlying causes of illnesses must be addressed, rather than simply treating a patient’s symptoms.
  • Do no harm: This involves using substances and interventions that pose as little risk as possible. When a specific condition must be treated, NDs first employ safe, effective, natural substances, then move on to using prescriptions, surgeries and other more intensive treatments as needed.
  • “Doctor as Teacher”: Focus on educating the patient and building a strong doctor-patient relationship.
  • Treat the whole person: Take into account individual physical, mental, emotional, genetic, environmental, social and spiritual factors when forming a treatment plan.
  • Emphasize prevention: Assess risk factors, heredity and susceptibility to disease.

Potential Benefits

1. Offers Patients Personalized, Holistic Care

Naturopaths are often considered “holistic doctors” because they take into account each patient’s unique medical history, lifestyle, risk factors, etc. It’s not unusual for an initial appointment with a naturopath to last for one hour or more, since building a strong relationship is seen as an important component of effective care.

You can expect your first visit with a licensed naturopathic doctor to include discussion about your history, diet, stress levels, sleep, exercise, use of drugs/alcohol/tobacco. A physical exam, and sometimes diagnostic tests, may also be performed.

The goal of naturopathic treatment is to address and heal the root causes of an illness, which is different than treating symptoms because it’s intended to be a long-term solution. This is why addressing multiple aspects of a patient’s life is so important since it allows the naturopath to set up a customized treatment plan.

2. Educates Patients So They Can Participate/Self-Treat

Rather than a physician completely taking control of a patient’s health plan, naturopaths focus on educating the patient so they can take their health into their own hands as much as possible and prevent future illnesses. This gives patients the opportunity to feel empowered and hopeful.

3. Often Decreases Need for Medications

Although licensed naturopathic doctors can prescribe medications and in some cases even perform surgeries, they first try to resolve patient’s conditions using natural health practices. This can include nutrition interventions, homeopathy, herbal medicine and acupuncture, just to name a few. Help with stress management and appropriate exercise are also commonly involved.

All of these natural therapies are considered “complementary medicines” that may or not be be used in addition to traditional medications and treatments. When used as a long-term approach, a combination of different techniques and lifestyle changes can help to limit the need for medications including painkillers (such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or opioids), blood pressure or cholesterol medications, anxiety and depression medications, and so on.

4. Helps Prevent Symptoms From Returning

For patients, one of the most attractive things about natural medicine is its ability to help keep symptoms from coming back. This is because of the focus on treating underlying issues, for example chronic stressors, allergies, a poor diet, lack of sleep, etc.

Differences Between a Naturopath and Naturopathic Doctor

How do you become a naturopath? Depending on where you live in the world, there are lots of different types of naturopathic doctor and naturopathy programs available.

Requirements for these two titles varies a bit from state to state, and by country. These two titles are not usually used interchangeably because their scope of practice differs.

According to Valerie A. Gettings, CNHP, on behalf of the the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges,

Not all naturopathic doctor programs are created equal, and graduates of these programs leave with varied degree/certificate titles and professional training, which can create confusion for patients. This is especially true when it comes to knowing the difference between a traditional naturopath and a licensed naturopathic doctor/physician (ND) in North America.

There are currently six accredited naturopathic doctor (ND) education programs across seven North American campuses. NDs are regulated in 22 states and 5 provinces. The top naturopathic doctors in the U.S. and Canada will have attended one of these institutions:

  • Bastyr University
  • National University of Natural Medicine
  • National University of Health Sciences
  • Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine
  • University of Bridgeport—College of Naturopathic Medicine
  • Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine
  • aBoucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine

Traditional naturopaths and licensed naturopathic doctors both provide care that helps the body heal through natural substances such as food, herbs and physical therapies. But the education required to become either a traditional naturopath or a licensed naturopathic doctor is very different.

Licensed Naturopathic Doctors (or Naturopathic Physicians, or Doctors of Naturopathic Medicine):

  • Often serves as a primary care physician who is trained to diagnose conditions and prescribe medications/herbs/supplements.
  • Completes four year degree, residency program, and becomes accredited by Council on Naturopathic Medicine Education (or CNME). The CNME is “recognized as an accrediting body by the U.S. Department of Education, and it is the only accrediting body for naturopathic medical programs in the U.S. and Canada that qualify graduates for licensure.”
  • Must pass the two-part national board exam called the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Exam (NPLEX).
  • Can work in private practice, in hospitals, or in government institutions.
  • Some medical doctors, dentists, doctors of osteopathy, chiropractors, and nurses may also have training in naturopathic medicine, although their education and licensing can vary.

Traditional Naturopaths:

  • More like a health consultant or wellness counselor/health coach than a doctor.
  • Does not prescribe medications or make diagnoses.
  • Does not need to complete education with standard curriculum or residency program.
  • Does not necessarily have clinical internship experience and has not completed national board exam to obtain licensure.

You may also be wondering: what is the difference between a naturopath and homeopath?

Homeopathy is the use of remedies such as herbs that are developed from natural substances. Naturopathy is a health system that may include homeopathy, but also includes a variety of other remedies too. In other words: a naturopath may utilize homeopathy, but a homeopathic practitioner cannot utilize naturopathic medicine.

Who Can It Help?

If you’ve tried “conventional medicine” practices in the past, but these have failed to help address your condition or symptoms, then naturopathic medicine may be a good fit for you.

Naturopathic remedies may be especially effective for you if you deal with any of the following conditions:

  • Hormonal imbalances, such as those that cause irregular periods in women, infertility, low libido, etc.
  • Digestive issues, such as IBS, IBD, etc.
  • Food or seasonal allergies
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Recurring headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Unwanted weight gain or weight loss
  • Chronic pain
  • Respiratory issues
  • Chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue, lethargy and weakness, etc.
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Mood-related issues that you feel are tied to your lifestyle, such as anxiety or depression
  • Pregnancy (or if you’re trying to become pregnant)

You can also visit a naturopathic doctor instead of a primary care doctor, including when you’re healthy but prefer to work with a practitioner who emphasizes natural medicine.

Where can you find a naturopath? And how much does a naturopath cost?

Insurance has not typically covered naturopathic care, although more major insurance providers are starting to. Some private insurance companies, such as Anthem, Aetna, Connecticare, United/Oxford, CIGNA, and Healthnet, now allow NDs to become “Participating Providers,” although coverage depends on the state you live in.

You can expect the cost of a visit with a naturopath to be between $250 to $400 for an initial 90-minute visit, and about $100 to $200 per follow-up visit.

The AANP provides a naturopathic doctor directory of its members and finder tool on its website. For help finding a qualified naturopath in your area, try visiting naturopathic.org. For more information on insurance coverage for naturopath visits, see this helpful guide.

Precautions

Are there any dangers of naturopathy you should be aware of? The most important thing is to find a qualified practitioner. When looking for a naturopath be sure to ask about his or her education and licensing.

If you plan to have a naturopath serve as your primary doctor, choose one with a medical degree earned from an accredited, four-year, in-residence, naturopathic medical college and someone who has passed rigorous board exams as part of a licensure or certification process.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with working with a naturopath who is not licensed and who is not considered a doctor, as long as you understand the limitations of their practice. When it comes to receiving a diagnosis or being prescribed medications, make sure you’re working with someone who is fully qualified to do so.

You should avoid using an unlicensed naturopath to treat serious health issues such as cancer, heart disease, serious mental illnesses, wounds/injuries or spinal problems.

Be cautious when it comes to starting new supplements, herbal treatments or fad diets. Because these can sometimes interfere with prescription medications, make sure to tell your healthcare provider about all medications you take.

When in doubt, consider visiting both a conventional and naturopathic doctor in order to get second opinions about serious health issues.

Final Thoughts

  • What is a naturopath? A licensed naturopathic doctor is a physician who practices naturopathic medicine. This is defined as “a distinct primary health care profession, emphasizing prevention, treatment, and optimal health through the use of therapeutic methods and substances that encourage individuals’ inherent self-healing.”
  • Traditional naturopaths and licensed naturopathic doctors both provide natural care via nutrition advice, herbs, and physical therapies. But the education required to become a licensed naturopathic doctor is much more vigorous and controlled. Naturopathic physicians are trained to diagnose conditions and prescribe medications, but traditional naturopaths are not.
  • Naturopathy benefits include: offering personalized care, addressing root problems of illnesses (not just symptoms), educating patients so they get involved, reducing the need for medications, and preventing symptoms from returning.
  • NDs can help treat conditions such as: hormonal imbalances, allergies, digestive issues, deficiencies, chronic pain, sleep issues, pregnancy concerns, and more.

Read Next: Top 50 Functional and Integrative Medical Doctors

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