what is a naturopathic doctor

What is a Naturopathic Doctor?

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A Naturopathic Doctor (ND) is a healthcare professional specializing in natural medicine, blending traditional healing methods with modern science to treat the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. Educated in accredited naturopathic medical colleges, NDs are proficient in diagnosing and treating both acute and chronic conditions, focusing on preventative care and the body’s inherent self-healing process through naturopathic medicine.

NDs adhere to the Therapeutic Order™, a strategy that prioritizes minimal intervention and supports the body’s natural functions first, escalating to more intensive treatments as necessary. Their approach is holistic, aiming to identify and address the root causes of illness rather than merely treating symptoms.

Trained in a variety of natural therapies including nutrition, lifestyle counseling, herbal medicine, and acupuncture, NDs develop personalized treatment plans for their patients. They are also qualified to perform conventional diagnostics and prescribe medications when necessary, depending on their licensing laws.

Naturopathic doctors work in diverse healthcare settings and are committed to patient education, empowering individuals to take an active role in their health and wellness journey. They are experts in naturopathic medicine and naturopathy. Interested in working with a naturopathic doctor in Oahu, Hawaii? Contact our office to schedule a consultation.

What is Naturopathic Medicine?

Naturopathic medicine is a distinct branch of healthcare that integrates traditional healing methods with modern medical science. It is grounded in the philosophy of treating the whole person—addressing physical, mental, and emotional health—and emphasizes prevention, treatment, and optimal wellness through natural therapies. Naturopathic medicine operates on the principle that the body has an inherent ability to heal itself and focuses on supporting these natural healing processes.

The foundation of naturopathic medicine lies in its six core principles: the healing power of nature, identifying and treating the causes of illness, first doing no harm, the doctor as teacher, treating the whole person, and prevention. These principles guide naturopathic doctors (NDs) in their practice, ensuring a holistic approach to patient care.

Naturopathic therapies may include dietary and lifestyle changes, herbal medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, and physical therapies, among others. NDs tailor these treatments to each individual, creating personalized care plans that aim to not only alleviate symptoms but also address underlying health issues to prevent their recurrence.

Who Practices Naturopathic Medicine?

Naturopathic medicine is practiced by a diverse group of professionals, each bringing different levels of education, backgrounds, and approaches to health care. Broadly, these practitioners can be categorized into three groups: naturopathic physicians, traditional naturopaths, and other healthcare providers who incorporate naturopathic principles into their practice.

Naturopathic Physicians (NDs or NMDs)

Naturopathic physicians are extensively educated in accredited naturopathic medical colleges, where they undergo rigorous training that parallels conventional medical education, including basic sciences, diagnostics, and treatment modalities, with an additional focus on natural and preventive medicine. Some NDs are trained to serve as primary care providers, diagnosing and treating a wide range of conditions with an emphasis on natural therapies and the body’s inherent healing power. In jurisdictions where they are licensed, NDs can prescribe medications, perform minor surgeries, and offer a comprehensive range of health services.

Traditional Naturopaths

Traditional naturopaths often come from various educational backgrounds and may not have attended an accredited naturopathic medical school. Their focus is primarily on lifestyle, dietary changes, and natural remedies, emphasizing the body’s self-healing capabilities. Traditional naturopaths typically do not diagnose or treat disease in the conventional medical sense but rather offer guidance and support for health promotion and disease prevention through natural means. The education and qualifications of traditional naturopaths can vary widely, as can the legal scope of their practice, depending on regional regulations.

Other Healthcare Providers

Several other healthcare providers, including medical doctors (MDs), doctors of osteopathy (DOs), chiropractors, and nurses, may integrate naturopathic principles and therapies into their practices. These professionals have received their primary education in their respective fields and may pursue additional training in aspects of naturopathic medicine to complement their conventional approaches. This integration allows them to offer a broader spectrum of preventive and holistic treatment options to their patients, bridging the gap between conventional and natural medicine.

Naturopathic Doctor vs. MD (Medical Doctors)

When comparing Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) vs. Medical Doctors (MDs), it’s important to understand both the similarities and differences in their education, approach to patient care, and treatment methodologies. Both NDs and MDs play vital roles in the healthcare system, offering patients a range of options for preventive care, diagnosis, and treatment of acute and chronic conditions.

Education and Training

  • Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) undergo four years of graduate-level education at accredited naturopathic medical schools, with a curriculum that includes basic sciences, naturopathic therapies, diagnostics, and clinical training. Their education emphasizes natural and preventive medicine, alongside learning to diagnose and treat conditions with a variety of natural therapies.
  • Medical Doctors (MDs) receive their education in traditional medical schools, which also involves four years of graduate-level education followed by residency training. Their education focuses on conventional medicine, including pharmacology, surgical procedures, and emergency medicine, preparing them to diagnose and treat diseases primarily with pharmaceuticals and surgery.

Approach to Patient Care

  • NDs are known for their holistic approach to patient care, emphasizing the treatment of the whole person (body, mind, and spirit) focusing on preventive care, and treating the root causes of illness. They spend considerable time with their patients, discussing lifestyle, diet, and environmental factors that could impact health.
  • MDs tend to focus on diagnosing and treating specific illnesses or injuries, often through pharmaceuticals, surgery, and other conventional medical treatments. Their approach is typically more focused on immediate intervention and management of symptoms.

Treatment Methodologies

  • NDs utilize a wide array of treatment options including dietary and lifestyle changes, herbal medicine, supplements, physical therapy, and counseling. They are trained to use pharmacological drugs when necessary, but their emphasis is on natural and minimally invasive interventions first.
  • MDs primarily use pharmacological treatments and surgery as their main treatment modalities. They are extensively trained in the latest technological and surgical techniques to treat a broad spectrum of diseases and conditions.

Scope of Practice

The scope of practice for both NDs and MDs can vary significantly depending on the country and jurisdiction. In some areas, NDs are licensed to practice similarly to MDs, including the ability to prescribe medications and perform minor surgeries. In others, their scope may be more limited. MDs generally have a broad scope of practice across all jurisdictions, with the ability to perform complex surgical procedures and prescribe a wide range of pharmaceuticals.

Naturopathic Doctor Schooling and Education

The path to becoming a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) involves rigorous academic and clinical training, designed to equip practitioners with a comprehensive understanding of both traditional natural therapies and foundational medical sciences. Here is an overview of the schooling and education required for NDs:

Academic Requirements

  • Undergraduate Education: Aspiring naturopathic doctors typically begin their journey with a bachelor’s degree, where they complete pre-medical coursework similar to that required for conventional medical schools. This includes studies in biology, chemistry, physics, and social sciences.
  • Accredited Naturopathic Medical College: Admission to a naturopathic medical college requires completing an accredited four-year, graduate-level program. These institutions are recognized by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME), the accrediting body for naturopathic medical programs in North America.


  • Basic Sciences: The first two years of naturopathic medical education closely mirror those of conventional medical schools, with a strong emphasis on basic sciences such as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, and pharmacology.
  • Clinical Sciences and Diagnostics: As students progress, the curriculum expands to include clinical sciences and diagnostic skills, covering areas such as physical and clinical diagnosis, lab diagnostics, imaging, and emergency medicine.
  • Naturopathic Modalities: Integral to naturopathic education is in-depth training in natural and holistic therapies. This includes nutritional medicine, botanical medicine, homeopathy, physical medicine (such as massage and hydrotherapy), counseling, and lifestyle modification.
  • Clinical Training: A significant portion of naturopathic education involves hands-on clinical training under the supervision of experienced NDs. Students must complete a certain number of clinical hours in a variety of healthcare settings, providing them with practical experience in diagnosing and treating patients using naturopathic methods.

Licensing and Certification

  • Board Examinations: Upon completing their educational program, ND graduates must pass rigorous board examinations to become licensed. In North America, this typically involves passing the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX), which assesses knowledge in basic sciences, clinical sciences, and naturopathic therapies.
  • State/Provincial Licensing: Licensing requirements for naturopathic doctors vary by state and province. Some regions have specific licensing laws for NDs, including the scope of practice and continuing education requirements, while others may not recognize or regulate the profession as distinctly.

Continuing Education

  • To maintain licensure, NDs are required to engage in ongoing continuing education, staying abreast of the latest research, treatments, and advancements in both naturopathic and conventional medicine.

Is a Naturopathic Doctor a Real Doctor?

A common misconception is that naturopathic doctors (NDs) are not “real” doctors. However, NDs undergo extensive education akin to that of medical doctors (MDs), including over 1000 clinical patient hours and a rigorous licensing board exam, before they can practice. The primary distinction lies in their approach: NDs focus on whole-body wellness, aiming to diagnose and treat the root causes of symptoms, while MDs may prioritize symptomatic relief. This difference reflects a deeper philosophical divergence in patient care rather than a disparity in legitimacy or expertise. With licenses to practice naturopathic medicine across various age groups, NDs are indeed real doctors, specialized in integrating the principles of natural health and preventive care into their practice.

Potential Dangers to Naturopathy

Naturopathy, while offering a holistic approach to health, presents certain risks stemming from the variability in practitioner training and the potential for misdiagnosis and interactions with conventional medications. A significant concern is the varying levels of education and qualifications among practitioners, which can impact the safety and effectiveness of naturopathic treatments.

However, many of these concerns are not unique to naturopathy but can also be shared with conventional medicine, highlighting universal challenges in healthcare. Both fields necessitate rigorous evidence-based practice, ongoing education, and careful patient management to mitigate these risks.

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