What is Naturopathic Medicine?
Naturopathic medicine, or naturopathy, is a holistic system of medicine for promoting wellness and preventing, treating and healing disease. Using treatment approaches that synthesize ancient wisdom and contemporary science, naturopathic medicine focuses on supporting the body's innate healing ability. Naturopathic doctors (NDs) or naturopaths believe that wellness is our natural state of being and that their job is to support their patients in achieving that wellness. Dr. Kristaps Paddock, ND, states that "ultimately, our goal is for the patient to be treatment-free."
Naturopathic medicine is grounded in evidence-based practices and observations. However, naturopathic medicine also embraces proven traditional healing approaches from all around the world, not just those of the Western medical tradition. As such, naturopathic doctors have a large number of treatment options that they can choose from to help their patients. Figuring out exactly what treatment or treatments are right for each patient is a major part of the naturopathic process. Consequently, naturopathic doctors are also particularly interested in understanding their patients' stories, health histories and emotional states which they view as critical to identifying an appropriate treatment plan.
Naturopathic medicine is a primary care health profession, meaning a naturopathic doctor can diagnose and treat almost as an MD can, including injury, sickness, pain, and disease. NDs also work in consultation with MDs when appropriate. It is increasingly common for clinics and hospitals to have NDs as well as MDs on staff, as the variety of perspectives benefits patient.
Naturopathic doctors pull from a variety of healing modalities. These include working with nutrition, herbal and nutritional supplements, botanical medicine, counseling, homeopathy, acupuncture and physical medicine, as well as traditional prescription medications and minor surgeries (major surgeries are referred to an appropriate specialist). Being well-versed in such a wide range of practices means an ND can create healing plans that are individualized to each patient, and adapt their approach as necessary. Naturopathic doctors also utilize laboratory testing as necessary to aid in diagnosis and treatment.
When asked what he likes about practicing naturopathic medicine, Dr. Paddock says, "I like being able to spend time with my patients. It helps me be able to help them better. It allows aspects to emerge that might not have. If a patient comes in with migraines, I don't want to merely prescribe a supplement or a drug. I want to understand what's causing the migraines and how we can heal that. In my office, we have time."
"We sometimes think of wellness as a luxury, and not as the most important thing we can cultivate as a foundation for every other piece of our lives," Dr. Daemon Jones, ND says. "When you don't have your health you can't actually do anything else. Wellness is not just a thing you do when you have time."
How does naturopathic medicine work?
Like Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine, naturopathic medicine is an entire system of medicine that brings together a wide range of specific practices and treatments. These can include traditional, allopathic, and alternative medical techniques. In other words, naturopathic physicians have a large toolkit to work with, one that they use within the framework of the principles of naturopathic medicine.
Naturopathic principles and philosophy
Dr. Joseph E. Pizzorno, ND, one of the world's leading authorities on evidence-based naturopathic and integrative medicine, describes how naturopathic medicine is distinguished from other systems of healthcare: "A doctor's role is to improve the health of the patient and not just focus on disease. Nobody has provided that more thoroughly over time than the naturopathic physician."
Naturopathic medicine is defined and guided by six principles. These principles form the underlying basis for the naturopathic approach, and guide NDs in how they work with their patients. As described by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, the principles of naturopathic medicine include:
The Healing Power of Nature (Vis Medicatrix Naturae)
Naturopathic medicine sees the body as having an inherent, ordered, and intelligent ability to heal itself. In other words, treating and healing illness is not a matter of fighting with your body, but of giving it the tools it needs to become well. The goal of a naturopathic physician is to identify precisely what it is that your body needs in order to get better, and to support you through the natural healing process. From a naturopathic perspective, your body wants to be well and knows how to do it - it just needs some help.
Identify and Treat the Causes (Tolle Causam)
Naturopathic doctors believe that treating the root causes of illness is more important than just addressing the symptoms. Just as a broken arm is caused by trauma to the bone, so too is illness the result of internal and external causes impacting the body to the point where symptoms begin to appear. However, simply treating those symptoms doesn't do anything to heal the underlying causes. In order to give a patient a long-term foundation for wellness, an ND will seek to discover and address the root causes of whatever the patient is suffering from.
First Do No Harm (Primum Non Nocere)
While this is a medical principle that dates back as far as the ancient Hippocratic Oath, the primary focus on never harming a patient is at the core of contemporary naturopathic medicine. Because of this, naturopathic doctors seek to use the most gentle approach possible in order to successfully treat an illness. Believing in the natural healing ability of the body, naturopathic physicians also seek to work with the body, rather than against it. Consequently, and contrary to a typical allopathic approach, naturopathic doctors also avoid suppressing a patient's symptoms as much as possible, as this can often actually get in the way of healing.
Doctor as Teacher (Docere)
The doctor-patient relationship is central to the practice of naturopathic medicine. Naturopathic doctors understand that a patient is ultimately responsible for his or her own health. NDs seek to teach their patients how to care for themselves, giving them the tools for long-term wellness. They also help their patients to understand how any disease they might have works, so the patient can play an active role in addressing it.
Treat the Whole Person
No one is an island. Both illness and wellness are the result of many aspects of your life coming together, including your physical body, your mind, your spirituality, your environment, and your relationships. Naturopathic doctors seek to understand all of these factors in order to better help you achieve health and well-being. Part of why the doctor-patient relationship is so important in naturopathic medicine is because the healing process works best when the two can really communicate openly and honestly about everything that the patient is going through - because all of it plays a role in getting better.
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Naturopathic doctors focus whenever possible on keeping their patients from getting sick in the first place. A great deal of naturopathic training involves studying what being healthy really looks like, and how a person gets there. If you start seeing a naturopath before you get sick, you can work with them to improve your well-being, rather than on just getting back to baseline.
Naturopathic doctors follow these six principles in all of their work. As a result, they often offer a unique and perspective in how to go about working with a health condition or illness. This makes an ND a valuable member of a larger health care team. NDs' holistic, all-encompassing perspectives are also particularly useful for treating chronic health conditions, as well as for patients looking to boost their overall wellness.
Naturopathic medicine is an evidence-based school of medicine. The many treatments used by naturopathic physicians are continually being evaluated for their efficacy, and all accredited naturopathic medical schools maintain research centers. Naturopathic treatments are supported by clinical studies, centuries of successful use in different healing traditions, or both.
Naturopathic physicians also place a particular emphasis in observing how each of their individual patients respond to a particular treatment. In addition to large clinical trials, case studies, expert opinion, and anecdotal evidence are respected within the naturopathic tradition.
Naturopathic treatment is highly personalized. Two different patients working with a naturopathic doctor might not receive the same treatment for the same symptoms, because treatments are tailored to each patient's individual needs, history and life circumstances. An ND is typically willing to try several different treatment methods, whether separately or in conjunction, until they find an approach that works. A naturopathic doctor might prescribe anything from herbal supplements and dietary changes to homeopathics and physical exercises (or a combination thereof). They then meet with their patients regularly to discuss whether the treatment plan is succeeding, or needs to change.
Dr. Paddock describes being a naturopathic physician as "having a big toolbox to work with". He notes that this gives NDs the ability to formulate "really precise, individual treatments" for each patient.
Why do NDs use such a broad range of treatments, because they embrace successful, proven healing techniques from all around the world, not just those that have been accepted into the Western medical tradition. While some naturopathic treatments are on the cutting edge of science, others are based on practices healers have used for thousands of years, including those some MDs might view with skepticism. Western medicine emphasizes the disease model, in which treatment is about eliminating or reducing symptoms by whatever means necessary, while naturopathic doctors are more interested in cooperating with the body to achieve wellness.
As part of their focus on understanding the root cause of any illness, NDs put a major emphasis on really getting to know their patients. A typical first meeting with an ND might last as long as two hours, most of which is spent taking a thorough medical history, as well as an exploration of your life story. Naturopathic physicians seek to earn the trust of their patients, so that they can provide both the most effective healthcare for each person, as well as emotional support during the healing process. As Dr. Paddock notes, "spending more time with my patients helps me to be able to help them better."
It is the holistic, thorough way of practicing medicine that makes naturopathic medicine so helpful to many patients. NDs seek to treat the whole person, not just a narrow range of symptoms, an approach that is particularly helpful when dealing with complex, chronic health problems. NDs understand that achieving lasting wellness is usually a matter of finding balance and health in all areas of life: mind, body, spirit and community. Working with a naturopathic doctor isn't just about getting rid of whatever complaint brought you in the door, but helping you to develop that balance and health.
Naturopathic medicine is also focused on treating the root causes of disease. This is one area in which naturopathic physicians' emphasis on getting to know their patients' histories really pays off, as it gives NDs more knowledge and insight into what could be causing an illness. The goal of treating root causes can also lead to major improvements in a patient's quality of life, even if they've been sick for years.
What are the benefits of naturopathic medicine?
Naturopathic medicine is a good treatment option for anyone seeking a different perspective on medicine and wellness. Naturopathic doctors are skilled physicians with the ability to treat almost any health condition, and can help you heal in mind, body and spirit, or improve your wellness. Of particular interest: ND's typically spend one to two hours with a patient in their first visit, fully exploring their health history, health goals, and current concerns.
Asked what NDs are especially good at treating, Dr. Pizzorno immediately mentions digestive healing, and recalls, "...the old time naturopathic adage, disease begins in the gut. Other health professionals are treating their patients for gut disorders, but we're the best at it."
Dr. Jones agrees. "Naturopathic medicine has a really fantastic toolbox to help digestive complaints, better than other modalities. We diagnose, work with food sensitivities, and facilitate healing. Beyond digestive ailments, there's a kind of relief of symptoms from any disease process just by helping people understand how basic lifestyle changes improve their health on so many levels. We help people so much."
Dr. Paddock adds, "NDs can work with anything. We treat conditions ranging from from the flu to rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol, hormonal concerns and digestive health, along with functional issues such as fatigue and mental or emotional symptoms like anxiety, depression and bipolar."
Helping cancer patients
A Naturopathic Doctor can play a valuable role in helping you through cancer treatment. Dr. Paddock notes that NDs, "work a lot with cancer, most typically as part of a cancer care team. Because conventional cancer therapies are very strong and aggressive, they typically affect a patient's quality of life, even to the point where side effects can get in the way of treatment. ND's can help ameliorate side effects."
Additional benefits of working with a naturopathic physician include:
Emphasis on prevention and wellness
Most people think of going to the doctor as something you do when you get sick. However, a great time to start seeing a naturopathic doctor is actually when you're feeling healthy. This is because much of the naturopathic medical approach is focused on the prevention of disease. Rather than treating you only once you've become sick, a naturopathic physician can help prevent illness from beginning in the first place.
Treating causes of disease
With so much of modern medicine devoted to suppressing the symptoms people experience when they are suffering from disease or imbalance, it is worth emphasizing that naturopathic medicine takes an entirely different approach. Because NDs view wellness as the body's natural state, they see symptoms as useful information - indicators that the body is in crisis - rather than as problems to be eliminated. When NDs encounter symptoms of disease, they seek to understand what is causing the symptoms, rather than on simply making them go away. By focusing on understanding and treating those root causes, NDs can help guide the body back to a balanced state of wellness.
NDs are trained to think about both the body as a whole, and as part of a still greater web of life made up of our relationships, habits and environment. This broader perspective can be really powerful when it comes to treating complex health problems, because those problems are so often the result of imbalances in multiple areas of our bodies or our lives. If you're struggling with a chronic or complex health problem, naturopathic medicine is a great option. Naturopathic doctors can help identify and treat all of the factors that might be causing your chronic disease.
Wide range of treatment options
Because naturopathic doctors are trained in so many different treatment techniques, they have a wide array of treatment options to explore with their patients. There isn't necessarily one standard treatment for any one health condition, but rather a number of approaches informed by the idea that similar symptoms in different patients might actually be produced by a range of causes. If one treatment doesn't work, a naturopath is well-equipped to try something different.
Treating illness without surgery or prescription drugs
Surgery and prescription medication are the standard treatment approaches in allopathic medicine. However, if you want to try a gentler, less invasive way of working with your body to heal from an illness or health condition, naturopathic medicine is a good option. While NDs sometimes suggest an allopathic treatment, they are more likely to first try a more natural approach, which may have fewer side effects.
The following experts reviewed and contributed to this article:
Dr. Joseph E. Pizzorno, ND, a leading authority on evidence-based naturopathic and integrative medicine
About Naturopathic Medicine
The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
What is Naturopathy
NIH, National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health,
Taking Charge of Your Health and Well-being: Naturopathy
University of Minnesota