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What is naturopathy?

Naturopathy, or naturopathic medicine, is a system of medicine based on the healing power of nature. Naturopathy is a holistic system, meaning that naturopathic doctors (N.D.s) or naturopathic medical doctors (N.M.D.s) strive to find the cause of disease by understanding the body, mind, and spirit of the person. Most naturopathic doctors use a variety of therapies and techniques (such as nutrition, behavior change, herbal medicine, homeopathy, breathing techniques, and acupuncture).

There are two areas of focus in naturopathy:

  • Supporting the body's own healing abilities
  • Empowering people to make lifestyle changes necessary for the best possible health.

N.D.s treat both short bouts of illness as well as chronic conditions, and their emphasis is on preventing disease and educating people.

What is the history of naturopathy?

The modern form of naturopathy can be traced to 18th and 19th century natural healing systems. Such systems include:

  • Hydrotherapy (water therapy), which was popular in Germany.
  • Nature cure, developed in Austria, based on the use of food, air, light, water, and herbs to treat illness.

Benjamin Lust, a German immigrant, first introduced naturopathy to the United States in 1902 when he founded the American School of Naturopathy. The school emphasized the use of natural cures, proper bowel habits, and good hygiene as the tools for health. This was the first time that principles of a healthy diet, like increasing fiber intake and reducing saturated fats, became popular.

In the mid 1920s to 1940, the use of naturopathic medicine declined. It was not until the 1960s that naturopathic-style holistic medicine became popular again. Today, naturopaths are licensed care providers in many states. They offer a variety of natural therapies, including homeopathy, vitamin and mineral supplements, Traditional Chinese Medicine, relaxation techniques, and herbal remedies.

What should I expect from a visit to a naturopath?

A visit to an N.D., is similar to a visit to visiting a family doctor. Your first visit may take more than one hour. The doctor will take a very thorough history, asking about your diet, lifestyle, stress, and environmental exposures. Next, the N.D. will do a physical examination, which may require laboratory tests. In addition to conventional tests, N.D.s may use unique laboratory techniques, such as the Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis (CDSA). This test allows naturopaths to examine your digestive process, as well as see which nutrients your body is absorbing, among other things.

N.D.s treat the whole person, which means they consider a variety of factors before they diagnose an illness. An N.D. might look at your mental, emotional, and spiritual state; your diet; your family history; your environment; and your lifestyle before making a diagnosis.

Some of the more common treatments used by a naturopath include:

  • Nutritional counseling
  • Herbal medicine
  • Homeopathic medicine
  • Acupuncture
  • Hydrotherapy (water therapy). These therapies include drinking natural spring water, taking baths, alternating hot and cold applications, and water exercise, all of which are thought to stimulate healing and strengthen the immune system.
  • Physical medicine. This natural approach to healing involves using touch, hot and cold compresses, electric currents, and sound waves to manipulate the muscles, bones, and spine.
  • Detoxification. This therapy removes toxins from the body by fasting, using enemas, and drinking lots of water.
  • Spirituality. N.D.s encourage personal spiritual development as part of an overall health program.
  • Lifestyle and psychological counseling. An N.D. may use hypnosis, guided imagery, or other counseling methods as part of a treatment plan.
  • Pharmacotherapy. In states where N.D.s are licensed to prescribe drugs, many do use conventional medications in addition to natural therapies.

Naturopaths consider people to be participants in their health care, so you may be asked to make lifestyle changes, such as changing your sleeping, eating, and exercise habits.

What illnesses and conditions respond well to naturopathy?

Because naturopaths combine so many therapies, it is difficult to single out specific illnesses that respond well to naturopathy. Naturopaths treat both acute and chronic conditions from arthritis to ear infections (otitis media), from HIV to asthma, from congestive heart failure to hepatitis. N.D.s treat the whole person, rather than only treating a disease or its symptoms, aiming to help people maintain a balanced state of good health. Because of this holistic approach, naturopathy may be especially suited for treating chronic illnesses.

Is there anything I should look out for?

Be sure to let your medical doctor (M.D.) know about any naturopathic treatment, and let your N.D. know about any conventional medications you are taking. Some treatments can interact with each other, and your health care practitioners will be better able to treat you if they know every therapy you are using. DO NOT take high doses of nutrients and herbs without your N.D.'s supervision, because of potential toxic effects and drug/herb interactions. Please see the monographs on individual herbs and supplements for detailed information. Make sure that your doctor approves any major changes in your diet, so they do not undermine your health (especially in the very young, the elderly, and those with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes).

How can I find a qualified practitioner?

As of 2009, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have licensing laws for N.D.s. These states require N.D.s to graduate from a 4-year, residential naturopathic medical school and pass a postdoctoral board examination (NPLEX) to become licensed.

Licensed naturopathic physicians must fulfill state mandated continuing education requirements each year, and have a specific scope of practice identified by state law. The 17 states include:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • United States Territories: Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands

N.D.s take a structured, 4-year program to earn their degree. There are correspondence courses that offer naturopathic degrees, but people who take them have not had the same training as an N.D.

Unfortunately, in states that do not license N.D.s, people who have taken online courses can call themselves N.D.s. Make sure your N.D. has graduated from a residential program approved by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP):



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Review Date: 11/6/2015  

Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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