About Naturopathic Medicine

What is Naturopathic Medicine?

As defined by the American Associations for Naturopathic Physicians (AANP):

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 process.  The practice of naturopathic medicine includes modern and traditional, scientific, and empirical methods.

The self-healing process mentioned in the definition is often referred to as the vis medicatrix naturae (the healing power of nature). Think about a broken bone. The cast placed around the injury does not create healing; it does not weld the bone back together. The cast is there to immobilize the site of injury so that the body can utilize cells, signals, and nutrients in order to repair the bone. The cast did nothing but immobilize. The body did the repairing and healing. The vis, the self-healing power, the whatever does not imply magic – it implies that the body strives for life. And to do so the body has biochemical, physiological mechanisms through which it uses to repair tissues, handle toxins, etc… and naturopathic physicians attempt to stimulate and utilize that human capacity.

Also outlined by the AANP are the diagnostic and therapeutic modalities used in naturopathic practice:

  • Clinical and Laboratory Diagnostic Testing
  • Minor Surgery
  • Prescription Medication
  • Intravenous (IV) and Injection Therapy
  • Nutritional Medicine
  • Botanical Medicine
  • Physical Medicine (Osseous Manipulations, TENS, Ultrasound etc…)
  • Public Health Measures
  • Hygiene
  • Counseling
  • Homeopathy
  • Acupuncture

Most naturopathic physicians use only a few of these modalities in their practices based upon specialty, preference, and proficiency. These modalities fall onto a spectrum known as the therapeutic order,  which ranges from lifestyle changes all the way to pharmaceuticals and surgery.

What is a Naturopathic Physician?

Quoted from the AANP,

A licensed naturopathic physician (ND) attends a four-year, graduate-level naturopathic medical school and is educated in all of the same basic sciences as an MD, but also studies holistic and nontoxic approaches to therapy with a strong emphasis on disease prevention and optimizing wellness. In addition to a standard medical curriculum, the naturopathic physician also studies clinical nutrition, homeopathic medicine, botanical medicine, psychology, and counseling. A naturopathic physician takes rigorous professional board exams so that he or she may be licensed by a state or jurisdiction as a primary care general practice physician.

(Naturopathic Doctor can be seen interchangeably abbreviated as ND or NMD.)

Philosophy and Practice

There are six pillars that form the foundation and philosophy of practice for a naturopathic physician (ND/NMD). Essentially, these pillars state that naturopathic medicine is individualized, treats causes – not symptoms, empowers patients, and ideally stops disease before it happens.

  1. The Healing Power of Nature (Vis Medicatrix Naturae) – The body naturally moves towards healing and health. NDs attempt to remove obstacles to this process, and attempt to stimulate/augment these natural processes. 
  2. Identify and Treat the Cause (Tolle Causam– Simply, seek and eliminate the cause instead of hiding or suppressing the symptoms. When a fire alarm goes off (symptom), instead of unplugging the alarm (suppressing/hiding) an ND attempts to find and put out the fire (cause).
  3. First Do No Harm (Primum Non Nocere– This one is self explanatory and is also seen in the Hippocratic Oath. Naturopathic physicians try to uphold this by using the least possible force while still remaining effective, using medicines and methods with minimal harmful side-effects, etc…
  4. Doctor as Teacher (Docere)Naturopathic doctors educate and empower patients, encouraging them to take charge of their health. Working alongside the patient, and utilizing the therapeutic role of the doctor-patient relationship.
  5. Treat the Whole Person (Tolle Totum) – Each person is unique with individual physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, genetic, environmental, and social factors. What is right for one person with one condition, may not be right for another person with the same condition. Naturopathic doctors take into account that fact, and makes your medicine truly tailored to you. 
  6. Prevention (Praevenire)With chronic and preventable diseases topping the charts on causes of death, there is an absolute need for prevention specialists. Naturopathic doctors are just that. Taking into account the patient’s heredity, risk factors, etc… (i.e. the whole person) NDs are able to implement interventions and treatments that will prevent diseases from manifesting. Prevention is the best cure.

The Process of Healing

This model, shown below, asserts that there are disturbing factors (poor diet, environmental toxins, viruses, bacteria, etc…) that can disrupt health and cause a reaction. The reaction is the body’s response to the disturbance. From here the body can discharge (i.e. sweat, excrete, etc…), or battle and remove the disturbance, returning to health. If the reaction is not handled and the body is not able to sufficiently handle the disruptive factor, then the reaction becomes chronic and can ultimately become a serious pathology.

Process of Healing

A key thing to note is that the arrows go both ways – back to health. Naturopathic physicians use treatments, the therapeutic order, and the six pillars of naturopathic medicine to facilitate the body’s transition back towards health.

Many people have called Naturopathic Medicine “common sense medicine.”

Patients are treated as people and not diseases, symptoms are used as clues to find the root cause of dysfunction, methods with the least harmful side-effects are primarily used, stimulation and activation of the body’s natural capabilities are put first, patients are educated and empowered on their conditions and health, pharmaceutical treatments can and are used when necessary, and further prevention is emphasized strongly – all to collectively direct patients back towards health.

Summary and Takeaways

  1. Naturopathic medicine is grounded in traditional and scientific, evidence-based practices.
  2. Naturopathic doctors complete a rigorous graduate education comparable to that of an MD education, and both complete comparable exams prior to licensure.
  3. Naturopathic medicine follows a therapeutic order and has six principles from which practice is driven.

Modern naturopathic physicians (NDs) are excellent prevention  and wellness specialists by nature of education and modalities in practice. Traditional medical doctors (MDs) are excellent emergency specialists and surgeons by nature of education and modalities in practice. There is absolutely a place (and demand) in health-care for both fields of medicine due to the strengths and limitations in both MD and ND practices.

Together, in a truly integrative health-care system all fields of medicine will work side by side to optimize patient wellness and vitality!

Accredited Naturopathic Medical Schools:

Bastyr University – Kenmore, WA, USA and San Diego, CA, USA

Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine (BINM) – Vancouver, BC, Canada

Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM) – Toronto, ON, Canada

National University of Health Sciences – Chicago, IL, USA

National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) – Portland, OR, USA

Southwest College of Naturopathich Medicine (SCNM) – Phoenix, AZ, USA

University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine (UBCNM) – Bridgeport, CT, USA


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