A naturopathic doctor (ND) is a healthcare professional who practices naturopathic medicine.
Naturopathic medicine is an alternative medicine approach that emphasizes using natural medicine and a “whole person” approach to prevent, diagnose, and treat health conditions.
NDs focus primarily on addressing the underlying causes of illness and disease — rather than treating just the symptoms — to help promote wellness within the body and mind as a whole.
Definition of naturopathic medicine
In 2011, the House of Delegates of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) approved this definition of naturopathic medicine:
“Naturopathic medicine is a distinct primary [healthcare] 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.”
All naturopathic doctors abide by the
- First do no harm. NDs focus on using medications, procedures, and other treatment approaches that are as minimally invasive as possible. However, in cases where natural treatment methods aren’t effective, an ND can refer out for further care.
- The healing power of nature. Naturopathic medicine emphasizes the healing power of the natural world as well as the body’s own ability to heal. NDs help the patient use this power by helping to create a healthy environment, both internally and externally.
- Identify and treat the causes. NDs work to identify the underlying physiologic, biochemical, structural, and psychospiritual contributor to symptoms. By addressing the underlying root cause, naturopathic medicine aims to treat the cause of symptoms rather than ameliorate the symptoms.
- Doctor as teacher. NDs function not only as practitioners of natural medicine, but also as teachers to their patients. Within the scope of their practice, NDs teach patients everything they need to know to take care of their bodies.
- Treat the whole person. Naturopathy emphasizes the idea that there are multiple factors — physical, mental, genetic, environmental, and more — that impact one’s health. During treatment, NDs focus on addressing all these factors, rather than just one.
- Prevention. While NDs do diagnose and treat health conditions, the primary focus of naturopathic medicine is the prevention of illness and disease.
By using the six principles of naturopathic medicine, NDs aim to help patients recover from both acute and chronic health conditions while using the most natural and least invasive approaches possible.
NDs begin the journey to licensure with a 4-year doctoral program, and must complete the following path to become licensed:
- Education. Licensure for a doctor in naturopathy (ND) or doctorate in naturopathic medicine (NMD) includes a 4-year doctoral program from an accredited naturopathic medical school. According to the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME), there are nine programs in the United States that currently qualify graduates for licensure.
- Examination. After completing a 4-year accredited program, NDs must pass the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Exam (NPLEX). During the NPLEX, candidates are tested on a variety of topics, including biomedical subjects and diagnostics, treatment modalities, and medical interventions.
After an ND has become licensed, they must continue to follow all state guidelines for naturopathy while practicing medicine. While the requirements vary between states, they generally include meeting yearly continuing education requirements and remaining within that specific state’s scope of practice.
Medical doctors begin their journey by taking an exam called the MCAT, which affords them admission to medical school. After passing the MCAT, students are required to complete a 4-year doctoral program before being accepted into a residency program.
Residency training can take anywhere from 3 to 7 years, depending on the program and specialty. The student can then take an exam to become a state-licensed and board-certified doctor of medicine (MD).
An MD can become a holistic doctor by specializing in holistic medicine, which is a type of alternative medicine that focuses on promoting wellness in the mind, body, and soul. Unlike naturopathic medicine, holistic medicine isn’t a separate branch of medicine. Instead, it’s an approach to medicine that uses both conventional and alternative medicine.
Regulations vary around the world, but in the United States, licensed naturopathic doctors are real medical professionals who can provide many of the same services that medical doctors do.
Within the world of healthcare, many NDs do choose to go into private practice. But many also work alongside other medical professionals in a variety of
- health centers
- other private healthcare settings
In the United States, there are strict regulations surrounding the practice of naturopathic medicine. While anyone can go to school to become an ND, not every state allows naturopathic doctors to practice medicine.
As of 2022, NDs can become licensed to practice in only 22 states:
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
In addition to the states listed above, there are three jurisdictions in the United States that offer naturopathic licensing:
- District of Columbia
- Puerto Rico
- U.S. Virgin Islands
Within the remaining jurisdictions in the United States that have no licensing for naturopathic doctors, there are three states in which it’s actually illegal for anyone to practice naturopathic medicine:
- South Carolina
Whether an ND is covered by insurance depends entirely on the type of insurance plan you have.
In most cases, NDs aren’t covered by insurance. Some plans even specifically exclude NDs from their coverage. However, some of the services that NDs can provide may be covered under some insurance plans.
When it comes to Medicare, it doesn’t cover services provided by NDs. In fact, Original Medicare will only cover services from a doctor of medicine (MD), doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO), or another specialist, such as:
- physician assistant
- nurse practitioner
- clinical social worker
- physical or occupational therapist
- speech language pathologist
- clinical psychologist
- dentist or optometrist, depending on your plan
If you live in a state that allows licensed NDs to practice, you can check your insurance plan’s coverage and benefits booklet for more information on whether this type of care is covered.
NDs can treat a wide range of health conditions, including both acute and chronic illnesses and diseases.
According to a 2020 survey taken by the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC), the most common conditions treated by practicing NDs include:
- cardiovascular conditions
- chronic pain
- digestive conditions
- endocrine conditions
- fertility issues
- hormonal imbalances
- immune system conditions
- mental health conditions
- pediatric conditions
- women’s health conditions
Most NDs focus on the more common health conditions listed above. But there are some NDs who also specialize in other areas of health, such as men’s health, autoimmune disorders, and oncology.
A licensed naturopathic doctor can prevent, treat, and diagnose a wide variety of acute and chronic health conditions, including many of the conditions listed above.
But, similar to the types of diagnoses that a medical doctor can give, there are many health conditions that require the input of a specialist for an accurate diagnosis.
If an ND isn’t able to accurately diagnose a specific health condition, a referral can be made to an outside specialist for further diagnostic testing and an official diagnosis.
Although there are 25 jurisdictions that allow licensed naturopathic doctors to practice medicine, only the following 13 states allow NDs to order laboratory tests for patients:
- North Dakota
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
Outside of these states, NDs aren’t approved to order lab testing for patients. Instead, the patient may be referred out for any laboratory testing they might need.
Many of the states that allow licensed naturopathic doctors to practice medicine also allow these doctors to prescribe medications — with limitations.
Under most state regulations, NDs aren’t allowed to prescribe controlled substances, or substances that are highly controlled by government regulations due to their potential for misuse. However, in New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Washington, an exception is made for certain controlled medications depending on the specific ingredients.
Naturopathic doctors are only licensed to practice in the 25 jurisdictions listed above.
If you live in the United States and reside in any of the locations mentioned above, one of the best ways to find a list of licensed NDs in your area is to use The American Association of Naturopathic Physician’s search tool. With this tool, you can search for licensed NDs using a variety of parameters, including practice focus, treatment modalities, and insurance.
It’s important to remember that some people can call themselves naturopaths or naturopathic doctors without ever being licensed. If you live in a state that allows NDs to become licensed, make sure to check your NDs credentials to confirm that they have met all the requirements for licensing.
If you’ve been wondering about whether an ND is right for you, it could help to consider what your treatment goals are, and in turn, this can help you determine how naturopathic medicine might benefit you.
In many cases, naturopathic medicine is most beneficial for people who value a more natural, less invasive approach to chronic disease prevention and treatment. It can be especially helpful for those who have multiple health conditions because, oftentimes, these conditions are connected in ways that an ND can recognize and address.
However, even outside of using naturopathic medicine as a primary approach, many people with chronic illnesses can also benefit from having a naturopathic doctor as a part of their care team. And in some cases, an ND may already be a part of your team. In fact, in 2018 there were 28 medical centers in the United States that employed one or more naturopathic doctors.
Naturopathic medicine is a branch of medicine that focuses on using a whole-body approach to prevent, diagnose, and treat medical conditions.
Although naturopathic medicine is prohibited in over half of the United States, there are still 25 jurisdictions that allow licensed naturopathic doctors to practice medicine.
If you’re interested in learning more about other types of alternative medicine, check out our Healthline Natural hub or the Natural Medicine Journal.