Naturopathy is essentially an eclectic system of medicine using the most natural and least invasive methods of treating disease. Yet it is not so much a collection of treatment strategies as it is a philosophy of treating. Naturopathic physician Kenneth Proefrock, NMD, says, “What defines naturopathic physicians is not so much the substances we use, but how we use them. Naturopathic doctors will even at times prescribe pharmaceuticals if it will help restore some sense of balance so that the patient can then go on to achieve a higher level of health.”

The biggest difference with conventional so-called allopathic medicine is this approach to the patient. Allo (opposite) pathy (disease) fights symptoms with substances that are opposite in function and suppress those symptoms. Naturopathic physicians, in contrast, are far more interested in how a person got to feel ill in the first place, and identifying that first cause of disease and correcting that cause, so that the resulting symptoms are then eliminated. Sometimes symptom suppression is necessary regardless of the form of medicine, but naturopaths see that as only a means to an end. For example, if patients are in so much pain that they can’t function or enjoy life, then pain relief would be appropriate until the underlying cause of the pain is eliminated by other means.

The six defining principles of naturopathic medicine further illustrate this philosophy and approach:

1. First do no harm.
2. Nature has the power to heal.
3. Treat the whole person.
4. Treat the cause.
5. Prevent disease.
6. Doctor as teacher.

“First do no harm” was Hippocrates’s instruction to physicians and may be thought of as an application of the Golden Rule. Whatever intervention a doctor can make in a patient’s health and life, the only acceptable action is one that will do no further damage to the patient’s health. It doesn’t get much more sensible than this rule first learned as toddlers: don’t hurt anybody.

Second, naturopathic doctors rely on the healing power of nature to help restore patients to complete health. The really excellent naturopath is one who knows how to work the modalities, that is, to be able to draw from the vast materia medica of natural materials as appropriate for specific patients and to be able to apply them to the great variety and complication of illnesses that are common today, and better yet, to offer the patient a choice among multiple effective treatments.

Another principle is to treat the whole person. Naturopaths know better than to give you a medication that will calm your arthritis but leave you blind or that will clear up the skin while skewing your hormones out of balance. Naturopaths are trained to consider the whole patient, not just the one part of the body with obvious symptoms. The job of the naturopathic doctor is to make sure that what you get is helpful and completely benign for all of you.

The fourth principle is to treat the cause. For example, you may have chronic inflammation that has caused joint stiffness and imbalanced immune function. The naturopath goes to the cause of the problem and treats the inflammation and its cause because when you remove the cause, the joints move more easily, and the immune system improves. So that way, you resolve all three problems, instead of just one.

To prevent disease is another naturopathic principle. The improved lifestyle of naturopathic patients is what enables the body to regain homeostasis and better deflect the constant stresses and toxic conditions that a heavily trafficked industrial society imposes.

Perhaps the last principle is most important of all: it is even more important for a doctor to be a teacher than a healer. In accordance with the idea that if you give someone a fish, he may eat that day, but if you teach him to fish, he may eat for a lifetime, the doctor must teach how to heal and how to live comfortably long term with good-quality food; sound sleep; stress reduction measures; and a fun, feasible exercise program. Ultimately, the most successful patients learn to take responsibility for their own health, with the doctor acting as a resource and tutor toward that goal.

Naturopathic physicians are naturopathic doctors (ND) or naturopathic medical doctors (NMD). After graduation from a four-year college or university, naturopaths are trained in four-year medical colleges, just as other physicians are. The difference is that in naturopathic medical school, in addition to learning such basic medical sciences as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology, pharmacology, immunology, histology, neuroanatomy, and genetics, naturopathic students also attend full courses in specific clinical sciences over the next two years: obstetrics, pediatrics, gynecology, urology, geriatrics, neurology, eyes-ears-nose-throat, pulmonology, cardiology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, dermatology, rheumatology, and oncology. Naturopathic students take courses in standard medical procedures: physical diagnosis, laboratory diagnosis, and clinical procedures (multiple courses of each) as well as emergency medicine and minor surgery. Of course, naturopaths also learn the naturopathic therapies. These include clinical nutrition (i.e., nutrition as both a healing therapy and applied biochemistry), botanical medicine (nutritive and therapeutic plants), homeopathy, and Oriental medicine such as acupuncture and herbs as well as environmental medicine, physical medicine, and hydrotherapy. Naturopaths are trained both in the classroom and in a variety of clinical settings.

Throughout the naturopathic medical curriculum, naturopaths are required to take board exams to ensure that both training and skills meet the standards required across North America for the naturopathic profession. Just as for medical doctors and osteopathic physicians, naturopathic physicians are required to take continuing education courses periodically to stay at peak competence.

Just be sure that you ask for a licensed ND or NMD because licensed naturopaths are the ones who are both classroom and clinically trained to practice medicine. There are some health care practitioners who call themselves “naturopaths” or “traditional naturopaths” but who have never enrolled in a medical school. They may have purchased their diploma online and may have never treated anyone before you. Such people may have good intentions and want to help their fellow humans but are at a serious loss regarding the necessary knowledge and experience to be trusted with your health. Licensed naturopathic physicians, on the other hand, have graduated from a four-year, on-site medical school and have worked with several hundred patients at minimum before graduating. A naturopathic doctor’s license to practice medicine is issued by one of fourteen states plus the District of Columbia, although naturopathic physicians may be found in all fifty states and abroad.

Naturopathic medicine is still only sometimes covered by medical insurance, and then as out-of-network providers. However, as many people have happily discovered, the out-of-pocket costs to a naturopath’s patients are often much less than the out-of-pocket costs (i.e., deductibles and uncovered services and products) for fully insured people who go to conventional physicians and who need pharmaceuticals and/or hospital care; that is, a naturopath’s tools, which are basically materials found in nature—often plant materials—are so much less expensive than patented prescription drugs that many people end up paying less, even without insurance. These savings are magnified as time goes on, considering the much greater relative improvement in overall health of the naturopathic patient over the average person.

** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Health. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Health”, visit

Author's Bio: 

Colleen Huber, NMD, is a naturopathic medical doctor and primary care physician in Tempe, Arizona. Dr. Huber graduated from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe. Many of her health articles have appeared on, the most visited natural health site. Her own Web site,, contains more than eighty of her articles in a free newsletter on the topics of health, nutrition, and natural lifestyles. Colleen Huber’s book Choose Your Foods Like Your Life Depends on Them was published in 2007. Her academic writing has appeared in Lancet and other medical journals.