Naturopathic Medicine: A New Model for Health

What is naturopathic medicine, you may ask? Here is naturopathic doctor Melissa Rodriguez‘s excellent review. She currently works in the Integrative Medicine department at Beijing United Family Hospital (where I also work):

These days many people know about the availability of natural medicines like herbal remedies, homeopathy, and the use of vitamins and minerals to treat and prevent disease. However, not many people are aware that there is a profession that is highly specialized in the use and prescription of natural medicines. A naturopathic doctor (N.D.), or naturopath, is very well educated when it comes to the appropriate use of nutritional supplements, herbal remedies, and other alternative treatments. Naturopaths are also knowledgeable about interactions between drugs and natural medicines. You might be asking yourself, what exactly is naturopathic medicine? How do I recognize a formally trained, licensed naturopath? And what can naturopathic medicine do for me? Let’s begin with a brief synopsis about the origins of naturopathic medicine.


Naturopathic medicine has been around in its primitive form since pre-historic times. In those days there was likely a “healer” in the village or a wise elder who knew what herbs and plants were useful for what condition. They were also aware of which foods were beneficial for which maladies; and what foods to avoid when ill. All ancient cultures have their traditional healing wisdom, the Persians, Native Americans, East Indians, Chinese… The list goes on and on. Hippocrates, a Greek physician who is considered by many to be the father of modern medicine, described the concept of “the healing power of nature” almost 2500 years ago.

Naturopathic medicine as it is known today developed in Europe in the late 1800’s before coming to North America. Dr. Benedict Lust popularized the term “naturopathy” and used it to describe a medical practice using herbal remedies, homeopathy, acupuncture, nutrition, lifestyle counseling and manipulative therapy. In the early 1900’s he opened many naturopathic colleges and healing centers in the United States. Naturopathic medicine flourished in North America until antibiotics and surgery took centre stage during the 1930’s and 40’s. This trend continued until the last few decades, when people began to look for alternatives to conventional medical treatments.


Treating the root cause of disease is the fundamental purpose of naturopathic medicine. A visit with a naturopathic doctor takes a long time, because many aspects of a person must be studied, their diet, lifestyle, medical history… Everything must be considered in order to understand the underlying cause of disease. The goal is not to treat the symptoms, although at times the symptoms must be alleviated. The goal is to find out the why, not just the what. Like a detective, a naturopathic doctor must put all the clues together to discover the cause. For example, why does this individual suffer from migraines? Could it be a reaction to stress? Perhaps a trigger in the environment, or maybe an unknown food sensitivity? While relieving the pain is important, to treat the cause is imperative in order to prevent further migraines from occurring. Thus the cause and therefore the prescription will be unique to each individual.

One of the most important principles of naturopathic medicine is that the body has the innate ability to heal itself. We see this phenomenon in everyday situations, if we get a cut or a cold, our body will naturally heal the wound and eventually cure the cold. This is true for most people and in most situations. A naturopathic doctor uses natural medicines to help the body heal itself. Naturopathic treatments can give the body that extra boost it needs to heal faster and more efficiently. For example, if a person’s body is too weak to handle a simple cold, complications can arise such as secondary bacterial infections. These become harder for the body to treat by itself. If natural medicines that support the immune system are given, we can potentially avoid complications like bronchitis or pneumonia. There are also extreme situations in which the body is struggling to heal itself, for example when someone has a disease like cancer. In this case, natural medicine can help strengthen the body and counteract the side effects of conventional therapies like radiation or chemotherapy.


To become a licensed naturopathic doctor one must go through a long and rigorous process that is both challenging and extremely rewarding.

Naturopaths must first receive a university Bachelor degree and complete certain pre-requisites such as biochemistry, anatomy and physiology. Then they apply to a naturopathic college that is accredited by whatever organization is responsible for that country. In Canada it is the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME), which is recognized by the US Department of Education. The naturopathic program is 4 years and is very intense. Courses include histology, embryology, and immunology, as well as pharmacology and other medical sciences. The naturopathic component includes botanical medicine, nutrition, traditional Chinese medicine, and homeopathy. There is also one year of clinical experience. By the time someone graduates from a naturopathic college they would have completed over 4200 hours of classroom and clinical training.

The next step to become a licensed N.D. is to successfully complete the licensing exams. In the US and Canada these are administered by the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX). After this process is complete, an ND must continue learning in order to maintain their license. The science of natural medicine is constantly being developed, so continuing education is critical to stay current and well informed.

The Naturopathic Advantage

Naturopathic doctors are trained primary care providers who can help a person optimize their health through diet and nutritional supplements. They empower and educate their patients, helping them make healthier choices. They can also treat disease, from acute conditions like ear infections to chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s. The methods they use are gentle and many have stood the test of time, some still being used after thousands of years. Naturopaths are also trained to recognize when to refer a patient. This is important because there are times when the perspective of a different professional is needed, when further investigations are warranted, or when natural medicines are not enough. A naturopathic doctor is your best resource to find a healthy balance between natural and modern medicine.

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