One of the most common questions I hear from new patients is “what’s the difference between naturopathic medicine and regular medicine?”
This is a good question because there are so many misconceptions about the differences between the different types of modern medicine.
There’s naturopathic medicine, functional medicine, conventional medicine, plus all the different modalities these types of medicine actually use…
It can get overwhelming to keep track of it all!
Simply put, the term ‘conventional medicine’ describes mainstream medical care. This is what most people think of when they think about medical care: their local GP or hospital, where they are likely to have a long wait followed by a short consultation and a quick prescription.
‘Alternative medicine’ describes treatments that are not the standard of care in conventional medicine. Naturopathic medicine and functional medicine fall within the ‘alternative medicine’ definition.
In this post, I want to highlight why I’m different from your regular doctor.
I also want to show you where there is overlap and the opportunity for your naturopathic doctor to collaborate with your conventional doctor or healthcare provider.
Naturopathic medicine and conventional medicine are complementary — not competitive. There is a time and place for both, and my goal is always to work with your conventional medical provider to make sure you get the best level of care possible.
Let’s jump in.
What Is A Naturopathic Doctor (ND)?
To become a licensed ND you must attend a federally accredited four-year post-baccalaureate naturopathic medical school, as well as pass the national board exams. There are a total of eight schools in North America that have a Naturopathic Doctor degree.
I attended the National University of Naturopathic Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, Oregon. It was founded in 1956 and is the oldest federally and regionally accredited naturopathic school in the country. I am also an active member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
Naturopathic doctors are trained to become primary care physicians and general practitioners (GPs).
Similar to other family physicians, we can prescribe pharmaceutical medications, order lab work, and perform minor surgery.
However, there is some confusion around this field, because some states in the US do not regulate who can call themselves a naturopathic doctor.
It is important to know that while there are online naturopathy programs that teach nutrition and other healthy living principals, the level of training is very different between these programs and the accredited university degrees.
If your plan is to see a physician, make sure your Naturopathic doctor is accredited before commencing consultations.
Naturopathic doctors work with their patients to uncover the underlying genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors that are the cause of illness, using an individualized science-based approach.
Our goal with treatment is to restore normal or optimal function to the body by an assessment of your unique genetic makeup, blood biomarkers, diet and lifestyle, hormonal balance, toxic exposures, immune system function, structural alignment, physical fitness, and mental-emotional health.
We do this by focusing on improving your fitness and nutrition and utilizing non-drug treatments (such as herbs, vitamins, and minerals).
From this information, we look for the most effective, safest, and least invasive treatment for each patient’s individual needs.
Functional Medicine is an advanced training offered to healthcare professionals who are already licensed healthcare professionals (such as NDs, MDs, DOs, PAs, nurses, physical therapists, nutritionists).
Functional medicine aims to address the root cause of disease, rather than just the symptoms.
The coursework includes advanced training in the areas of nutrition, digestion, environmental health and detoxification, immune system, hormones, cardiometabolic, and bioenergetics.
Naturopathic doctors receive training in these areas during their medical training, and MDs and DOs may choose to complete this coursework after their medical training for a certification in Functional medicine.
So… What’s The Difference Between an ND and an MD?
The first two years of medical school are very similar for MDs and NDs, with a focus on learning the basic and clinical sciences.
In the third and fourth years of training, MDs learn all of the areas of medical specialization, while NDs are trained to become family doctors who specialize in a drug-free, natural approach to healing the body.
MDs focus on the treatment of disease while NDs focus on healthy living principals that prevent disease from occurring.
The typical treatment options from a medical doctor may include drugs or surgery. You may also be told to “watch and wait” if no diagnosis can be found or no treatment is warranted at that time.
There are still medical schools in the US that do not have adequate training in nutrition, so many of the underlying causes and early symptoms of lifestyle-related diseases are not well-recognized by some conventional medical practitioners.
In contrast, the typical treatment options from a naturopathic doctor are more likely to follow the integrative model of medicine: a combination of conventional medicine (drugs and surgery) with non-conventional alternatives, such as…
- Lifestyle and nutritional changes
- Structural manipulation techniques
- Injection therapies
- IV therapy
Another key difference is the actual experience of receiving treatment. Unfortunately, many conventional doctors are run off their feet and don’t have much time to spend with each patient.
It’s common to hear patients say they only get 10 or 15 minutes when they visit the doctor.
This means they don’t have time to explore each issue in-depth, look at what might be causing their health concerns, or even to have the chance to fully explain their situation (especially if they don’t have a longstanding relationship with that doctor).
Because I currently work as an online naturopathic doctor, I’m able to offer patients a full hour for each consultation. You can see what my patients have to say about that experience here.
I don’t have the pressures of drug reps bursting in every day or a waiting room full of unscheduled appointments.
I’m able to spend the time that’s really necessary to develop the best treatment plans possible for each patient.
While not all naturopathic doctors work online, this type of medicine takes a holistic approach to treatment and healing which considers the person as a whole -— mind and body — and so the patient experience tends to be much calmer and more focused.
Here’s another major misconception about the differences between naturopathic medicine and conventional medicine:
That naturopathic doctors never recommend conventional treatments.
This is false. While I reserve drug treatment for when diet and lifestyle treatments have failed, or when it is the least invasive treatment option available, there are many situations where the conventional route will be the safest and most effective treatment for a particular patient.
For example: if you’re in a car accident and you break all your bones, don’t come to me!
Go to the hospital where the advances in modern medicine are nothing short of a miracle. Emergency medicine is where conventional medicine shines and it saves thousands of lives every day.
But if you want to speed up your healing time, ease your pain and suffering from the accident, and strengthen your bones to prevent future breaks, then make an appointment with a naturopathic doctor.
The same goes for drugs. I prescribe them when they are the least invasive and most effective course of treatment for the patient.
Naturopathic medical schools teach an evidence-based medical approach, just like any other medical program.
We follow conventional medical guidelines when we perform physical exams, order blood work, and make diagnoses for our patients. We are taught to follow the standard of care in medicine, consult medical journals, and look through the current research when determining a patient’s treatment plan.
Is There Any Overlap Between Naturopathic Medicine and Conventional Medicine?
Yes, and a lot of it.
Many conventionally trained doctors have started to use natural therapies in their practices because patients are asking for alternatives to drugs, and because there are many well-researched natural medicines that are safe, gentle, and effective.
The NIH (National Institutes of Health), one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, has a dedicated institute to conduct and support research on complementary health products and practices.
The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine is a collaboration between Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to offer a fellowship training program in alternative medicine research.
The Institute for Functional Medicine has been created to train all types of physicians in the art and science of better medicine through addressing the underlying causes of complex chronic diseases and functional disease, with dietary and lifestyle modifications that prevent them.
According to a government survey back in 2007, Americans spent $33.3 billion dollars out of pocket for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioners and products. Clearly there is an interest in CAM, and there is an increasing need for research to improve treatment protocols and our understanding of alternative therapies.
I frequently collaborate with MDs, DOs, DCs, therapists, acupuncturists, personal trainers, massage therapists, etc.
Cardiologists specialize in the heart, gastroenterologists specialize in the gut, and naturopathic doctors specialize in complementary and alternative medicine. There is a proper time and place for all of the specialties in medicine.
In years gone by, many people felt they couldn’t question their doctors. But medicine has changed, and it’s fair that you would expect your doctor to be cooperative and respectful of your wishes.
A sign of a good doctor is one who welcomes questions, second opinions, and wants to collaborate with your other healthcare professionals.
If you’ve had a bad experience with a doctor (of any kind), remember that just like any profession, there are good and bad options out there. The same could be said for mechanics, plumbers, lawyers, architects, or any number of service providers.
And because there are many different treatment modalities in natural medicine, all naturopathic doctors practice differently.
I urge you to do your research, get a recommendation, and find a doctor who fits your needs.
If you’re interested in working together to create a custom plan for your unique health needs, click here to fill out an application and I’ll be in touch.
Are All Supplements and Herbs FDA-Approved?
In the US supplements are regulated by the FDA, but not as drugs or foods. They fall under a separate category called dietary supplements and they have their own rules under the FDA to maintain quality standards.
However, the FDA does not guarantee the safety of these products so it’s important to know that companies can manufacture products that have not been proven to be safe.
All herbal and nutritional supplements can have medication-like effects on the body, such as lowering blood glucose or blood pressure. And anything that can create positive effects can also carry risks.
Therefore, it is very important to work with someone who has studied the use of herbal medicines and nutritional supplements before taking them.
Some people argue that if natural medicines are so effective, then drug companies would be using them.
And they are! Greater than 25% of modern prescription drugs contain at least one compound based on or derived from natural sources.
Lovaza, the medication made from fish oil, is one example. Morphine and codeine, active ingredients in the opium poppy, are two more. Penicillin, the first antibiotic which changed the face of medicine as we know it, was originally created from Penicillium mold.
Natural medicines are harder to patent than synthetic drugs made in a lab.
And medicines without a patent are less profitable. This is one main reason why there is so much more money spent on the research of synthetic drugs over herbs and supplements — there is a lot more money to be made with patented synthetic drugs!
Why Should I Choose A Naturopathic Doctor Over A Homeopath, A Nutritionist, Or a Visit to the Supplement Store?
Homeopathy is one single modality that a naturopathic doctor may use for treatment. Other modalities include botanical medicine, clinical nutrition, IV therapy, and physical manipulation.
To become proficient in the use of homeopathy, many years of study are required to understand its indications and limitations.
I have studied homeopathy for the past 15+ years and received certification from the New England School of Homeopathy, the world-renowned homeopaths Drs. Paul Herscu and Amy Rothenberg.
The same is true for nutrition, and the training for nutritionists varies widely.
It can be anything from a weekend online course to years of training. There are many great nutritionists out there, but again, it is wise to look into the training and credentials of anyone who you want to trust with your health.
Naturopathic doctors receive four years of nutrition training in the classroom and in the clinic throughout their medical education.
And because NDs are medically trained professionals, we are generally the most qualified healthcare providers to advise you on the best diet for your current health situation.
And as far as doing a little DIY with Google and a trip to your local GNC?
Of the billions of dollars spent on supplements each year, if your body doesn’t need them, they end up becoming very expensive urine — and that’s if you’re lucky. However, some supplements can also cause harm by interacting negatively with a medication or leading to a toxic level of a vitamin or mineral, which will then require treatment.
It’s important to know what the unique needs of your body are, the products that will put your body into balance, and how to track the process with the changes you have made.
This can only be achieved through blood testing and proper analysis of your health.
Not only is it futile to guess at what your body needs, just because something says it is natural (or has great marketing), that doesn’t mean it can’t do you harm when taken incorrectly.
For example, taking large doses of iron, calcium, or vitamin D when you do not need it can create negative health consequences or toxic effects.
The supplement industry is poorly regulated. So it is very important to know the quality and safety of the products you are taking. What is on the label is not what is always in the bottle!
This recent investigation, done by the New York State Attorney General’s office, exposed some major retailer brand supplements on this very topic:
“The New York State attorney general’s office accused four major retailers of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves.”
Buying from unknown sources online also puts you at risk for taking counterfeit or improperly stored products, which can also cause a ripple of negative effects for your health.
Ultimately, when it comes to your health, YOU are the most important person in the equation.
No one will ever be as invested in your health as you are. It’s critical that you find healthcare providers that listen to you, respect your insights, and truly keep your best interests at heart.
This is the best way to find and treat the root cause of illness, not just the symptoms. Let’s work together to reverse your chronic disease risk, reduce your reliance on prescription drugs, and optimize your health.
I can help you regain your energy, perform with more focus and clarity, reach your ideal weight, and feel like yourself again.
Click here to explore how we can work together to create a custom treatment plan that can transform your health.