What is a Naturopathic Doctor and When Should I See One?
TLDR: If you’re looking for a credentialed practitioner who uses both western and holistic methods, and approaches health issues from a whole body, root-cause perspective, an ND might be the right practitioner for you. Read on for details.
There’s a lot of confusion around Naturopathic medicine. Is it the same as homeopathy? Do they only use natural forms of medicine? Is a Naturopathic Doctor an MD by training?
Here’s how we describe naturopathic medicine at Rupa Health.
What is naturopathic medicine?
Naturopathy, or naturopathic medicine, is an approach to medicine that aims to help the body heal itself by using both conventional medicine and natural remedies. Naturopathic doctors (NDs) treat illness from the root cause and are holistic in nature (considering the whole person - mind, body, and spirit). Naturopathic medicine is NOT homeopathy - which is an unregulated form of medicine in the US and founded on very different principles. NDs are also not MDs, though their schooling and licensure are comparable.
A naturopathic doctor uses a similar approach to treating patients as functional and integrative medicine practitioners, however the three have very different training programs and credentialing. Read more about those differences in our glossary.
Some people explain naturopathic medicine as the “original functional medicine”.
What training do NDs go through?
In California, NDs attend a four-year medical school, just like Western MD’s, complete a residency in naturopathic medicine, and pass an extensive postdoctoral board examination (NPLEX) in order to receive a license or registration. (NDs are currently recognized in 21 other states. See up to date state-by-state status here.)
Their schooling includes a lot of the same basic science and physiology as Western medical school, but also includes more natural/non-invasive curriculum in subjects like plant medicine, nutrition, and sometimes acupuncture.
What is naturopathic medicine good for?
Most commonly chronic and complicated conditions that are not easily treated by western medicine - autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, allergies, digestive issues, headaches, hormonal imbalances and chronic fatigue.
Many people see NDs in complement with their Western doctors, to have a more well-rounded perspective on their health. Naturopathic doctors want to keep their patients in optimal health, so it’s also great as a preventative care method.
How do NDs treat me?
Naturopathic medicine uses many therapies, including conventional medicine and lab testing, herbs, lifestyle assessment, massage, exercise, and nutritional counseling.
NDs have a wide set of tools they can use to treat patients. In California, they can order lab testing and can prescribe medicine if they have a co-signing doctor. The “natural” part of their treatment involves using herbs, clinical nutrition, diet changes, exercise and custom naturopathic treatments such as fasting, sauna therapy and more. See more in ND modalities.
Naturopathic doctors work with patients closely and deeply to build a health plan that works with that person’s individualized needs, and get to the root cause of their health issues.
When should I see an ND over a regular MD?
There are many cases where you might want to see an ND instead of an MD. Some common examples include:
If you’ve seen many doctors but not found the answer or definitive diagnosis
If you’re feeling sick but standard testing reveals nothing remarkable
If you’re looking for more ‘in depth’ individualized treatment than was offered elsewhere
If you have a recurring health problem or infection
If you’re looking for a ‘Health Reset’ or ‘Optimization of Health’
Would like a holistic approach or specific guidance using herbs, nutrition, and/ or nutritional supplements
Are seeking a doctor trained and knowledgeable about drug/nutrient/herb interactions
Is it a one-time visit?
Not usually. Most NDs will have you purchase a “package” which is a series of visits so that you are checking in on a regular basis. Generally, lifestyle based medicine like naturopathic medicine takes a bit longer to see results as the focus is on helping your body heal itself. Expect to work with your ND for an extended period of time. An average protocol will be around 3 - 6 months.
What’s the first visit like?
A first visit lasts anywhere from 60-90 minutes and will involve your ND asking a series of interview questions about you, your health history, your desired outcomes and more. The ND may ask questions about diet, exercise, stress, relationships and more to paint a whole picture of your lifestyle.
Afterwards, your ND will work with you to order custom lab-work and create a personal health plan. She may give you tips around diet, exercise, and stress management. She might use complementary medicine -- like homeopathy, herbal medicine, and acupuncture -- in addition to naturopathic treatments. She might also prescribe medication (co-signed by an MD), if needed.
Is it expensive? Will insurance cover seeing an ND?
Unfortunately NDs are not in-network with insurance companies in California. You might have out of network coverage that could cover some portion of the cost, but usually there is lots of fine print and a very high out of network deductible.
As a general rule, you should expect to pay out of pocket for an ND. Call you insurance company, though, to double check.
Naturopathic medicine can seem expensive at first, however, many patients find it pays off in the long run, if you can avoid costly surgeries or developing chronic conditions. From our research at Rupa Health, the average minimum price to work with an ND in the San Francisco Bay Area is around $340. The rates run $260 / hour on average.
Let’s wrap it all up - what are the pros & cons of seeing an ND?
Holistic in nature - looks at the whole person
Practices root cause medicine rather than just masking symptoms
Tends to prefer lifestyle and less invasive methods of healing over pharmaceuticals and surgery
It’s preventative, saving you money on healthcare in the long-run
ND’s have extensive 4 year training & board examinations, Highly regulated and credentialed
Many work jointly with Western doctors so you get someone who understands both worlds
Can be very expensive & is mostly out of pocket
Need multiple sessions and can take a while to see results
Can be difficult to find a good ND
Many NDs have waitlists for new patients
NDs are sometimes not able to order all the same testing or medications as Western doctors
Limited in scope of practice as compared to a Western doctor, in California
I’m in! How do I find a great ND?
That’s what we’re here for! We’ve identified the best NDs by specialty and can help you find the right person for you based on your price point, location, health concerns, and more.
References & Further Reading:
Definition of Naturopathic Medicine, American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
When to Call a Naturopathic Doctor, Aurum Alchemy
Difference between Naturopathic and Functional Medicine- Kalish Institute
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Are you a patient looking for an integrative practitioner? We’re here to help! All of our Rupa Health certified practitioners go through a multi-level vetting process to curate the perfect match(es) for our patients. If you’re an integrative practitioner or MD looking to know more, please contact us here. We’d love to connect!