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The Differences Between Naturopathic Medicine and Conventional Medicine

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The Differences Between Naturopathic Medicine and Conventional Medicine

Chronic disease is rising: 60% of American adults have one chronic illness, and 40% have at least two (12). More people are turning away from the conventional healthcare model to seek answers and solutions for their health. There is high demand for licensed functional medicine and naturopathic doctors to take a whole-person approach to wellness. Read on to learn about naturopathic doctors, the naturopathic approach to healthcare, and why seeking help from a licensed naturopathic doctor is a good investment for your health and well-being.

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What is a Naturopathic Doctor?

A naturopathic doctor (ND) is a practitioner of naturopathic medicine - a distinct healthcare profession emphasizing disease prevention and the self-healing process to create individualized and holistic healthcare. (1)

Licensed NDs are not the same as unlicensed naturopaths. Through accredited naturopathic medical college programs, naturopathic doctors are educated and trained as primary care physicians. Naturopathic students complete 4,100 hours of class and clinical training, including over 1,200 hours of hands-on, supervised clinical training, before becoming eligible to sit for the two-part NPLEX licensing examination. Unlicensed naturopaths can have varied levels of education and experience, often from an unregulated, unaccredited online format. (2)

Naturopathic doctors are trained to diagnose and treat acute and chronic illnesses by supporting a person's self-healing capabilities, identifying root causes of disease, and developing personalized treatment plans incorporating various healing modalities. (3)

At its core, naturopathic medicine is distinguished by six underlying principles:  

  1. First, Do No Harm: the center of all medical practice, this principle emphasizes utilizing the most natural and least invasive/toxic therapies possible to minimize danger to the patient
  2. The Healing Power of Nature: recognizes that nature assists the healing process and the body holds the wisdom to heal itself
  3. Identify and Treat the Cause: identify underlying causes of illness and remove obstacles to cure instead of focusing on symptom suppression
  4. Doctor as Teacher: NDs support and empower their patients in learning to optimize health
  5. Treat the Whole Person: every body system is interconnected; a whole-person approach to medicine is realized to restore balance and health
  6. Prevention: focus on health, wellness, and disease prevention when possible

Additionally, NDs are guided by the Therapeutic Order, which identifies the natural order in which the naturopathic principles and therapeutic modalities should be applied to provide the greatest benefit and avoid harm to the patient.

Source: Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges

How Does Naturopathic Medicine Differ From Allopathic Medicine?

Conventional medical doctors (MD/DO) take a biological approach to healing. Their education is disease-specific, and their medical practice encompasses diagnosing a patient's symptoms and prescribing a symptom-based treatment approach. A conventional medical education emphasizes learning and training in the biomedical sciences, scientific method/clinical research, medical ethics, clinical problem-solving skills, diagnostics, and treatment through pharmaceutical and surgical interventions. In addition to the previously mentioned coursework, naturopathic students are also trained in lifestyle counseling, botanical medicine, physical medicine and hydrotherapy, and clinical nutrition. (4)

When consulting with a naturopathic doctor, you will be more likely to receive longer patient visits, detailed questioning regarding personal lifestyle, and a complete review of body system functioning. NDs are also more likely to order in-depth and functional lab testing to help pinpoint the reason behind symptoms and classify health on a spectrum. Treatment options also differ between naturopathic and allopathic approaches. Allopathic treatment typically relies upon pharmaceuticals and specialty referrals, whereas naturopathic treatment plans will emphasize lifestyle and nutritional modifications and more natural therapeutic interventions before recommending pharmaceutical options. (5)

Types of Illnesses a Naturopathic Doctor Can Help With

NDs are trained to treat all medical conditions and to provide individual and family health care. Like conventional medical doctors, many NDs specialize their practice to focus on a specific health concern. Specialty associations exist for naturopathic Endocrinology, Environmental Medicine, Gastroenterology, Pediatrics, Primary Care, Psychiatry, and Oncology. (6)

NDs can help with virtually all types of illness, working as primary care providers or adjunct healthcare team members. Common ailments treated by naturopathic doctors include allergies, chronic pain, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances (including menopause and infertility), weight management, fatigue, thyroid disorders, respiratory conditions, heart disease, and autoimmune disease. (6)

Naturopathic doctors are also trained to perform minor surgeries, such as removing cysts, stitching superficial wounds, and freezing warts. (6)

Most Common Functional Medicine Labs Used by Naturopathic Doctors

Licensed NDs can order and interpret labs in the following states: AK, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, HI, ID, KS, ME, MN, MT, NH, ND, OR, UT, VT, and WA. Along with standard blood reference range testing, NDs often order specialty labs to better evaluate the health and function of the various body systems. Commonly ordered functional medicine tests include the following:

Comprehensive Stool Test

With up to 70 million Americans suffering from digestive disorders, comprehensive stool testing is one of the most popular functional medicine tests ordered by naturopathic doctors to investigate and improve gut health. A comprehensive stool test requires a 1-3 day stool at-home stool collection by the patient and measures markers related to digestion, absorption, intestinal inflammation, and detection of large intestinal dysbiosis or pathogenic infection. (7)

SIBO Breath Testing

Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and intestinal methanogen overgrowth (IMO) are commonly overlooked causes of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), making the SIBO breath test a popular testing option among naturopathic doctors working with patients struggling with IBS symptoms. (8)

Comprehensive Hormonal Panel

A comprehensive hormonal panel measures sex and adrenal hormones through saliva or urine to thoroughly evaluate the balance of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol throughout the day and/or menstrual cycle. A comprehensive panel of this nature is helpful in the evaluation of health concerns including, but not limited to, chronic fatigue, irregular periods, menopause, andropause, and chronic stress.

Nutritional Evaluation

A nutritional evaluation can be ordered in addition to a comprehensive nutritional intake to identify nutritional gaps, helping to personalize dietary and supplemental recommendations in any disease-specific treatment plan or to optimize longevity and prevent disease.

Food Sensitivity Testing

Food sensitivity testing is frequently requested by patients working with naturopathic doctors because it is generally not ordered by conventional doctors. A food sensitivity panel measures immune antibodies in response to specific food proteins; food sensitivities can exacerbate and contribute to digestive complaints, fatigue, skin rashes, and headaches.

Environmental Testing

Exposure to molds, heavy metals, and other environmental toxins can cause significant harm to the body. An environmental toxin screen measures a patient's toxic burden and identifies the specific toxic offender(s) so that an appropriate detoxification program can be initiated.

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Naturopathic Approach to Treatment

NDs utilize many treatment modalities, including botanical medicine, clinical nutrition, homeopathy, physical medicine and hydrotherapy, intravenous and intramuscular injections, mind-body medicine, minor surgery, and pharmaceuticals. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the naturopathic treatment approach. Based on extensive medical intakes and laboratory evaluation, your naturopathic doctor will work with you to create a customized treatment plan that incorporates the appropriate and indicated therapeutic techniques.

Dietary Considerations in Naturopathic Medicine

Recognizing nutrition as a cornerstone of optimal health, naturopathic doctors complete an average of 155 classroom hours of nutrition education. NDs have the time during visits to perform detailed nutritional assessments to make appropriate clinical nutritional recommendations that optimize the necessary macronutrients and micronutrients to individualize dietary prescriptions that address and prevent disease.

Supplements and Herbs Used in Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic doctors are trained in prescribing nutraceuticals and botanical medicine as first-line alternatives to pharmaceutical medications. Based on health history, lab results, and patient preferences, an ND will often utilize these therapies to supplement diet and lifestyle to address deficiencies, palliate symptoms, and correct identified imbalances contributing to symptomology.

Vitamins and Minerals

NDs commonly prescribe supplemental vitamins and minerals in oral, intravenous, or intramuscular forms in conjunction with dietary modifications to correct or prevent nutritional deficiencies. Vitamins and minerals can be offered as a complex (i.e., multivitamin) or as single-ingredient therapy, depending on the patient's needs and nutritional requirements.

Fish Oil

Fish oil, containing omega-3 fatty acids, is one of the most commonly prescribed nonvitamin/nonmineral natural products recommended by naturopathic doctors. Fish oil supplements are indicated for numerous health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and mental health disorders, and inflammatory arthritis (9).

Botanical Medicine

Your ND may recommend a botanical herbal product in capsule, tea, tincture, or glycerite form. Herbal medicine combines evidence-based science and traditional experience to provide safe and effective treatments that improve health and treat disease. Many conventional pharmaceutical medications are derived from plants, so your ND will likely prescribe an herbal remedy first to minimize unwanted side effects often caused by pharmaceutical agents. (10)

Probiotics

Probiotic supplements contain live cultures of beneficial bacteria and/or yeast to support the intestinal microbiome. Correcting dysbiosis with probiotic supplements and diet supports digestion, nutritional status, immune function, and mood. Different probiotic strains are known to be indicated in treating specific diseases; an ND can recommend the correct type of probiotic specific to the condition you are looking to treat. (11)

Complementary and Integrative Approaches to Naturopathic Medicine

Working under a holistic medicine model, naturopathic doctors realize the importance of creating an integrative healthcare team. As such, many NDs seek additional training, certification, and licensure in complementary and integrative medicinal (CIM) practices to offer additional therapies beyond the scope of the naturopathic curriculum, like acupuncture, mind-body medicine, and injection therapies. Alternatively, NDs often make referrals to alternative medicine providers, such as chiropractors, ayurvedic practitioners, functional nutritionists, or biologic dentists.

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Summary

Naturopathic medicine emphasizes the prevention of disease and the body's self-healing processes. Naturopathic doctors honor these principles, working with patients to create holistic, safe, and effective treatment plans for various health conditions. If you are tired of conventional medical options and are searching for an alternative, integrative, whole-body medicine approach to healthcare, establishing a relationship with a naturopathic doctor is a good option. When seeking naturopathic care, ensure you find a licensed doctor with a naturopathic medical degree from an accredited naturopathic university.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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References

1. Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges. (2020, November 13). What is Naturopathic Medicine? AANMC. https://aanmc.org/naturopathic-medicine/

2. AANP & INM. Naturopathic Medicine FAQs. American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. https://cdn.ymaws.com/naturopathic.org/resource/resmgr/documents/faq/faq4-differencelicensedvsunl.pdf

3. AANP. What is a Naturopathic Doctor? American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. https://naturopathic.org/page/WhatisaNaturopathicDoctor

4. Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges. (2021, January 4). ND, MD/DO, NP: What's the Difference? AANMC. https://aanmc.org/comparing-nd-md-curricula/

5. Hamalainen, R. (2019, May 29). Conventional Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine: What's the Difference? Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/conventional-medicine-vs-alternative-medicine-whats-the-difference

6. AANP. Why Choose an ND? American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. https://naturopathic.org/page/WhyChooseND

7. Henry, E. (2021, June 12). Stool Testing 101: A Complete Guide to the Top 4 Gut Health Tests. Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/stool-testing-101-a-complete-guide-to-the-top-4-microbiome-tests

8. Cloyd, J. (2023, March 14). SIBO Testing 101: A Complete Guide to The Top 3 SIBO Tests. Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/sibo-testing-101-a-complete-guide-to-the-top-3-sibo-tests

9. NIH. (2018, April). Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth. NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/omega3-supplements-in-depth

10. INM. (2022, February 22). How and Why Do Naturopathic Doctors Use Botanical Medicine? Institute for Natural Medicine. https://naturemed.org/how-and-why-do-naturopathic-doctors-use-botanical-medicine/

11. Harvard Health. (2017, June 7). The benefits of probiotics bacteria. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-benefits-of-probiotics

12. CDC. (2022, July 21). About Chronic Diseases | CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/about/index.htm

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