What Is A Naturopathic Doctor?

Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) require a minimum of 7 years of post-secondary education to become licensed.

Most people don’t realize that medical doctors and naturopathic doctors complete almost the same amount of educational hours.

In fact, their education is comparable to that of medical doctors, but more emphasis is placed on natural therapies.

Actually, even their studies look similar for the first two years, although there are differences.

Naturopaths spend nearly 30% more time in a classroom setting, so they go more in-depth on anatomy, physiology, orthopedics and most systems of the body, and they spend a huge chunk of time on nutrition, which MDs barely even touch.

But medical doctors spend much more time on surgery and radiology (e.g. x-rays and ultrasounds).

Interestingly, both disciplines spend a similar amount of time on pharmacology (drugs). Although many NDs will never prescribe them (depending on the laws in their region, in addition to their own judgment), they need to understand how drugs interact.

The education begins to differ in year three.

Medical doctors often start to specialize, such as in emergency care, surgery, or oncology (cancer), and they start to see a lot of patients. In fact, they spend nearly 60% more time in a clinical setting than do naturopaths, although that time is mostly in just an observational role.

Naturopathic doctors all specialize in the same thing – becoming primary care physicians. They also start to see a lot of patients, not only observing but diagnosing and treating them. As a result, they’re ready to start treating patients as soon as they graduate.

But most naturopaths don’t go into residency (naturopathic residencies aren’t funded by the government, so there aren’t many of them in existence), so most medical doctors get more hands-on experience in their specialties when they complete their residencies.

In the end, NDs are healthcare practitioners who utilize evidence-based medicine and recommend natural solutions to health problems. They work in private practices, hospitals, clinics and community health centers throughout the United States and Canada.

A naturopath’s ultimate goal is to help patients achieve an optimum level of health and wellness. NDs treat the whole person, teach the principles of healthy living, focus on preventative medicine, and address the fundamental causes of disease.

A naturopathic doctor is trained to do health intakes, perform physical exams, order lab tests, perform medical research, and to communicate a diagnosis and a treatment plan. They collaborate closely with other healthcare practitioners through consultation and referral. NDs treat all medical conditions and can provide both individual and family healthcare.

NDs are trained to utilize prescription drugs, but the emphasis is on the use of the following therapies:

  • Clinical Nutrition: Providing diet advice and prescribing supplements to manage nutrients like protein, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Lifestyle Counselling: Providing support and empowering patients to make healthy choices to achieve health on all levels, including exercise and sleep recommendations, as well as talk therapy and stress management.
  • Botanical Medicine: Using herbs and applying the medicinal properties of plants.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine: A broad range of therapies that include acupuncture, or the use of small needles inserted into the body at specific locations.

Naturopathic education encompasses basic and diagnostic sciences – including anatomy, clinical physiology, biochemistry, pathology, embryology, immunology, pharmacology, physical and clinical diagnosis, and lab diagnosis.

Graduates must pass two sets of licensing board exams and are required to keep their registration current throughout their career by completing approved continuing education.

There are still some parts of North America where anyone can call themselves a naturopath, but in this article I’m referring to licensed naturopathic doctors who have completed a degree at an accredited naturopathic medical college.

When To See A Medical Doctor

You want to see a medical doctor when you need that speciality of theirs, such as when you:

  • Have an emergency.
  • Broke a bone and want it set back in place.
  • Need surgery.
  • Need an x-ray or other diagnostic imaging.
  • Need a pharmaceutical prescription (although some NDs can do this too).
  • Are experiencing symptoms you want to relieve through pharmaceuticals.

Medical doctors may use the following when treating you:

  • Pharmaceuticals.
  • Surgery.
  • Various lab tests and diagnostic imaging (e.g. x-rays).
  • Lifestyle changes.

When To See A Naturopathic Doctor

You want to go see a naturopathic doctor when you’re experiencing symptoms that you want to relieve through natural methods, and when you also want to fix the root cause of the problem.

In general, medical doctors are educated in how to relieve symptoms rather than how to fix the reason those symptoms are there. The best primary care MDs take it upon themselves to learn more about the human body and the role of factors such as nutrition, but most of them don’t have the training in this area that NDs have.

For NDs, fixing the root cause is the core component of their education.

So good examples of when to see a naturopathic doctor include:

  • Mental health. Such as stress, anxiety, depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s, fatigue and insomnia.
  • Common conditions. Such as hypothyroidism, obesity, allergies, asthma, hormonal imbalances, diabetes, skin issues, cancer and heart disease.
  • Gastrointestinal conditions. Such as bloating, constipation, heartburn, acid reflux, diarrhea, IBS, IBD.
  • Pain relief. Such as indigestion, arthritis, headaches and migraines, back pain, other chronic pain and injuries.
  • Women’s health. Such as infertility, pregnancy, uterine conditions, PMS and menopause.

A medical doctor is likely to prescribe drugs or surgery in many of the above situations, while naturopathic doctors may use:

  • Herbs, supplements and botanical remedies.
  • Acupuncture and other Asian medicine.
  • Various lab tests.
  • Bodywork.
  • Counseling.
  • Lifestyle changes.


Medical doctors and licensed naturopathic doctors receive a similar length of education, but they specialize in different areas.

I would see a medical doctor in an emergency or when you need surgery or a prescription.

I would see a naturopathic doctor when you’re looking to heal the root cause of your health issue and prevent future issues.

And you can certainly see them both when they both have something to offer your situation.