Naturopathic medicine is a distinct system of medicine for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of human disease and impairment. It stresses health maintenance, disease prevention, patient education, and patient responsibilities and emphases the treatment of the whole person rather than just treating the disease. Unlike most other health care systems, naturopathic medicine is not identified with any particular therapy, but with a philosophy of life, health and disease – Vis Medicatrix Naturae, “the healing power of nature.” Fundamental to this belief is a deep confidence in the ability of the body/mind to heal itself given the opportunity. All true healing is the result of the whole organism’s inherent and natural capacity, and it could be said “desire,” to be as healthy as it can be. Naturopathic physicians help to remove the obstacles to cure and employ natural therapies that strengthen and stimulate each person’s own healing processes.

History and the Formative Years

Naturopathic medicine grew out of alternative healing systems of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but traces its philosophical roots to the vitalistic school of medicine of Ancient Greece (circa 400 BC). Over the centuries since this time, the two competing philosophies of medicine, vitalistic (now called natural medicine) and mechanistic (now called allopathic or conventional medicine), have alternately diverged and converged, influencing and shaping one another.

Dr. Benedict Lust was the founder of naturopathy and the man who sustained and popularized it. Lust had been exposed to a wide range of practitioners and practices of natural healing arts. He was a student of Father Kneipp, a great practitioner of hydrotherapy (water therapy). Lust brought Kneipp’s hydrotherapy with him to America from Germany in 1892. In 1902, he founded the American School of Naturopathy. The years from 1900 to 1917 were formative ones for naturopathic medicine in America as the various forms of natural medicines were combined into one eclectic system. Here the American dietetic, hygienic, physical culture, hydrotherapy, spinal manipulation, mental and emotion healing, Thompsonian/eclectic (botanical/herbal medicine), and homeopathic systems of natural healing were all merged into naturopathy.

The Halcyon Years

From 1918 to 1937, great interest and support for naturopathic medicine emerged from the public.  In the early 1920s naturopathic movement reached its peak in terms of public awareness and interest. Conventions nationwide were well attended by professionals, the public, and even several members of Congress. And many states enacted naturopathic licensure laws.

The naturopathic journals of the 1920s and 1930s provide much valuable insight into the prevention of disease and the promotion of health. Much of the dietary advice focused on correcting poor eating habits, including the lack of fiber in the diet and an over reliance upon red meat as a protein source. Ironically, in the 1990s, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute confirmed the early assertions of naturopathic physicians that such dietary habits could lead to degenerative diseases, and only now are advocating for the very same dietary principles that naturopaths always advocated.

Suppression and Decline

From 1938 – 1970, growing political and social dominance of allopathic medicine, fueled by the drug industry’s financial backing, led to the legal and economic suppression of naturopathic healing. In the mid 1920s the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association made a mission of attacking naturopathic physicians, accusing them of quackery. Public infatuation with technology, introduction of “miracle drugs,” the development of surgery and other high-tech medical interventions, the growing political power and sophistication of the AMA, and the death of Benedict Lust in 1945 all combined to cause the decline of naturopathic medicine and natural healing in the United States.

With the AMA’s new political power they were able to not only get more restrictive medical practice laws passed but were also successful in getting many state naturopathic licensure laws repealed. With these political developments the courts began to take the view that naturopathic physicians were not true doctors. Lack of insurance coverage, lost court battles, and a hostile legislative perspective progressively restricted practices and eliminated funding for naturopathic education.

Naturopathic Medicine Reemerges

The back-to-nature, ecology and women’s movements of the late 1960s, the public’s growing awareness of the importance of nutrition, and America’s disenchantment with organized institutional medicine (when its limitations, dehumanization, and prohibitive expense became apparent) resulted in increasing respect for alternative medicine and the rejuvenation of naturopathy. A new wave of students was attracted to the philosophical precepts of the naturopathic profession, bringing an appreciation for the appropriate use of science and modern college education.

In order for the naturopathic profession to move back into the mainstream, it needed to establish accredited institutions, perform credible research, and establish itself as an integral part of the health care system. In 1978, after twenty years with only one legitimate college graduating naturopathic physicians (National College of Naturopathic Medicine), the first new naturopathic medical school was opened. In 1987 Bastyr University  became the first naturopathic college to become accredited. The Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME) is the Federally recognized accrediting agency for naturopathic medical colleges. Visit their website for more information on accredited naturopathic medical colleges in the U.S. and Canada. 

With these credible colleges, active research, and an appreciation of the appropriate application of science to natural medicine education and clinical practice, naturopathic medicine began its journey back to the mainstream. While the naturopathic physicians of the past century were astute clinical observers, they lacked the scientific tools to assess the validity of the concepts. In the past few decades, a considerable amount of research has provided the scientific documentation for concepts of naturopathic medicine, and the new breed of scientifically trained naturopathic physicians is utilizing this research to continue developing the profession. There are now naturopathic licensure laws in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.. Naturopaths also practice in other states under other laws (i.e., as licensed acupuncturists or chiropractors) or without official government sanction (i.e., as nutritionists or natural health consultants). 

A dark side of the growth in popularity of naturopathic medicine, and alternative medicine in general, is the proliferation of “N.D.” and other doctor “degrees” by mail. With “training” measured in months instead of years and without rigorous supervised clinical training, it is clearly far below American education standards to offer a doctor degree in health care through distance learning. But beyond failing conventional standards for doctoral degrees, these programs are also not accredited by agencies that meet any national standards. Thus, there is little accountability administratively, financially or for what is being taught. Because naturopathic physicians are only licensed in 22 states anyone can use the title in the other states (Arkansas and Florida recently passed laws outlawing this practice). As naturopathic medicine has gained more respect with the health care community, media and general public, the “N.D.” has become increasingly desirable and marketable. Without state regulation these correspondence doctors may mislead the public as to their training (whether intentional or not) and can create significant risk to the public’s health. In 1999 the tragic death of a eight-year-old diabetic girl in North Carolina graphically illustrated this problem. She was taken off her insulin by a person with a correspondence degree who was claiming to be a doctor. The mother is reported to have said, “I thought he was a real naturopathic doctor.” [To learn more about diploma mills and to learn more about how to evaluate someone’s credentials see Credentials, Diploma Mills and Alternative Medicine on this website.]

The Future

Naturopathic medicine is at the forefront of the paradigm shift occurring in medicine. The scientific tools now exist to assess and appreciate many aspects of natural medicine. It is now common for conventional medical organizations that in the past have spoken out strongly against naturopathic medicine to endorse such naturopathic techniques as lifestyle modification, stress reduction, exercise, and toxin reduction.

Most importantly, consumers are demanding a wider range of health care services. Patients want to start with the least invasive of techniques. Naturopathic physicians fill a gap, answer a demand and bring to the public a “bilingual” health care provider with an understanding of both natural and allopathic medicine. They are the knowledgeable gateway to “integrative medicine” a true ‘health’ care system.

(Adapted from Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, ed. Marc S. Micozzi, MD, PhD, “Natural Medicine” by Joseph E. Pizzorno, JR., Churchill Livingstone Inc., New York, 1996.)

See also the post on the Definition and Principles of Naturopathic Medicine.