Nearly 40 percent of Americans report using some form of complementary medicine. Because of this growing popularity of complementary medicine, it's become even more important to choose a trustworthy, experienced natural health-care provider as more and more practitioners appear on the market.
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If you aspire to live a natural lifestyle, it makes sense to find a health-care practitioner who understands, supports and prescribes in line with your values and practices. While providers of alternative medicine used to be considered on the fringes of the health-care system, times have changed. Today, nearly 40 percent of Americans report using some form of complementary medicine, and integrative, natural health-care providers can be found in almost every locale, offering effective care to help you stay healthy and address many conditions.
As a naturopathic physician, I have the pleasure of working directly with practitioners from many backgrounds. Each offers a unique perspective. But the growing popularity of complementary medicine means more and more practitioners have appeared on the market. Your biggest challenge when choosing natural medicine is identifying a trustworthy, experienced provider you want to work with. The best choice depends upon your health needs and what you’re looking for from your provider.
Questions to Ask Any Natural Health-Care Provider
When interviewing any potential natural medicine practitioner, start by analyzing these three important factors.
1. Ask about their training and credentials. Most fields of natural medicine have associated degrees, licenses or accrediting organizations. Ask where and how a practitioner was trained and for how long, as well as about her professional experience, particularly with the medical issues you face. I recommend choosing practitioners with a minimum of three years’ experience. If you ever sense a practitioner isn’t being straight with you or is inflating her experience, move on.
2. Determine which level of medical expertise you need. If you’re looking for someone to manage your medical care, diagnose disease or treat an advanced condition, you will want a naturopathic physician or medical doctor who specializes in integrative medicine (see “Resources” on page 32). Such professionals can manage drugs if needed and make referrals to specialists more seamlessly. If you’re looking for suggestions for how to improve your health (for example, to lose weight); manage less-serious conditions; or want to seek a second opinion while retaining your relationship with your primary-care doctor, you may consider a provider with less medical training but more training in specific modalities. (I think of this difference as medical care versus consultative advice.)
3. Find someone you can partner with. Many patients come to me because they say they aren’t feeling heard or understood by their original doctor. They may feel their symptoms haven’t been taken seriously, that they don’t get the time they need with their doctor, or that their doctor talks down to them. No matter what type of natural health-care provider you choose, find someone who inspires you to live healthier and who can help you find the path to get there.
Naturopathic physicians (NDs) are the natural medicine equivalent of family doctors. They can provide standard exams, order lab tests and treat illnesses with natural medicines as well as pharmaceutical drugs.
What do they treat? NDs typically act as primary-care providers for those oriented toward natural medicine—they can handle health care from birth through adulthood, from annual exams to disease care. They often use a combination of natural therapies to treat health conditions. NDs are most commonly seen for digestive complaints, fatigue, thyroid imbalance and women’s health concerns, but they can treat many conditions.
What should I ask? Ask your ND whether she is licensed by the state, as NDs are required to train in four-year medical schools where they study both conventional and natural medicine. They are also extensively trained in nutrition, herbal medicine, physical medicine (including spinal manipulations), conventional medicine (including pharmaceutical drugs) and counseling techniques, so ask whether she has experience treating your condition. If you’re looking for a specific treatment, ask in advance whether she offers this treatment when appropriate. Many NDs take standard health insurance.
Herbalists specialize in the use of medicinal plants to enhance overall wellness and prevent and treat illnesses and ailments. Herbalists may focus their practice on specialties such as western botanical medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine). Many herbs have been the subjects of numerous scientific studies, and their use to support our health has been documented for decades or even centuries, in some cases.
What do they treat? Most herbalists do not have formal medical training, so it’s important to research any herbalist’s level of experience. Most herbalists treat a wide variety of conditions. You may visit an herbalist for consultative advice about ailments from coughs and colds to chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. If there’s a drug to treat it, chances are there’s also an herbal treatment option. Herbal medicines are particularly well-suited to bolster disease prevention and wellness support, so consider seeking an herbalist’s advice if you’re hoping to prevent diseases that run in your family, or if you want to focus on supporting a specific part of your body.
What should I ask? Training for herbalists varies. Many learn through apprenticeship, on-site or distance learning programs, or even self-study. No formal licensure or standard exists for herbalists, but I recommend herbalists registered with the American Herbalists Guild—this ensures diverse training, a minimum amount of experience and a commitment to ongoing botanical medicine education. Ask your herbalist if she’s a Registered Herbalist, or RH (AHG).
A nutritionist is trained to help you adjust your diet to meet your health goals, whether to lose weight, treat a disease such as diabetes or promote overall wellness.
What do they treat? If you have a diet-related condition, you might want a nutritionist as part of your care team. You may also seek a nutritionist to aid in weight loss, lowering high cholesterol or high blood pressure, or managing food allergies.
What should I ask? There are many tracks to becoming a nutritionist. Registered Dietitians (RDs) must receive master’s level training and complete a 1,200-hour internship under the supervision of a licensed dietitian to receive the credential. RDs are often covered by insurance, but many do not take a natural approach, in my experience. Other types of nutrition specialists, such as clinical nutritionists, holistic-health coaches and even some self-taught practitioners, focus on whole foods. Ask your nutritionist for references from past clients and about their specialty (raw food, gluten- or allergen-free, or another specialty diet). If you’re looking for help with a specific condition, you’ll want to find someone who has experience with it.
In many areas around the world, acupuncture acts as a stand-alone system of primary care, but in the U.S. acupuncture usually serves to complement standard care. Acupuncture involves penetrating the skin with needles to stimulate certain points on the body to relieve pain; promote healing; and improve physical, mental and emotional well-being. While the efficacy of acupuncture has long been controversial, a recent study conducted by scientists from all over the world at the National Institutes of Health and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine examined research involving data on nearly 18,000 patients and found “firm evidence supporting acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain.”
What do they treat? Acupuncturists often address physical pain, headaches, hormone imbalance and infertility.
What should I ask? There’s a difference between certified and licensed acupuncturists. Acupuncturists must be licensed in order to practice, but to ensure you’re working with a qualified professional, ask your acupuncturist whether she’s certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Being certified by this association indicates a practitioner has met national standards for the safe and competent practice of acupuncture.
Chiropractic care focuses on relieving nervous and musculoskeletal ailments, often by adjustments intended to align the spine. Research on the overall effectiveness of chiropractic care is limited, but studies support its use for acute low-back pain, neck pain and headaches.
What do they treat? Most people visit chiropractors to manage physical pain, particularly in the back. Chiropractic care is my first choice for treating neck, back and other joint pain. It can be an affordable step into integrative medicine as it’s often covered by insurance plans.
What should I ask? Chiropractors must be licensed by four-year accredited medical schools that teach basic medical sciences in addition to chiropractic techniques. Many chiropractors are also trained in nutrition. If you’re nervous about a spine adjustment, ask about other techniques they offer.
Developed more than 200 years ago in Germany, homeopathy is controversial: While many scientists and doctors claim there is no scientific basis for its efficacy, studies have yielded mixed results. A 1991 Dutch study analyzed more than 100 studies of homeopathic treatment and found “the evidence is to a large extent positive. It would probably be sufficient for establishing homeopathy as a treatment for certain conditions.” Homeopathy (not, contrary to common misconception, synonymous with herbal medicine) is based on the principle “like cures like”—patients who exhibit ailing symptoms are prescribed low doses of a substance that causes similar symptoms. For example, homeopaths might treat a bee sting with Apis mellifica, a homeopathic remedy made from bee venom.
What do they treat? Homeopaths believe everything in the body is interconnected—no symptoms are unrelated. With this in mind, homeopathy may be a good choice for someone suffering from various seemingly unrelated symptoms. I have found homeopathy effective for mental or emotional conditions such as anxiety or depression. It may also be a good option for children, pregnant women or elderly patients for whom herbs may not be appropriate.
What should I ask? Homeopaths are trained through schooling, mentorship or a combination. This system of medicine is well-regulated throughout Europe, but in the U.S., no diploma or certificate provides a license. In most states, homeopaths must also be licensed health-care providers—many homeopaths are also medical doctors. Ask your homeopath whether she belongs to the North American Society of Homeopaths, an association that registers homeopaths who meet a set of requirements.
Author’s note: It’s nearly impossible to encompass the breadth of health-care practitioners. Just because I didn’t detail Ayurveda, massage or any other modality doesn’t mean these practitioners can’t potentially offer value to you.
Learn more about these natural practitioners and find one in your area.
American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine
Acupuncturists American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
Chiropractors American Chiropractic Association
Herbalists American Herbalists Guild
Homeopaths North American Society of Homeopaths
Naturopathic Physicians American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
Nutritionists Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
For more information on types of natural health-care providers, check out these helpful articles.
The Strange Case of Homeopathy
The Swiss Government’s Remarkable Report on Homeopathic Medicine
Acupuncture Provides True Pain Relief in Study
Changing Views of Chiropractic and a National Reappraisal of Nontraditional Health Care
Neck Pain: Chiropractors, Exercise Better Than Medication, Study Says