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What Is The Difference Between Functional Medicine and Naturopathy?

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on September 14, 2023

In today's healthcare landscape, there's a growing interest in approaches that focus on the whole individual and aim to address the root causes of illness. Both functional medicine and naturopathy are often mentioned in such discussions. While they share some foundational principles, it's important to recognize their differences. In this piece, we will distinguish between the two by referencing two prominent organizations, the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM).

Origin and Philosophy:


Rooted in traditional healing practices, naturopathy is a system of medicine that believes in the body's inherent power to heal itself. According to AANP, naturopathic physicians combine the wisdom of nature with rigorous modern science. They aim to support the body's healing processes rather than just treat symptoms.

Functional Medicine:

IFM defines functional medicine as a personalized, systems-oriented model that empowers patients and practitioners to achieve the highest expression of health by working collaboratively to address the underlying causes of disease. It emphasizes a deep understanding of the individual's biochemical individuality and takes into account the complex interactions of genetics, environment, and lifestyle.

Diagnostic and Treatment Approaches:


Naturopathic physicians use a variety of treatments, including botanical medicine, nutritional therapy, acupuncture, hydrotherapy, and physical medicine. They also emphasize preventive strategies, lifestyle changes, and self-care techniques.

Functional Medicine

Practitioners in this field use advanced diagnostic testing and treatments based on the latest scientific research. They apply a systems biology-based approach, considering how the body's systems interact with one another and their environment. Their treatment recommendations often include nutritional interventions, lifestyle modifications, and other therapies tailored to the individual's needs.

Training and Credentialing:


In the U.S., licensed naturopathic physicians (NDs) have earned a doctorate degree from an accredited naturopathic medical school, completed extensive clinical training, and passed a rigorous board exam. They are educated in the same basic sciences as conventional doctors but also study holistic approaches and use natural therapies.

Functional Medicine

Practitioners can come from various healthcare backgrounds, including medical doctors (MDs), doctors of osteopathy (DOs), nurse practitioners, and more. They undergo additional training in functional medicine principles, often through institutions like IFM. They learn to assess, prevent, and treat complex chronic diseases.

Integrative Approach

Both functional medicine and naturopathy emphasize a partnership between the patient and the practitioner. They both advocate for an integrative approach, incorporating multiple modalities and therapies. However, the main distinction lies in the depth and nature of the scientific methodology applied in functional medicine and the broader, more traditional holistic principles underpinning naturopathy.

Regulation and Licensure

The regulatory landscape varies. While naturopathic physicians are licensed in many states in the U.S., the licensure for functional medicine practitioners depends on their primary professional credential.

While both functional medicine and naturopathy seek to address the underlying causes of illness and champion a patient-centered approach, their foundations, diagnostic and treatment modalities, and training differ. It's crucial for patients to understand these differences when choosing the approach that best aligns with their health needs and beliefs. Whether guided by the traditions of naturopathy or the systems biology focus of functional medicine, the objective remains a healthier, more vibrant life.

Add a paragraph or two about how in many cases MDs obtain functional medicine certification over the course taking severals hundreds of hours in continuing medical education, whereas NDs spend 4 years studying naturopathic medicine.ChatGPT

Educational Depth and Certification:

For Medical Doctors (MDs) who venture into functional medicine, their journey is generally supplemental to their conventional medical training. Many MDs seek certification in functional medicine after practicing traditional medicine for some time. The certification process involves several hundred hours of continuing medical education. These courses are taken alongside or after their standard medical training, and they provide a deep dive into the principles and practices of functional medicine. The intent is to equip MDs with an advanced understanding of complex chronic disease, emphasizing a patient-centric approach that integrates various disciplines.

On the other hand, Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) undergo a dedicated 4-year medical program focused specifically on naturopathic medicine. This training is comprehensive, covering not only the foundational biomedical sciences but also extensive coursework in natural therapies, clinical nutrition, botanical medicine, and more. The rigorous curriculum ensures that NDs are well-versed in both conventional and natural medical knowledge, preparing them to approach patient care with a holistic and integrative mindset from the onset of their careers.

This distinction in training pathways emphasizes that while both MDs and NDs can venture into functional medicine, their foundational and supplemental education experiences differ. For patients, this means that professionals with different backgrounds might offer varied perspectives and expertise within the realm of functional medicine.


  1. American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP). Overview of Naturopathic Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.naturopathic.org/
  2. Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). What is Functional Medicine? Retrieved from https://www.ifm.org/functional-medicine/
  3. National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM). About Naturopathic Medicine at NUNM. Retrieved from https://nunm.edu/
  4. Bastyr University. Naturopathic Medicine Program. Retrieved from https://www.bastyr.edu/
  5. Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC). About Naturopathic Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.aanmc.org/

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