I get this question A LOT in my clinical practice, so I thought I’d set the record straight. This is a fair question! If I wasn’t a herbalist myself, I’d wonder the exact same thing. Now before I even start his comparison, I want to say I love naturopaths! I have many naturopathic colleagues that I respect dearly, and in fact work together closely with them to formulate herbal blends for their patients regularly.
Both herbalists and naturopaths have their strengths and roles to play when it comes to being on your health care team. While there can be some overlap, typically the approach is quite different and seeing one or the other may prove helpful at different times along your health journey.
1) Naturopaths Are Doctors, Herbalists Are Not:
This may seem obvious, but it’s an important distinction. Naturopathic Doctors in Canada (except Quebec) write a board exam which allows them to become licensed primary care general practitioners, so along the same lines as your GP (general practitioner medical doctor). Although, Naturopaths are not considered to be Medical Doctors.
I think of Naturopathic Doctors as a holistic option for primary health care for those of us who are interested in approaching health from a preventative and “get to the root problem” perspective. Naturopaths can "treat and diagnose disease", order blood work and various lab tests, which can be really helpful, especially if you're not getting any answers through the conventional medical system. So if you're a "need to see it to believe it" kind of person, getting hard and fast lab results can be reassuring. To be noted- right now, most of these tests need to be paid out of pocket (unless you have an awesome benefits package).
Herbalists are not doctors and therefore can’t order tests or engage through the medical system (unless there is a willing Medical Doctor who will work alongside us). Herbalists are usually not covered in health benefits packages, although I have some clients that can claim my services and herbs!
However as herbalists, we don’t need to be doctors. In many cases, the people seeking out our care and the herbal medicine approach have either:
- Been through the conventional medical system and are at their wits end because either they’ve tried everything that system has to offer and are still sick (or sicker) or…
- Have gotten a million medical tests and keep getting told “nothing’s wrong”, when they know something is off.
So in this way, we don’t need to be the ones conducting the tests or diagnosing because at that point it’s been done. We’re simply addressing the symptoms in front of us and the underlying imbalance that may be causing them.
2. Herbalists Are the Experts in Botanical Medicine:
When it comes to plant medicine and understanding how herbs work in the body, Herbalists are THE experts. Naturopaths study botanical medicine, and they also study acupuncture, nutrition, Traditional Asian Medicine (TAM) and homeopathy. So in this way they have many tools in their toolbelt, but unless they take extra training out of genuine interest, they can be considered more as generalists in the herbal medicine department. Knowing the other modalities could be plus! But keep in mind many herbalists also study other modalities as well, so getting informed about what your practitioner can offer (either naturopath or herbalist) is a good idea.
Herbalists have dedicated all of their education to specifically studying plant medicine and how to match herbs to people. This is most definitely an art and a science, and can make a big difference if a herbal formula works for you or not.
Herbalists have a deep understanding of the following:
- How herbs interact with the body
- What organ systems herbs act on and support
- How to best match herbs to an individual’s specific health picture and constitution type
- What conditions, diseases or health imbalances each herb can help correct
- Specific dosages to maximize each herbs efficacy
- Ideal herbal extract to get the best results (eg: tea, tincture, cream etc)
- Contra-indications and safety considerations (when it isn’t safe to take a herb)
- Herb-drug interactions (how pharmaceuticals and herbs either hinder or compliment each other’s actions)
So yes, your naturopath with definitely have some training and knowledge in herbal medicine, but herbalists go deeper in their understanding and specialize in this field of healing.
3. Naturopaths Prescribe Pre-Made Formulas, Herbalists Custom-Blend
Ok, so this is a huge generality and there will be outliers for sure, but this is true generally speaking. Many naturopaths will stock ready-made formulas from brands they like and trust, which makes the approach less unique to you. They may have great results with this formula generally speaking and it may very well work for you! However, there is a huge advantage to having the option of tailoring a herbal formula to your specific needs.
On the flip side, Herbalists will take the time after every consultation to consider exactly which herbs will best suit your health picture (at that exact moment in time) and blend it up for you. As your symptoms change and things improve, herbs can be added or taken out, depending on what is needed.
Customization like this makes the medicine completely unique to you.
For example, many “adrenal fatigue” capsules out there have licorice in them because it can prolong the effect of cortisol in your body, which indirectly gives your adrenals a break. But long term and in higher amounts, licorice can increase blood pressure. So as a herbalist, if you had high blood pressure AND adrenal fatigue, we’d be able to make you a formula with other adrenal supportive herbs, while leaving the licorice out.
Customizing a formula is a lot more work and takes thought and energy… but it's worth it!
Herbal medicine is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, there's a deep-rooted belief in the way we operate as herbalists which is that every person coming to us deserves to be treated as a unique individual.
You’re unique, and the herbs you intake into your body should be tailored to balance out YOUR unique internal landscape…not anyone else's!
4. The Educational Path Differs…
Naturopathic Doctors (in Canada, excluding Quebec) have an undergraduate degree and then study another 4 years in a post-graduate program to become licensed practitioners. They have 8 years of school! I mean, this makes sense...they're doctors! Naturopaths are a highly educated bunch. The school attended can make a big difference in how Naturopaths are educated, but I can’t speak to that directly as I’m not an ND.
Herbalists however, vary greatly in their training and many herbalists study from a variety of teachers and programs in order to make up their education.
Did you know medical schools in the US and Canada used to teach what we now call “traditional healing modalities,” including herbal medicine, before the early 1900’s?
In fact, there is something called the Flexner report (written by Abraham Flexner) which created a movement around 1910 to actively shut down medical schools that were teaching herbal medicine (along with midwifery, chiropractors, homeopathy, and any other holistic approach to health) so that pharmaceutical medicine could take its place. So herbal medicine practitioners had to go underground and studying herbal medicine “formally” from an accredited institution was no longer available.
To this day, there are no baccalaureate degrees offered in Herbal Medicine in Canada or the USA (although in the UK, you can get a degree in “Phytotherapy”, same thing as herbal medicine!). However, Pacific Rim College in Victoria, British Columbia is one school that has a formal 3-year Phytotherapy/Western Herbal Medicine diploma program which includes:
- 510 hours of direct clinical training (working with clients)
- 270 hours of materia medica. Materia medica, if you aren’t familiar with the term, is the complete body of knowledge collected in reference to any specific plant and it’s healing properties. Basically, everything about the herb!
- 2130 hours of formal herbal education total (including biomedical sciences, biological sciences and western herbal sciences)
This is where I studied and I’m a BIG FAN of the education I received.
There are many herbal schools available (many have gone online as well), all with their own strengths. However, what I loved about the Pacific Rim program is it was designed to be clinically-focused (seeing clients from day 1) and meets all of the requirements of the American Herbalist Guild to become a Professional Member and a Registered Herbalist through their organization (which has the most in-depth and comprehensive application process in North America).
So after graduating from Pacific Rim College I was able to go through the lengthy American Herbalist Guild application process and be approved as a Registered Herbalist which means I can have these letters after my name - RH(AHG).
And why would that be important? Well, other than making me feel fancy, it allows me to validate the education I've received. More on this in regulation and licensing...
5. Licensing & Regulating Bodies: Big Difference Here
Naturopathic Doctors are regulated by the College of Naturopaths in various provinces. They need to pass rigorous board exams to then be licensed and are bound by their College’s professional guidelines. Going through this process allows them to call themselves Naturopathic Doctors and have “ND” after their name.
Herbalists are not licensed practitioners and “Herbalist” is not a regulated profession in Canada. That means there isn’t a governing college that sets the standard of education, clinical experience or board exams required to become “a herbalist.”
So how do we know who is a “herbalist” and who isn’t? Well, part of the beauty of herbal medicine is there are all kinds of herbalists out there with varying strengths and interests! They can all be considered herbalists! However, when it comes to seeing clients and working as a herbalist professionally, the herbal community at large saw benefit in setting some educational and clinical guidelines and standards...
Again, because it’s not possible to get a degree in herbal medicine in Canada (which means we can’t receive some fancy letters behind our names), herbalists have created their own method to allow practitioners to validate their training.
Essentially, various herbal provincial associations have formed specific guidelines and educational/clinical requirements that herbalists must meet in order to become a professional member and thus be able to use the term “Registered Herbalist”. Professional herbalists are then guided by the code of ethics of their provincial association.
A person applies and is either accepted or denied based on if they meet these requirements. The exact term can vary from province to province, but this allows a way for qualified herbalists to practice professionally, while having their years of education and experience acknowledged.
As I mentioned earlier, I registered as a professional member with the American Herbalists Guild. When it comes to Herbal Organizations, they have the most stringent requirements to become a Registered Herbalist and I wanted to be recognized at the highest level possible in North America. Plus, when I graduated the Alberta Herbalists Association wasn't formed yet!
Each province has a directory of their professional herbalists, so visit their websites to find a herbalist near you! (List below)
When To See A Naturopath:
- You want a "holisitically-oriented" primary care doctor for you and/or your family
- You'd like to go through tests and diagnostic tools that aren't available in the conventional medical system (such as food allergies, saliva hormone testing, Vitamin D etc.)
- You'd like to explore some of the other tools Naturopaths have in their toolbelt (homeopathy, Traditional Asian Medicine, IV therapy, etc.)
- You have benefits that cover these services (Bonus! This can be a huge help as the cost of health care when paid out of pocket can be quite high)
When To See A Herbalist:
- You'd like customized herbal formulas that are specifically tailored to your body and health needs.
- Herbal medicine and using natural herbs is something you resonate with or would really like to try
- You've been to a Naturopath and want to try another approach for your health concerns
- You don't have benefits to cover the cost of a naturopath (Herbalist's are more affordable if paying out of pocket, generally speaking!)
- You've tried everything the conventional medical system has to offer and feel like your health is still suffering
I hope those distinctions help and you now know the difference between a naturopathic doctor and a herbalist!
Making informed decisions for your health journey is super important and choosing who is on your health care team can make a big difference for your healing. Having a good relationship with your health care practitioner can make a world of difference in the care you receive and the healing you’ll be able to reach.
Follow your instinct and go with what feels right for you!
In short, herbalists are the “go-to” practitioners for addressing health concerns specifically using plant medicine!
So if using a natural botanical approach to your health concern is what you're after, then seeing a herbalist is definitely a good idea.
To find a herbalist near you, check out you provincial herbal association: