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Holistic Medicine Schools: What You Need to Know

Now is a great time to get the education you need to succeed and put ancient healing methods into modern practice. 

one professional in meeting raises hand to question speaker
one professional in meeting raises hand to question speaker

Holistic care is becoming more and more accepted by those who receive—and provide—healthcare services. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that more than half of office-based physicians recommended holistic and alternative treatments to their patients.

As holistic health continues to gain respect and expand its reach, the number of jobs in the field is expanding, too. In fact, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a massive 21% job growth for massage therapists by 2029, a rate that’s much faster than the national average.

The bottom line: As more people embrace natural healing, the opportunities may grow for holistic health practitioners.

Holistic Health School: What Can I Expect?

Your search for the right holistic health school will be guided by the type of practitioner you hope to be. Do you dream of dispensing medicinal herbs? Is midwifery your true calling? Some schools offer a long list of degree and certificates for a number of practices while others focus on one or two areas of study, such as massage therapy or acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

School Philosophies

Holistic health schools focus on teaching students how to promote wellness through natural methods. Students also learn how to treat illnesses naturally or in conjunction with Western medicine.

A community spirit, diversity, and empowerment are often overarching themes on campus. The notion of the mind, body, and spirit working together is at the core of any school’s curriculum. In some programs, students are also taught business skills so they can work in private practice.

Types of Holistic Health Schools

Holistic health schools share a common bond of educating others in the practice of natural, non-toxic and sustainable treatments. However, each school offers its own approach to teaching based on its mission and aim. Below you’ll find a summary of different types of holistic medicine schools. Which one can help you reach your career goals?

Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Schools

Students can either roll their bachelor’s and master’s degrees into one program or earn a master’s separately. Acupuncture schools also focus on nutrition, tai chi, and qigong. You’ll learn how to incorporate TCM into the Western health care system.

Accredited acupuncture and TCM programs are located throughout the country.

Massage Therapy Schools

Massage therapy schools are widespread, partly due to the career’s growing popularity in mainstream medicine. You can find programs on larger campuses, but smaller schools that focus solely on a massage therapy curriculum are very common. Students may learn different types of techniques, such as sports massage or Reiki, as part of their coursework.

Massage therapy schools are much more ubiquitous than naturopathic doctor (ND) schools. You can likely find one in a city near you.

Naturopathic Medicine Schools

Students enroll in an intensive, four-year doctoral program, which includes clinical training. Their studies encompass just about all treatment methods in the holistic health field, including nutrition and massage. Naturopathic schools may also offer other degree programs, such as acupuncture. A good ND program will prepare you to take the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Exam (NPLEX).

The program is rigorous and is often compared to the education that traditional medical doctors receive.

“Credit loads are often the same in both programs,” says Jennifer Bennett, ND, LAc, a professor at Bastyr University in Seattle. “There is less of an emphasis on things like emergency medicine, but naturopathic medical students are trained to prescribe pharmaceuticals, do minor surgery, and perform standard laboratory and medical procedures commonly done in primary care medical practices.”

Naturopathic medical students also receive extensive training in physical medicine, nutrition, botanical medicine, and supplement and nutrient medicine, which is often not included in a traditional medical education.

Currently, there are only seven naturopathic programs in North America accredited by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education. Competition can be fierce, and students often relocate to earn their degree.

Nutrition Schools

person sitting in meeting applauding

Nutrition programs are offered as bachelor’s and master’s-level programs throughout the country. These programs focus on how diet affects overall health with a focus on individual nutrient needs. You might be able to complete your nutrition program online or at a local university.

Some natural health schools focus their attention on certificates, while others have a more robust degree selection. If you’re interested in adding new expertise to an existing degree, a certificate may do the job.

Types of Holistic Medicine School Programs

Here are some popular program types you’ll find at holistic health schools:

Program

Degrees Available

Acupuncture:

Master’s or Doctorate

Ayurvedic Sciences:

Master’s

Energy Healing:

Associate or Bachelor’s

Herbal Medicine:

Bachelor’s

Life Coaching:

Certificate

Massage Therapy:

Certificate or Associate

Midwifery:

Master’s

Naturopathic Training:

Doctorate

Nutrition:

Bachelor’s or Master’s

Here’s an overview of common training and degree options for a variety of jobs in the holistic health field:

Acupressure and Acupuncture

The acupressure and acupuncture healing modalities are typically taught within the framework of Traditional Chinese Medicine. You will learn ancient maps of the human body’s energy pathways, often called “meridians.” Acupuncture uses needles to stimulate specific points on these pathways to encourage healing and balance. Acupressure stimulates the same points using physical pressure applied with fingers, elbows, or specialized tools.

Degrees: Master’s or doctorate

Typical time to complete: Three to five years

Clinical/fieldwork/internship requirements: You’ll need at least 660 clinical hours to sit for the nationally recognized Certification in Acupuncture exam from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

Ayurvedic Sciences

Ayurveda is a traditional medical practice that originated in India. The word Ayurveda means “the science of life.” Practitioners focus on whole body healing through treatments like meditation, cleansing, yoga, and herbal remedies. You’ll learn how to prescribe and administer these treatments in an Ayurvedic Sciences program.

Degrees: Master’s

Typical time to complete: Two to four years

Clinical/fieldwork/internship requirements: Depends on your program, but is often required

Energy Healing

When studying energy healing, you will gain an understanding of chakras, meridians, auras, and other ways of understanding the invisible energy systems of the human body. You will learn to correct energy imbalances and encourage optimal health through techniques such as crystal therapy, sound healing, radiatory healing, and meditation.

Degrees: Associate or bachelor’s

Typical time to complete: Two to four years

Clinical/fieldwork/internship requirements: Depends on your program but is often required

Herbal Medicine

There are three basic branches of herbal medicine: traditional Chinese herbalism, Ayurvedic herbalism, and Western herbalism. In any tradition, you will learn the medicinal properties of many plants and their healing applications. You will be taught to assess patients and develop tailor-made herbal formulas to treat a wide range of illnesses and imbalances.

Degrees: Bachelor’s

Typical time to complete: Four years

Clinical/fieldwork/internship requirements: The American Herbalists Guild recommends at least 400 clinical hours for aspiring herbal medicine practitioners.

Life Coaching

Life coaches act as counselors, career guides, and more. They help people who are feeling stuck to refocus and restart. Not all life coaches have formal education in the field, but many earn a certificate and sometimes hold a bachelor’s-level degree in a related field.

Degrees: Certificate

Typical time to complete: A few months to several years

Clinical/fieldwork/internship requirements: An internship might be required by some programs.

Massage Therapy

All massage training begins with a detailed study of anatomy, physiology, and contraindications, or factors that make massage techniques or procedures inadvisable in certain situations. You can then choose from many massage techniques, such as Swedish massage, trigger point, deep tissue, shiatsu, and Thai massage. There has been a growing demand for massage therapy since its integration into Western healthcare, making it a great area of study for holistic health practitioners.

Degrees: Certificate or associate

Typical time to complete: A few weeks to two years

Clinical/fieldwork/internship requirements: It will depend on your program, but all programs have at least some clinical components.

Midwifery

Midwives use a holistic approach to childbirth. They’re not only able to provide healthcare during pregnancy and labor. They can also educate new parents on infant care, including breastfeeding. Certified nurse midwifery programs require you to be a registered nurse before enrolling. Other midwifery programs are non-nursing based. No matter what, you’ll study biology, anatomy, prenatal care, postnatal care, and other health topics.

Degrees: Master’s

Typical time to complete: Three years

Clinical/fieldwork/internship requirements: Will depend on your program, but clinical hours are always a requirement.

Naturopathic Training

Naturopathic training prepares you to provide naturopathic medical care. You’ll receive clinical training to prescribe medicine, perform treatments, and more. You’ll also learn about nutrition, botanical medication, and supplements.

Degrees: Doctorate

Typical time to complete: Four years

Clinical/fieldwork/internship requirements: Will depend on your program, but you won’t be able to earn a license without significant clinical hours.

Nutrition

Understanding proper nutrition requires knowledge about enzymes, fats, protein, carbohydrates, and human biochemistry. Your nutrition studies will prepare you to guide your clients to healthy foods, juices, and supplements that fit lifestyles and needs.

Degrees: Bachelor’s or master’s

Typical time to complete: Three to four years

Clinical/fieldwork/internship requirements: Will depend on your program, but clinical hours or internships are often required.

Holistic Medicine Schools Online

Just like allopathic medical schools, holistic health programs often require their students to work in a hands-on environment—especially if you’re enrolled in a massage therapy or acupuncture program. However, if you’ve delayed going back to school because you don’t think you have the time, an online program may be available for you.

Certificates for professional advancement or to enhance a practitioner’s knowledge are offered by some online programs. Examples of these include acupuncture, herbal medicine, life coaching, massage therapy, and nutrition.

If you’re looking for an online degree, complementary alternative medicine, health and wellness, or mind-body transformational psychology might be right for you.

What to Expect

One of the benefits of online programs is rolling admissions, which allow you to start school when you’re ready instead of waiting for a new semester or quarter. This means you don’t have to delay your dreams.

Online holistic health classes use the same tools and methods as other online programs. You’ll interact with professors and fellow students using email and discussion boards. Coursework may include videos, readings and online lectures.

If the program is “asynchronous,” meaning classes aren’t live, you’ll have the flexibility to complete your studies when it’s convenient for you (as long as you meet the due dates). It’s a perfect opportunity for students who are working or have family obligations.

Accredited online programs are designed to help you connect with others. Even if you aren’t meeting face-to-face, you’ll interact with students from different corners of the world. You never know what you might learn from each other.

Licensing and Certification

Not all holistic health careers require a license or additional certification to practice, but many do. You will want to check with your state to find out what is required before you practice.

School Accreditation

A holistic health school and its programs should be accredited by an agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education. This ensures the program meets strict guidelines and prepares students to work in their field.

Look for regional and/or professional education accreditation on a school’s website. For instance, the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME) gives its stamp of approval to naturopathic doctor programs. Other accrediting agencies to look for:

  • Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA)
  • Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
  • Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM)

Salary

Since holistic health careers vary in nature, the salaries that you can earn cover a wide range. Acupuncturists can command a high salary, says the BLS, while massage therapists may garner a lower wage. A number of factors can affect those numbers, however, such as:

  • The region in which you work
  • Your area’s demand for your services
  • Whether you own your own practice
  • How many hours you work

Written and Reported by:
Stephanie Behring
Contributing Writer

jennifer bennett

With professional insight from:
Jennifer Bennett, ND, LAc
Naturopath and Professor, Bastyr University