Few physicians validate the healing power of alternative medical practices; fewer still are women. Christiane Northrup, MD, is one of the very few women physicians who is combining non-traditional healing practices with training as a gynecologist and obstetrician. As the co-founder of one of America's only all-female health clinics, she is especially qualified to speak about a wide range of issues related to women and health. Here she talks about what we can each do to create our own health, while urgently calling us to reclaim the natural wisdom within our bodies.
Sounds True: As a physician with an insider's view of the medical establishment, what do you see as the core problems with the way our society provides health care to women?
Christiane Northrup: The medical profession is an extension of our culture. Alienation from nature and the body are absolutely the normal state of being. Both men and women alike worship technology, and degrade nature.
The part of nature that is closest to a woman is her body. We are taught from childhood to devalue our bodies; they are to be controlled in the same way that we try to control nature. The medical profession controls women's bodies through birth control pills, the active management of labor, and Caesarean sections. Even feminine hygiene deodorant is a form of control—there's no masculine hygiene deodorant.
In medicine, what is considered the norm is the male body. A medical student friend of mine said to me that every bit of anatomy that she's been taught, and we're talking about a current medical student, is male anatomy. She also didn't see one single delivery on her ob-gyn rotation that was not a Caesarean section.
Sounds True: Can you envision and describe the medical establishment working so that it did honor women's bodies?
Christiane Northrup: First of all, I would make sure that all pregnant women understood throughout their entire pregnancies that their child's intelligence, emotional sensibility, and psychological development depends completely on them, from the moment of conception. Almost every woman really cares about her body when it is a vehicle for another life. She will often take better care of her health in order to take better care of her baby.
I would make certain that every woman in labor was accompanied by a doula, which is a caring, professionally-trained labor support person. Dr. John Kennel and Marshall Klaus have just published a study showing that using labor support persons would save the United States one billion dollars a year in health costs related to unnecessary Caesarean sections and epidural anesthesia.
Another step we need to take is ensure that all girls at the age of 10 or 11 learn about their menstrual cycles. Not as sex education—they are not developmentally ready at that age. We're cramming sex ed. and AIDS programs down kids' throats at the age of nine now in the schools. I would teach them about the nature of the cycles a woman experiences; that the discharge at ovulation is normal. I would teach them about the ebb and flow of their moods that tends to go along with the moon, so that we're teaching a natural, whole view, and not pathologizing the body's natural functions. I would certainly educate all women and girls about the connection between dietary fat and their hormonal functions. We have got to stop eating a 40% fat diet that contributes directly to gynecologic cancer in later life, in addition to excess fat and menstrual cramps.
Sounds True: In your new Sounds True audio session on women's nutrition, you mention an astonishing statistic—that 60% of the cancers that women get are related to dietary fat intake. Is this statistic widely known, and if it is, why do women continue eating unhealthy amounts of dairy products and animal fats? What will motivate women to change their diets?
Christiane Northrup: Yes, this statistic is widely published. But when we're talking about self-nourishment, there are two levels. There is the intellectual level that knows, “Yes, I should cut down on fat.” And then there is the emotional level that says, “I am so exhausted, I want to be taken care of, and I want to be fed.” The truth is, the emotions always win. If you are stressed out, if you are raising children alone, or are working way too much, often your emotional needs are not being met. Women in my practice tell me about an emotional “hole” inside the their bodies. What do they fill it with? Chocolate and ice cream.
We've got to make it easier for women to get healthy food on the run, or while traveling. Right now the easiest food to get for women who are very busy is “fast food”—and it's killing us.
Sounds True: How do you respond when one of your patients is gravely ill, and it leads to tremendous guilt. The patient is blaming herself, thinking: “If only I had eaten the right foods, gotten more exercise, worked less...”?
Christiane Northrup: This is a typical reaction in our culture, because in an addictive society, people value control. And if we are not in control and something bad happens, we blame ourselves. What's missing here is compassion for the self, which could have been used along the way to prevent the illness, and which is very important when you do get ill. Guilt, to me, is a useless emotion that society inculcates in us at a very young age to gain control over us.
I come to my office every day and work to break through women's defenses. When I recommend that they change their diets, I ask them, “Which of these things can you do for yourself in the spirit of compassion, and which of these would you only be doing in the spirit of guilt?” I teach women that the pathway of compassion and self-respect is their path to healing.
Sounds True: Why do so many women fear menopause? Has the medical profession created this fear?
Christiane Northrup: I will say that the medical profession is capitalizing on this fear. Or let's say that the pharmaceutical estrogen manufacturers are the ones really capitalizing on it, because they are driving the engine that is influencing the medical profession. Many doctors did not routinely equate menopause with endocrine deficiency until the last five years or so, when the estrogen publicists went to work.
We are terrified of menopause because women are only valued in this culture when they can bear children. It's interesting that women get the most medical care of their entire lives during their childbearing years. They have internalized from childhood that, after menopause, they will be worthless—and by the way, that means worthless to men. To the degree that a woman sees herself as useful only in relationship to man and on the “juiciness market,” she will struggle during menopause.
Interestingly, in the cultures where a woman's stature increases after menopause, such as the Kung tribe, there are no symptoms at menopause. They don't have words for “hot flash.” This is a great example of the fact that we get symptoms depending on what our culture is expecting.
If women want to enter menopause without fear, what they need to understand is that, at the time of menopause, women go from alternating current to direct current. They are more in touch with their divinity, with their essential selves. They are quicker to tell the truth, because they are not afraid of losing favor with the dominant culture.
Women entering menopause also need to understand that unresolved issues—little failures from the past—tend to come to the surface during the peri-menopausal time. When this happens, it is time for a woman to get away, to go into retreat, in solitude. It is a time when you reevaluate the fifty years that went before and prepare for a rebirth You come face to face with death, your own mortality. Women who consciously experience menopause like this enjoy life more, and see themselves as more connected to nature.
Sounds True: You've mentioned some of the cultural factors that keep women unhealthy, but the real question is, how do women as individuals break out of unhealthy patterns?
Christiane Northrup: I see it happening more and more with women, which makes this a wonderful time for us. Sometimes it starts with a sickness—when it hurts enough, people will change.
My goal is always to help people create good health daily. We need to start at age nine or ten, so that we don't need to get dreadfully sick at age 35 in order to change. Women need to connect deeply with their spiritual nature. They need to know that they have an endless supply of spiritual energy available to them to guide their lives, that, no matter what the culture says, the reality is that all humans are nourished by spiritual energy.
Once you've tuned in to your inner wisdom, you can start to live from the heart. You ignore the culture trying to control you. Then life begins to fall into place in an organic way that's very serendipitous.