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Ending medicine's war on women



WMFE-Channel 24 will air "Women's Bodies, Women's Minds" followed by "Women's Bodies, Women's Choices" at 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 10, and again at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 12. To subscribe to "Health Wisdom for Women," call 800-211-8561.

Like a good fairy waving a magic wand, Dr. Christiane Northrup offers women the first rule in her 10-step plan for achieving better health: "Listen to your body: Go to the bathroom when you have to."

That's the crux of Northrup's message. Women, she says, are so used to ignoring the messages of their bodies that many actually find it hard to make the time for their most basic of needs, including using the restroom. The result, says Northrup, is a whole host of medical problems, that could easily be avoided.

If Dr. Andrew Weil can be considered the modern guru of alternative medicine, Northrup is the high priestess. Like Weil, she has a classic, ivy-league education: She's a graduate of Dartmouth Medical School, trained as an ob-gyn at Boston's New England Medical Center, and is now a clinical assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. And like Weil, she considered her formal medical education only part of her evolution as a healer. The past president of the American Holistic Medical Association has spent much of her professional life learning from alternative sources how to heal the forgotten aspect of the body -- its soul.

"The acceptance of the work of Andrew Weil and my own work is in some ways astounding to me," says Northrup on a phone interview from her Yarmouth, Maine home. "But in other ways, it is totally predictable that people would be turning away from Western medicine and looking for alternatives which recognize the connection between the spirit and the body."

Northrup says the feminist consciousness has been a major impetus in the popularity of alternative medicine. She says a generation of women raised on books such as "Our Bodies, Our-selves" are now pressuring the establishment to pay attention to their needs.

"Women in my age group were the ones who wanted their husbands present in the delivery room," says Northrup, who at 48 has two teen-aged daughters. "Now this group is going through menopause. They're saying, ‘I don't care how much data you have on the urine of pregnant horses -- I don't want that in my body' `referring to the common practice of prescribing synthetic hormones to menopausal women`. Now companies are seeing there's a huge opportunity to market what common sense should have told them to market in the first place -- natural hormones."

In the latest edition of her book, "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom," Northrup takes a fascinating 700-plus pages to describe how the human mind interacts with the body. For example, she says ailments like PMS and endometriosis are as much about nutrition, stress and repressed anger as they are about reproductive biology. While including traditional medical advice, she offers alternatives including meditation, vitamins and even greater exposure to the sun.

"The key is that your body is related to your life," says Northrup, who speaks with such excitement about her work, it's hard to believe she's been at it for 20 years. "Doctors will usually seek external solutions for your problems: take a drug or a vitamin or have surgery, and the problem will go away. But true healing enlists the mind and the intuition. ... It's the physician's role to help you heal yourself -- to understand that disease is a symptom that you must change your life's path."

The idea that doctors have the "magic bullet" for whatever ails you, and that the patient is a passive participant in his or her own healing, is an idea borne out of a patriarchal view of medicine, says Northrup. In her book, she jokingly points to a citation someone slipped into the index of the 1980 edition of "Williams Obstetrics": "Chauvinism, male, variable amounts of, pages 1-1102." The book was 1102 pages long.

But the truth is that both men and women are oppressed by a patriarchal medical establishment, she argues. That's why she refers to Western medicine instead as an "addictive system," a term coined by Anne Wilson Schaef in her book, "The Addictive Organization."

Northrup says there are three basic beliefs that undergird the medical addictive system and prevent patients -- especially women -- from tapping into the healing power of their own bodies.

The first is that disease is an "enemy" to be "conquered." The metaphor, she says, is not coincidental. "That which is natural and nontoxic is seen as inferior to the ‘big guns' of drugs, chemotherapy and radiation," she writes in "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom." "Drug-free, natural methods of treatment with well-studied, well-documented benefits, such as therapeutic touch, are ignored."

One prime example, says Northrup, is the power of prayer over healing. Studies have proven patients who pray and who are prayed for have far fewer complications and far less need for medication than those who don't. "If a drug had shown an effect this striking," she writes, "it would be considered unethical not to use it." But in a culture that sees the body as an adversary, gentle cures are not well-received.

The second characteristic of the medical addictive system is the belief medical science is omnipotent. "`W`e believe that technology and testing will save us, that it is possible to control and quantify every variable, and that if we just had more data from more studies, we'd be able to improve our health, cure diseases, and live happily ever after ... . We believe we can buy an answer by throwing money at it. Again, we ignore or don't trust our inner guidance system and our own healing ability."

But it's the final characteristic that bodes poorly for women and the health care system: the belief the female body is abnormal.

"Because being male is considered the norm in the addictive system, most women internalize the idea that something is basically ‘wrong' with their bodies ... . This denigration of the female body has made many women either afraid of their bodies and their natural processes or else disgusted by them ... . Health practitioners and women alike view even normal bodily functions such as menstruation, menopause and childbirth as medical conditions requiring treatment."

The result is a system that treats women's bodies as wild and uncontrollable, that frowns on women's intuitive understanding of their own bodies and that insists on separating emotional and spiritual health from physical health.

In her videotape, "Women's Bodies, Women's Minds," Northrup gives examples of how the addictive system negatively impacts women's health care. She cites how one in three women will reach menopause through hysterectomies.

"Can you imagine one in three men getting their testicles removed by the age of 50? I'm telling you, it doesn't happen, although that may be a perfectly plausible way to decrease the incidence of prostate cancer."

As a resident, she was taught there was no need to use anesthesia while performing episiotomies -- an incision to keep the vaginal area from ripping during childbirth -- because "the vagina has no feeling." It's that kind of thinking, she says, that has given rise to a system which puts girls on birth control pills at age 14 in order to "regulate their hormones," lets them off for a few years to procreate and puts them back on synthetic hormones for the rest of their lives.

"Now, what if you were to posit the same approach for men?" she conjectures in the video. "A lot of problems of the world come from excess testosterone. If we created a drug to regulate it -- called Androstat or Testaway -- we could put boys on it as soon as their voices changed. We know from studies that when you decrease testosterone in rats, it increases their nesting behavior. So these boys would start doing laundry and vacuuming. Then we'd let them off just to reproduce and put them back on it. Isn't that a joke? Then how is it that a whole culture thinks that it's OK to put women on hormones from cradle to grave?"

Another example, says Northrup, is the popularity of the drug Viagra. "We know that Viagra will result in several cardiac deaths per year," she says. "But when I mentioned the first 15 Viagra deaths to my husband, he said, ‘Well, at least they died with a smile on their face.' Do you understand what that means? It means it is more important to have a steel erection than to live. If that was any other drug with reports of deaths, we would be yelling to have it pulled off the market. Instead, insurance companies are in the business of deciding how many erections per month they will pay for. If they really wanted to get a bang for their buck, they'd be paying for birth control instead.

"The real danger of this kind of drug is that is allows people to bypass their hearts. If they can't get an erection for psychogenic reasons -- which account for 40 to 50 percent of the cases -- there's something wrong with their relationships. But if you want to continue your heart/penis split, you can do it with Viagra."

Despite the biases of Western medicine, Northrup says her traditional training is integral to her philosophy.

"There's no replacement for good scientific rigor," she says. "My life's work has been to add to my training to the more intuitive, feminine, right-brain perspectives that aren't taught in medical schools."

In fact, she says, if it weren't for her credentials, she would not have the credibility she has gained as a holistic healer. For her, the two disciplines have never been mutually exclusive. The daughter of a dentist, Northrup says her father always mixed natural remedies with standard medicine. After performing surgery, he would give his patients some of his wife's home-made yogurt in order to keep down infection.

"When I got into medical school, I became carried away by the power and glory of it all," she recalls. "I call it my ‘anesthetic years.' It was my dad who made me think about the reality of practice and the people he cured."

In the video, she recalls what her father used to say about healing: "Let the earth pass through you, and then you will be immune to everything."

As a child, Northrup studied angels. As a young woman, she studied feminism. As a physician, she studied with the pioneers of biofeedback and home birthing. Now, in addition to teaching, lecturing and running her clinic, she publishes a monthly newsletter, "Health Wisdom for Women," with 130,000 subscribers.

It seems her life's path has put her in just the right place at the right time.

Asked why her message is now resonating, she says, "Just as the sun is setting on the old order, there's a huge burst of light, and then it will be gone. The old way is in its death throes. The terrain has changed. I have this sense that we are evolving as a species toward a more intuitive place. Time is speeding up, and there's nowhere to go but into consciousness."

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