I recently had the opportunity to speak about women’s health with a lovely gathering of fellow alumnae of the University of Rochester, where I was a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music many years ago.
Women’s health is one of my favorite subjects, and I’ve devoted the last 20 years of my professional live to studying and practicing natural medicine focused on the many special needs of women who want to get and stay healthy.
A word of caution
While I hope that this article will inspire you to get in the driver seat of your own health, I urge you to be realistic about what it takes to make good decisions about your care. Even nutrition and botanical therapies can have side-effects if they’re not a good fit for your individual circumstances. Please discuss any changes or therapies you’re contemplating with a trusted and experienced healthcare professional. Two heads are better than one.
What got me inspired
After witnessing the destruction of the Twin Towers from where I live in downtown Brooklyn, I decided to make a change and pursue my love for the healing arts by studying to become a doctor of Chinese medicine. From day one I’ve been passionate about women’s health and using my knowledge to support women with a wide range of health concerns. I became board-certified in Chinese medicine in the US in 2007 and licensed as a naturopathic physician in Germany in 2009. My goal is to offer women evidence-informed options to integrate Eastern and Western natural therapies in their care. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how powerful acupuncture, botanical therapy, nutrition and other natural therapies can be to resolve chronic conditions that often don’t respond well to conventional treatments like pharmaceutical drugs or surgery. I’ve also seen how empowering holistic medicine can be for my patients.
Our journey together
Women’s health is complex and very personal. We have to navigate the different phases of our reproductive life, from pre-adolescence through the post-menopausal years. Often, because people don’t talk much about it, we don’t know what to expect, which makes it harder to cope and take care of ourselves. I want to talk about the different stages of women’s health, challenges that may arise, and options to care for our physical and emotional wellbeing. And I want to be a bit of an instigator to encourage you to think outside the box about women’s health by comparing the thinking in conventional biomedicine and integrative holistic medicine traditions when it comes to the notion of preventive care. Mental health is also a high priority now, although I tend to prefer using the term emotional wellness or wellbeing.
Yes, we are special
Women are special because we have the potential to carry babies. We’re also special because our genetics create hormonal functioning that’s different from our male counterparts. When we think of our biological journey from the onset of our menstrual cycles during adolescence, through our reproductive years, or rather decades, to the gradual transition to the post-menopausal phase of our lives, we are faced with many ups and downs, possible discomforts, illness related to our reproductive system, the desire to create a family (or the concerns around avoiding pregnancy), our sex life, our gender identity, our roles as daughters, big sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, etc., while participating in many other areas of society, from the workplace to charitable efforts, to involvement in political leadership.
When you try to drill down to what’s making the world go round for women, it’s really about hormones, those nearly invisible molecules our bodies produce to regulate pretty much every function in our body and keep us on an even keel. I like to think of our hormone or endocrine system as an orchestra where all the players have to cooperate and be in harmony for the symphony of life to be an enjoyable experience. Granted, that’s not always what we encounter. Our hormones can be out of balance for many reasons, including our genetics and epigenetics, our stress response, our microbiome and gut health, our body’s ability to detoxify and eliminate toxins absorbed from the environment and metabolic waste produced internally. Many common health conditions can arise in connection with hormonal imbalances. Among them may be discomforts, pain, heavy bleeding, and mood changes during your menstrual cycle, PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, infections, breast and other cancers, as well as a range of autoimmune diseases more common in women, like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. The list goes on much longer, but I’d rather talk about what we can do to care for our health. To get you going, think about one past or present health concern you were able to address by making a change in your life.
Who can you turn to?
Let’s talk about your resources. And I don’t mean Dr. Google! Of course, it’s a good idea to learn as much as possible about the human body and mind, women’s health, and healthy lifestyle strategies by reading widely.
I think it’s very important to have a good relationship with a primary care provider. That can be a family medicine doctor, internist, gynecologist or nurse practitioner. These providers can help you with blood labs, imaging, screenings like PAP smears and mammograms, to recognize when you’re developing anemia, high cholesterol, or blood sugar issues, among many other things. They can also manage prescription drugs, if needed, or refer you to appropriate specialists. What these types of providers usually don’t do is educate you about lifestyle choices to improve your health or prevent chronic diseases. It’s not that they don’t care about this, but the reality is that their education deals almost exclusively with the treatment of diseases, and that’s what the insurance companies pay them for.
Diversify your team
I feel strongly that you should cast your net a little wider when it comes to your health and add integrative practitioners to your team who can identify imbalances in your health before you develop outright diseases, and address root causes to restore health instead of focusing primarily on symptoms. This type of work is usually a collaborative process, and you should expect to be an active partner and implement strategies you learn about. For many people this is an ongoing partnership. They talk to their integrative practitioner on a more frequent basis than their conventional providers, to monitor progress and fine-tune their approach. Holistically oriented practitioners come with a range of different educational and professional credentials, each with their unique strengths and limitations. Largely, the work of these providers is not covered by conventional health insurance.
Since this work often requires considerable effort and determination, it’s important to also consider joining support groups and getting your friends and family onboard.
A different perspective
I’d like to invite you to consider a shift in the way you’re looking at your own health. Of course, you should seriously consider the advice your primary care provider gives you, but health care isn’t confined to the doctor’s office. It’s your everyday experience. The person who cares most about your health is you. So, it’s really important to take some quiet time and explore your attitudes and values when it comes to your own health, and, by extension, the health of your family. To what degree are you willing to make healthy living a priority? For example, if you’re feeling stressed, are you willing to offload responsibilities and take more time for yourself? Are you willing to re-allocate your budget to prioritize organic foods and create your own meals? Can you substitute a monthly massage for your Netflix subscription?
Your health is clearly not your doctor’s job. You have the power to take the lead and choose what’s right for you. Nothing feels as good as making a small lifestyle change and starting to feel better, like sleeping an extra hour or drinking less. Once you have more experience, you can also encourage and support others around you to take better care of their health. Take a friend to the farmer’s market who’s never been.
When you think about it, you will enjoy yourself so much more if you’re feeling healthy and strong, and probably also live longer. So, consider talking with someone about obstacles you face and strategies to overcome them. Talk to a coach or counselor.
Practices you can explore
Reflection and self-care can take many different forms. Here are some examples: journaling, meditation, yoga/tai chi, exercise, healthy eating. And here are some examples of wellness treatments: massage, acupuncture, chiropractic/osteopathic care. Everybody has different affinities. You should experiment a bit to choose one or several of these practices according to your own inclinations and needs. Some people love journaling but hate meditation. There are many styles of yoga and tai chi, one of them may speak to you. Healthy eating is a huge topic, and the advice you get from different quarters can be confusing and at times a bit extreme, but if you start by eliminating processed foods and cooking more of your meals from scratch, emphasizing a wide range of veggies and fruit over carbs and conventional animal products, you’re already more than half-way there. With nutrition, it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all. Think about what kind of resources and support would be helpful to you.
Enlisting help and support
No one expects you to know everything about natural medicine options. This is a vast field of healing practices. Providers like myself, doctors of Chinese medicine, or naturopathic physicians, chiropractors, etc. have extensive undergraduate and graduate education, achieve board certification, and hold professional licenses in their state to practice. Other practitioners like health coaches, nutritionists, massage therapists, Reiki practitioners, personal trainers, and other non-medical providers usually have more limited education and may or may not be licensed in the state where they practice. They are often incredible resources in their specific areas of expertise.
As a natural medicine practitioner, my focus is on synthesizing a range of natural therapies, including whole foods nutrition, botanical therapy, nutraceuticals, homeopathy, and of course acupuncture and bodywork. My recommendations are based on individual diagnosis and draw from traditional clinical knowledge as well as modern research. I often collaborate with other integrative providers like chiropractors or osteopaths, as well as with my patients’ physicians.
A taste of natural medicine
I want to give you one example. Let’s say we’ve determined that you experience chronic stress, have trouble sleeping, feel wired but tired, have anxiety, your thyroid is not functioning optimally, you may have impaired fertility, or, experience perimenopausal symptoms. In this case, we may consider the botanical Withania somnifera for you. You may have heard of ashwagandha, some people call it the Indian ginseng because it is a major tonic herb in Ayurvedic medicine. It is also highly respected as a so-called adaptogen in Western herbal medicine. Ashwagandha is generally considered very safe, but I would still caution you to not start taking it just because you heard me talk about it. I recommend you do more research about it and speak with an experienced clinical herbalist before you decide to take it. The same is true for most other medicinal herbs and formulas, even homeopathic medicines, or nutraceuticals. Natural doesn’t equal safe. Most natural medicines generally have a better safety profile than pharmaceutical drugs, but you can also waste a lot of money if you’re not sure what to take.
Are you getting excited?
I hope by now your wheels are spinning and you’re chomping at the bit to create better health for yourself. Start by making a plan. What about your health is currently not going the way you want it to. Are you feeling tired all the time? Have you gained weight? Are you trying to conceive? Having hot flashes? Do you wonder if you should drink less, eat better, exercise more? Take supplements? Once you’ve put together a list of ideas, think about what goals you’d like to set for yourself. What’s your timeframe? Now, ask yourself what changes you can tackle immediately and by yourself. Where do you need more information? Where do you need help and support? Get the ball rolling. Ask for recommendations. Be willing to search around a bit until you find the right resources and people. Get to work! And keep track of things. Keep notes about the things you start doing and what changes you observe, if any. It’s important to keep a diary because we all tend to forget so quickly what bothered us a week ago, what supplement we took six months ago, and how we felt after that last acupuncture treatment. It’s important because it allows you to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t work for you, and also to set new goals. Share your insights with your team and ask for feedback.
I wish you all the best on your self-care journey to good health and wellbeing.
© 2021 Christiane Siebert