At her innovative health center, where alternative medicine and the wisdom of the body are honored, Christiane Northrup, M.D., is launching a revolution in women's health care.

Magazine: New Age Journal
Issue: November/December 1994
Title: Woman to Woman
Author: Elaine Appleton

At her innovative health center, where alternative medicine and the wisdom of
the body are honored, Christiane Northrup, M.D., is launching a revolution
in women's health care.

Susan, a forty-two-year-old occupational therapist, was diagnosed with 
endometriosis when she was just thirteen years old, practically as soon as she 
began menstruating. "From day one," she says, "my menstrual cycle was very 
painful." She experienced so much cramping that her doctors told her--even 
at that young age--that she would eventually have a hysterectomy. "They 
made me feel I had this incredibly defective body," she recalls today, "this 
incredibly handicapping disease."

Throughout her early teens and into adulthood, Susan continued to be 
plagued by her condition, in which the tissue that forms the lining of the 
uterus grows in other areas of the pelvis. By the time Susan turned thirty-
nine, she was living with pain every day of her life, but most acutely during 
her menstrual cycle, when she would take sixteen to nineteen 800-milligram 
ibuprofen tablets a day. By this time--after nine miscarriages and a five-year 
wait--she and her husband had adopted a little boy, and she had persuaded 
herself that she was finally ready for the hysterectomy her mainstream doctors 
had been urging. With surgery tentatively scheduled, she decided to get a 
second opinion from another ob/gyn, a holistic physician named Christiane 
Northrup. It was a visit that would profoundly shift Susan's understanding of 
her own health.

>From her first glimpse of the gracious Victorian home that houses Northrup's 
office in Yarmouth, Maine, Susan sensed that she was about to meet a doctor 
unlike any who had treated her before. Understandably anxious, Susan was 
led to one of eight cozy converted bedrooms, where--for the first time in her 
life--she had a painless pelvic exam. Like many women, she hadn't believed 
such a thing was possible. "Chris was very gentle, giving me messages all 
along about what she was going to do and making me feel like this woman 
was a partner."

Northrup's exam revealed that--contrary to what her other doctors had 
suggested--Susan had only a small amount of endometriosis (the amount is 
often unrelated to the severity of pain it causes). But that wasn't the most 
surprising of Susan's revelations that day. Northrup "said some things to me 
that had never been said before," says Susan. "She said, 'Who you are 
presenting here is someone who is probably Catholic, who's been physically, 
emotionally, and more than likely sexually abused.'" Susan was more than a 
little shocked. Northrup was right, but Susan hadn't indicated anything like 
this on the eight-page medical- and life-history form she'd filled out.

Instead of surgery, Northrup recommended a regimen of nontoxic, 
noninvasive treatments. She suggested that Susan eliminate dairy foods from 
her diet, eat more whole grains and fresh fruit, and take vitamins. And she 
had Susan try castor-oil hot packs and a natural progesterone cream, which 
helps keep bleeding under control. But most importantly, Susan says, 
Northrup introduced her to a new approach to health care, one that 
acknowledged the importance of her emotional life. "Listen to your body; 
recognize what your past may have done to your body," Susan says Northrup 
told her. "Her message to me was, Your biography is your biology." 

Susan admits that she wasn't rigorous about following the self-care 
treatments. But she was rigorous about looking at how the context of her life 
affected her health. Although usually a bit of a loner, she shared her life 
story with other women in Northrup's monthly support group. She also began to 
explore, at Northrup's suggestion, the ways her health may be adversely 
influenced by negative cultural images about the female body, particularly 
with regard to menstruation. She tried "to view the monthly cycle as an 
incredible gift, instead of the curse," she says, a notion she initially thought 
was foolish. But, within months, Susan was able to reduce her ibuprofen 
intake to six 600-milligram capsules during the week of her period, an 
improvement she ascribes to her psychological shift, rather than any physical 
treatments. Today, she says, "The pain in my life is going away."

Christiane Northrup is certainly not the first doctor to argue that 
psychological health and physical well-being are inextricably linked. Nor is 
she the first to complement modern medical techniques with holistic 
treatments such as herbs and dietary recommendations. But where Northrup 
has been a pioneer--and has inspired accolades from patients such as Susan--is 
in applying these ideas to women's health, a field that remains, curiously, a 
male-dominated bastion of conventional thinking.

"Most women's health care has been reduced to disease screening--pap 
smears, mammograms, and sonograms," Northrup argues. And when that 
screening detects an illness, the response is an aggressive "patriarchal" 
approach that turns the body into a war zone. "Military metaphors run 
rampant through the language of Western medical care," Northrup notes in 
her recent book, Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (Bantam), a 750-page 
cultural critique and women's self-help medical handbook. "The disease or 
tumor is 'the enemy,' to be eliminated at all costs. It is rarely, if 
ever, seen as a messenger trying to get our attention."

In contrast, Northrup's feminized approach to health care is one in which the 
body's innate wisdom is recognized and celebrated. In her writing and in her 
practice she urges her patients to recognize that the body constantly 
communicates its needs and desires, and that these messages, if followed, can 
bring deep healing and renewal. Many ailments and psychological problems, 
she contends, arise from living in an addictive society (she borrows the phrase 
from author Anne Wilson Schaef) in which women too often bow to the 
wishes of others. The act of "reclaiming our own authority" and getting in 
touch with one's "inner guidance" can be a source of liberation and 
empowerment, allowing women to make conscious changes in their lives, 
behavior, relationships, and health.

Northrup's unabashed embrace of an ephemeral phenomenon such as "inner 
guidance" is not a rejection of science, she says. But there are times, she 
argues, when wisdom gleaned from the body can be far more accurate than 
data from a lab. "No scientific study can explain exactly how and why my 
own particular body acts the way it does," she writes. "Only our connection 
with our own inner guidance and our emotions are reliable in the end. . . . 
Science must acknowledge truthfully how much it doesn't know and leave 
room for mystery, miracles, and the wisdom of nature." In her own practice, 
Northrup acknowledges the mysterious by calling upon the services of 
"medical intuitives," who provide psychic insight into patients' illnesses, 
frequently from thousands of miles away.

It's not hard to see that Northrup's practice represents a provocative 
challenge to the gynecological establishment. And it's all the more remarkable 
coming from an insider. A 1975 graduate of Dartmouth Medical School, Northrup is 
currently a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the 
University of Vermont College of Medicine and practices both her teaching 
and hospital work at the Maine Medical Center, in Portland. 

At her center, Women to Women, she and her colleagues draw from a variety 
of healing techniques, one day performing the latest surgical technique and 
the next recommending herbs or homeopathy. Holistic medicine, she says, 
"means you use everything that is helpful with as little that is toxic as 
possible." Her approach has struck a chord with women. When, in 1986, she 
and three colleagues opened the center in Yarmouth, a town of 8,000, they 
attracted 6,000 patients the first year. Today, there are close to 12,000 
patients on the books. Patients come primarily from greater Portland, 
Massachusetts, and New York, but some travel from as far as Texas and 
California, seeking relief from such frustratingly familiar problems as PMS, 
endometriosis, chronic vaginitis, fibroid tumors, and breast cancer.

To colleagues such as Long Island holistic gynecologist Allan Warshowsky, 
M.D., Northrup's blend of feminism and alternative health care makes sense. 
"In holistic, alternative medical circles, Chris is very influential. She 
incorporates the power of being female into women's health care. She gets 
into the nitty-gritty of societal problems for women--abuse, inequities, how 
women are supposed to act. A lot of these things enter into the disease process 
in later life."

Mainstream medicine won't be quick to accept Northrup's ideas, says Bernie 
Siegel, M.D., who shared the presidency of the American Holistic Medical 
Association with Northrup from 1988 to 1990. Siegel, who has had his own 
battles with the medical establishment, warns that Northrup could face 
equally difficult skirmishes. She is more likely to effect change in the male-
dominated medical system by influencing women patients rather than by 
directly influencing mainstream physicians, he says: "Chris will help empower 
women to know themselves and their own bodies better and empower them 
to speak up and demand better treatment by the system."

.Northrup, now forty-four, grew up in the small town of Ellicottville, New 
York, outside Buffalo, the niece of physicians and the daughter of a health-
conscious housewife and a philosophizing dentist (he used to explain the high 
rates of suicide among dentists and psychiatrists by saying "it's almost as 
demoralizing to look into someone's mouth as it is into their mind," she 
recalls). Her belief in the power of the individual and her consequent self-
esteem came early: "My father would always say, 'Everyone deserves their day 
in the sun.'" She also absorbed lessons about good nutrition and exercise as 
preventive medicine. Her mother raised organic beef and chicken and made 
her own yogurt "before it was fashionable," Northrup says. "They were very 
enthusiastic about those things that would create health."

Ironically, she also learned as a young girl not to put her faith in doctors. 
When she was six, her sister Bonnie was born. The baby, who refused to eat, 
died in the hospital at three months as her mother looked on helplessly 
through the intensive-care windows. "In the '50s you couldn't hold your 
children in ICU because hospitals were built as fortresses against germs," says 
Northrup. Later, Northrup's brother, at the age of two months, also refused 
to eat. Admitted to the hospital, his condition worsened rapidly. Doctors told 
the family the baby was mentally defective. Then a nurse intervened: In a 
secret hallway conversation with Northrup's mother, the nurse said, "If I were 
you, I'd get him out of here. They don't know what's going on."

The Northrups checked the infant out against medical advice and cared for 
him at home, tube-feeding him around the clock for months. Although they 
succeeded in keeping him alive, he gained no weight and barely clung to life. 
Several months later, they found a female pediatrician who specialized in 
infant-eating problems. Ironically, this doctor suggested that they stop tube-
feeding the baby and "let him starve" until he grew hungry enough to eat, 
says Northrup. Within two days of discontinuing the tube-feeding, 
Northrup's year-old brother--weighing only ten pounds--finally got hungry 
and began to eat on his own. Says Northrup: "If he had stayed in the 
hospital, he'd be dead."

It was her first lesson about power and what she calls "the failed medical 
system." It's a lesson Northrup teaches adamantly today: Rather than relying 
on doctors as saviors, we must consider them as partners, using individual 
knowledge about our bodies to make our own informed decisions.

After graduating with a B.A. in biology from Case Western Reserve in 1971, 
Northrup went on to Dartmouth. Having seen the difficult lives her 
constantly on-call aunt and uncle led, Northrup had no intention of 
practicing medicine, assuming instead that she would do research or teaching. 
But life got in the way of her decision: Witnessing her first birth, Northrup 
grew teary. "I knew that this is the work I needed to do, and where I needed 
to be."

She also discovered that she was good at something she'd rarely, if ever, seen 
doctors do--talking to people about their lives. "I always knew there was more 
going on with a patient than I was getting with a history and a physical," she 
says. "I never got good at calling someone 'the gall bladder in bed three.' 
Thinking of a disease as an interesting case devoid of the humanity of the 
person not only bores me to tears, it feels unholy."

When she began practicing, Northrup became fascinated by the work Michio 
Kushi was doing at the East West Foundation in Boston. Kushi was 
practicing oriental diagnosis and using diet to treat illnesses. Seeing his 
success, Northrup began to see food, along with listening to patients' life 
stories, as a tool for healing. She started incorporating dietary change in her 
practice: "I knew early on that if people were getting chronic bladder and 
yeast infections, it wasn't a drug they needed, it was a change in their 
metabolism." She found rapid success with nutritional treatments for 
fibroids, premenstrual syndrome, and endometriosis. Although Northrup has 
in the past advocated a macrobiotic diet, she is now reevaluating her stance 
on nutrition. She is even considering the seemingly heretical idea that a diet 
too low in fat could be harmful.

As her openness to alternative techniques increased, Northrup began 
attending meetings of the American Holistic Medical Association, picking up 
on alternative health care practices. But her ideas had not yet blossomed, and 
she continued on the traditional path of a young doctor--overachievement 
and overwork.

In 1981, Northrup developed a severe breast infection while nursing the first 
of her two daughters (her husband, Ken Moller, is an orthopedic surgeon). 
Then part of a busy ob/gyn practice dominated by men, she continued to 
work sixty-hour weeks while nursing her new baby. She knew she should take 
time off to nurse more and recover from the illness, but, fearing that her male 
colleagues would blame her for not pulling her weight, she refused to call in 
sick "for something womanly." The infection worsened, causing a high fever, 
shaking chills, and delirium--and finally, an abscess deep in her breast that 
penetrated, alarmingly, into her chest wall. It was a perfect, personal example 
of the lesson she now teaches: Women in our society are too often 
conditioned to care for others at the expense of themselves.

"We are socialized to believe that it is weak to ask for help," she says, 
speaking about herself both as a woman and as a woman doctor. "I was a good 
junior male. I gave myself a lot of points for being someone you could count on," 
she says. ("You know the old codependence cheer?" she asks, jokingly, then 
answers: "I can handle that!") Later, she realized that "as a good daughter of 
patriarchy, I worshipped at the altar of efficiency and productivity. I began to 
rethink why it felt OK to care for other people's bodies but not for my own 
or my children's."

It took some time for the lesson of her illness to sink in. She returned to work 
as soon as she could following surgery. Two years later, when she gave birth 
to her second child, she discovered that her right breast would give no milk. 
It was then, emotionally hurt by her difficulty breast-feeding and exhausted 
from the demands of a busy practice and two babies, that she decided 
something needed to change. "I knew now that illness happened in a 
context," she says.

Like most of her patients, Northrup was trying to do everything and do it 
perfectly. "Something was wrong with the basic tenets of my life. The same 
things that were resulting in distress in my patients were resulting in 
distress in me. So I thought, Why don't I create a center where we could 
research what's going on in women's lives and use nutrition, herbs, homeopathy--
bring all of the best of the healing traditions together, including surgery, 
when appropriate--and try to help women truly heal rather than just cover up 

In 1986, Northrup and three female colleagues--one other doctor and two 
nurse practitioners--founded Women to Women, in Yarmouth, five quiet 
miles north of the traffic of Portland.

All of the necessities of small town life--the town hall, library, school, and 
pizza parlor--dot Yarmouth's spacious main street. Follow the road on its 
graceful downhill curve to the right, beyond the sweet shop, and there sits an 
immaculate blue Victorian home, its angles solidly anchored well back on a 
velvet lawn, its porch protected under the expansive arms of a huge sugar 
maple. Black-eyed Susans and pink day lilies line the gravel drive. A movie set 
intended to depict a peaceful New England home could not do so more 

The setting is a deliberate symbol, an attempt to communicate that this is a 
health center friendly to women--a place where women can go to heal 
physically, psychically, and emotionally. "Women's health problems occur in 
the context of a society that has been less than friendly to those values that 
are womanly," says Northrup. "[We] decided to open a health care center for 
women that would value what it meant to be female."

Open the massive wooden door and enter the beige-carpeted living room-- 
the lobby, designed for serenity. Sun shines through numerous tall windows; 
music plays softly on a small stereo system. On the coffee table is a notebook 
full of reading material on various women's illnesses and a copy of Northrup's 

A wide curving stairway, defined by a gleaming mahogany railing, leads to the 
offices and examination rooms, former bedrooms all. In Northrup's office, 
books and papers are everywhere, except on the soft low couch that she keeps 
for visitors. It is nothing like a typical doctor's office. There is no smell 
of antiseptic wafting down the spacious hallway, which is lined with antiques 
and lace-curtained doors.

In person, knees pulled up on her desk chair, Northrup is lively and talkative, 
moving swiftly and excitedly from topic to topic. She peppers her 
conversation with references to alternative thought, from The Celestine 
Prophecy (she loves the first of the nine insights, that chance coincidences 
have meaning) to the lessons she learned in a course on living with less 
money, given by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, authors of Your Money or 
Your Life.

Explaining the workings of Women to Women, she notes that a typical visit-- 
even for a woman with routine needs--is not unlike that which Susan 
experienced. Prior to her first appointment, a patient mails to Northrup a 
detailed medical and life history. The form gets women thinking, long before 
they arrive at the center, about the events in their lives and how they relate 
to their current health. Once there, Northrup examines and consults with the 
patient, typically providing a blend of listening and counseling. Because her 
ideas are new to many women and because treatment plans can be complex, 
she often tapes the consultations for patients. The consult ends with a written 
"action plan."

Her advice to patients extends not only to the psychological but also to the 
spiritual. Recently, she found herself talking about angels with a patient, a 
business manager. "She was the last woman on the planet I would have 
expected to talk about angels," Northrup says. The patient was equally 
surprised at having such a conversation with a doctor. "Whether you like it or 
not," Northrup says of her role as a physician, "You're wearing a cloak of 
authority. When I give women permission to have whatever beliefs they're 
feeling and that those are all valid, it opens up their own inner guidance 

Toward the same end, her treatment recommendations take into account, as 
much as possible, a woman's preferences. Should a menopausal patient with 
hot flashes dislike the idea of hormones, for instance, Northrup might suggest 
vitamin E and dietary change. But if hormones are necessary, she'll encourage 
their use.

 Perhaps her most alternative technique--the one that illustrates just how 
strongly she believes in the power of intuition--is her use of medical intuitives 
such as Chicago-based Caroline Myss. A theologian by training and co-author 
with neurosurgeon C. Norman Shealy, M.D., of The Creation of Health 
(Stillpoint), Myss does "readings" of the human energy field. A collaboration 
between Myss and Northrup would involve Northrup's simply providing the 
name and age of a patient. Myss then would respond with some intuitive 
knowledge about the patient's current--or future--condition. Northrup has 
turned to Myss (whose lecture schedule has recently forced her to give up 
private consultations) and other intuitives when traditional techniques have 
failed to explain the context of a symptom or disease.

For instance, when Northrup first called upon Myss for a personal reading, 
Myss suggested that Northrup's body "registered a rape between the ages of 
twenty-one and twenty-nine--the years that I was in medical school and 
doing my residency," writes Northrup. Although she had not been physically 
raped, Northrup believes that her body's energy system had been 
"emotionally and psychologically 'raped'" by her medical training.

"Caroline was the first person I met who not only corroborated my belief that 
people's psyches and emotions had a tremendous effect on their physical 
bodies but also had the precision of a microsurgeon [regarding] what 
emotions and what psychic patterns cause what diseases and why," says 
Northrup. Remarkably, Myss is accurate more than 90 percent of the time, 
claims Northrup. But, as her own reading demonstrates, measuring the 
accuracy of a reading can be a subjective process.

As esoteric as such an approach may seem, it had a very real effect on Conny 
Hatch, a landscaper from Portland, Maine. For most of her life, Hatch, forty-
two, resisted her innate creativity in an effort to please her parents. In 1990, 
she accepted a position with a large company and shortly thereafter was 
diagnosed with an ovarian cyst. Northrup urged her to have surgery. But she 
also felt that Hatch's cyst was a message from her creative center--the pelvis. 
She urged Hatch to examine whether she was literally killing herself by 
burying her creative expression for the sake of financial security.

Although Hatch could understand the connection between the womb and 
creativity and secretly yearned to practice more-artistic endeavors, she 
remained at her job for the next three years, despising it more and more. 
With this stress as a backdrop, she began feeling discomfort in her belly, but 
physical exams showed no disease. Perplexed, Northrup called on Caroline 
Myss to do a reading. Myss responded: "Conny has never reaped anything in 
her field. She needs to put joy in her life."

Two months later, Hatch could no longer ignore the message from her body. 
Over several weeks, she grew an ovarian tumor that eventually protruded 
from her flat abdomen. "Chris examined me. She was floored," says Hatch. 
"'We have to get in there tomorrow,'" she said.

"At 6:30 the next morning I went to Mercy Hospital, and Chris was her 
incredible self. You're there on the gurney and she's there in her scrubs, and 
she has this incredible smile on her face. I sensed that Chris was right there 
with me, participating not as an intruder but right there with me, as who I 

The tumor was borderline--"not benign and not malignant," says Hatch. She 
lost her left ovary and fallopian tubes that day and began a journey toward 
accepting herself as a creative person. After a great deal of soul searching, 
Hatch left her job and now landscapes and creates with clay. "I really feel like 
your body is your greatest teacher and protector, and if you're not going to 
listen to where you need to go in your life, your body is going to stop you in 
all kinds of ways," she says. "My theory was that the cyst . . . was a message 
to really delve into my creative side, which I'd been avoiding in a big way. 
[Now] I feel like the tumor was a gift from my body."

Even with the success of Women to Women, Northrup is already imagining 
an entirely different kind of a women's health center, one in which many 
practices are conducted in groups. "One of my associates has her 
mammogram with her best friend," she says, with a grin. "They call it the 
mammorama, and there's no fear." She imagines a place where women could 
gather and share their stories through simple, comforting rituals: "We would 
have the best coffees!" she says, laughing. "You would sit down in the lounge 
and talk about your life, and when you were ready you'd have your pap 

Her model would encourage women to become self-sufficient in a society 
that discourages women's self-sufficiency. For instance, she says, if during 
conversation or counseling "feelings came up and you started to cry, there 
would be a room where you could cry for as long as you needed--and we'd 
have someone to be there with you who knew you had the inner resources to 
deal with your pain."

Her vision is a dramatic departure  from what she imagines a national health 
care system would bring. "If you want to know what government health care 
is like, just go to a VA hospital where they have seven elevators, only one of 
which works at any given time," she says. Her conclusion: Rather than 
funding a mammoth bureaucracy, the government should use that same 
money to provide individuals with $300 to $400 per month to spend on 
preventive care (she, for example, gets massages and acupuncture treatments 
on a regular basis). "You would have so few crises down the line," she says.

But even as Northrup looks ahead, she is also looking inside for guidance-- 
thanks to the wake-up call her body recently sent her. As she was writing 
Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom, she was diagnosed with a fibroid tumor 
that swelled her uterus to the size of a pregnant woman's at thirteen weeks. 
"Later that night, as I lay in my bed, I put my hands over my lower abdomen 
and said to my uterus, 'OK, now I have to take my own medicine and tune in 
to what you're telling me.' My uterus gave me the following message: 'This 
fibroid is a reminder that you need to learn how to move energy through 
your body more efficiently. If you take care of yourself now and pay 
attention, you'll avoid more serious problems in the future. This is also a 
wonderful opportunity to teach other women by example. Remember, the 
work you're doing with others applies to you. You've always believed that it 
is possible to dematerialize fibroids. Here's your chance.'"

Northrup set about making changes in her life. She began a regimen of 
castor-oil packs and acupuncture, but the fibroid only grew. Then a tarot 
reading from the Motherpeace cards (she picked the card representing 
bondage, a signal to her that she "was in bondage to an obsolete form" of 
medicine) suggested that she needed more professional freedom. She realized 
that she had to move beyond the one-on-one health care she had been 
providing toward her vision of teaching women in groups how to create 
health on a daily basis.

Her intuition--why is it not surprising?--was right. "As I completed the final 
stages of my writing and began teaching more and more groups of women," 
she writes, "the fibroid gradually started to shrink. It may not go away 
completely. I suspect it may instead remain in my body as a barometer whose 
size alerts me to whether I'm being true to myself and to the work I love the 

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