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
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
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
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
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
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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