Earlier this year, the editors at delicious living magazine gifted me with the task of investigating the intersection of natural medicines and women’s health. The resulting interviews with naturopathic doctor (ND) Dr. Ellen Simone (drellensimone.com) and nurse practitioner (NP) Jamie Batsch (thechi.ca/integrative-medicine-general-services) yielded privileged insights into their patient care. My dear friend Manisha generously contributed her moving and sometimes heartbreaking accounts of life with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), childhood trauma, late pregnancy loss, fertility challenges, and lichen sclerosus.
This experience has strengthened my conviction that natural options offer essential strategies to women struggling with health issues. The voices of these inspiring women narrate my following exploration.
Being heard, finding solutions
“I felt invisible.” Manisha had had many doctor visits, but after two years of trying to resolve the constant burning pain of lichen sclerosus (in a very sensitive area), she felt frustrated and dismissed. She was given prescriptions and advice, but nothing helped, leaving her petrified of flare-ups during business meetings and trips to the grocery store.
Her experience with IBS was similar. “My colonoscopy was great,” she says, “but there was nothing to tell me why my symptoms were there. There was no explanation as to what was happening to me.”
Jamie explains that natural approaches offer alternatives to women who have not found solutions through conventional avenues. “Some women aren’t getting the answers they need, and their concerns aren’t being heard. We’re validating their concerns,” she continues. “Their symptoms are real, even if their tests look normal.”
The holistic model—multiple avenues of inquiry
One benefit of the holistic approach to health care is that it considers factors not normally explored through more conventional routes. Dietary factors, exercise practices, sleep habits, and mental health are reviewed, and valued, in the holistic model of care.
“We look at the whole person,” explains Ellen, “and all the different factors that could be playing a role in symptoms. People tell their stories and feel listened to.”
These stories may hold critical clues. Years after her IBS diagnosis, Manisha saw a psychologist who connected traumatic events in her childhood to her digestive function. “I felt seen for the first time,” she said.
Through the difficult work of trauma recovery, she saw significant changes in her IBS symptoms. It is unfortunate that no one had considered the role of her mental health before. Overtaxed providers and short, targeted appointments in publicly funded health care may not foster these discussions.
Trauma, burnout, and stress as women’s issues
Sadly, trauma has specific relevance to women’s health. Canadian women are victims of violence and sexual assault far more often than men. Burnout from stress affects us more frequently, and more women than men carry childcare responsibilities, often in addition to work outside of the home.
Stress affects our female physiology profoundly, says Ellen, citing our hormonal processes, gut function, and sleep as frequent casualties. Jamie emphasizes links between stress and auto-immune diseases, which may occur more often in women. The longer-than-usual visits typical of complementary care allow time for gentle inquiry about life stressors. This knowledge can be a game changer, as it was for Manisha.
One size fits one
The broad treatment palette of natural medicine encompasses dietary and lifestyle practices, botanical extracts, and supplements of all stripes. The resulting treatment plan is an individualized fusion of many elements, reflecting the unique needs of each person. Ellen, Jamie, and Manisha mention some favorite interventions in the sidebar, “Natural palette.”
As the word suggests, “supplements” are strategies to be used in addition to other approaches. Manisha’s consultation with an ND resulted in the removal of gluten and dairy from her diet. Remarkably, these changes dramatically improved the painful symptoms of lichen sclerosus.
The new diet “improved things A TON!” while helping her IBS symptoms as well. She also speaks highly of soothing the nervous system through bodywork, yoga, meditation, exercise, and time in nature. Besides, as Jamie offered, “there is no pill for trauma.”
Empowerment through individualized medicine
The theme of empowerment runs through the practice of natural medicine. “I teach patients to advocate for themselves,” says Ellen. She routinely drafts question lists for patients to ask their doctors and helps patients understand their test results. This is a radical shift from the “if we don’t call you, everything is fine” approach practiced in many clinics.
Natural treatments are oriented around the patient, rather than the other way around, and demand engagement from the patient. A woman’s response to a prior recommendation along with her personal preferences invariably guide the next steps in treatment. The value placed on individual experience puts women in the driver’s seat, positioning them as key players in their care team rather than passive recipients of care.
Empowerment in medicine is a vitally important question. The power imbalance between doctors and patients is well established. While this dynamic could silence anyone trying to advocate for themselves, women’s voices are further suppressed by inherent sexism in the public system.
Health care discrimination
Almost one in five women report experiencing gender-based discrimination in health care. Female doctors themselves are not unscathed, earning just 77 percent of their male counterparts’ pay.
Perhaps a complementary approach that values women’s opinions and experiences is simply more appealing by design.
I am profoundly grateful to these three women for the valuable glimpses they have provided into their experiences with natural health care. These approaches provide unique benefits for women to be heard, empowered, and cared for in their health journeys.
The adrenal fatigue controversy
Adrenal fatigue is the concept that chronic stress exhausts our cortisol-producing adrenal glands; a concept dismissed by conventional endocrinologists.
Holistic providers such as Jamie and Ellen may reference this concept as a framework, “an explanation of how chronic stress may affect you physically,” but agree that it is a diagnosis based on how someone is feeling rather than on test results.
Their treatment approaches? Rest, stress management, and herbs traditionally used to support the adrenal glands, such as ashwagandha.
These strategies are favorites for Jamie, Ellen, and Manisha.
Supplemental strategies Targets vitamin D immunity, bone density magnesium anxiety, constipation melatonin/GABA sleep disturbed by anxiety chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) hormonal balance during ovulation, pregnancy, menopause inositol blood sugar and insulin regulation
On being a natural woman
A Canadian organization, PaRx is encouraging health care practitioners to make specific, written nature prescriptions to their patients, recognizing the essential benefits of time spent in nature to physical and mental health. parkprescriptions.ca