LN: First, Dr. Steelsmith, what would you advise readers regarding the use of herbs and supplements, since the use of some has been controversial? Most books about naturopathic healing start out with a disclaimer and advice to “check with your physician” before trying any of the suggested health advice. Yours doesn’t. Any particular reason?
Dr. LS: To begin with a disclaimer to “check with your physician” before using the natural medicine advice in my book wouldn’t provide readers with what they really need. Medical doctors are not trained in natural medicine, so they would seldom be able to assess when an herb or nutritional supplement is appropriate, and when it isn’t. In order find out if the advice would be appropriate, readers would want to check with a licensed naturopathic physician. In the book I specifically address when to seek the advice of a licensed naturopathic doctor, and I also point out when it would be advisable to consult other kinds of health care practitioners.
Most herbs and supplements are safe and effective when you use them correctly, and the advice I provide throughout the book explains when and how to do just that. Because so much of my book focuses on how you can take care of your health through the choices you make every day, I included disclaimers in the book where appropriate, rather than a blanket statement covering the whole book.
LN: What key factor led to your studies in naturopathic medicine? And how did your studies benefit your own body?
Dr. LS: One of the key factors that led to my studies in naturopathic medicine was the summer I spent as an exchange student in rural Norway when I was sixteen years old. The experience taught me the value of a new, healthier way of life. I was introduced by my host family to a more natural lifestyle than the one I’d been accustomed to as an American teenager. My exchange parents, who were both in their forties, never drank alcohol, didn’t smoke, and jogged at least seven miles every day. They had a very healthy diet, frequently making their own jam by hand and baking their own bread, and often we would go out and pick flowers from the linden trees for tea or gather mushrooms in the local woods for dinner. As a teenager who’d been brought up on the typical American diet, I had suffered from chronic allergies and sinusitis from an early age, but that summer those problems virtually disappeared. It was a revelation to discover that by making simple changes in my diet and lifestyle I could eliminate my allergic reactions and cure my sinusitis. The experience played an important role in my eventual decision to study naturopathic medicine.
My health has benefited from my studies in naturopathic medicine in countless ways, and from my studies in Chinese medicine as well. One of the most amazing examples is that I was able to use natural medicine to cure a borderline lupus condition that I was diagnosed with while in medical school. My studies literally led me to the cure! Now, almost 15 years later, I am still symptom-free and I continue to live a full and abundantly healthy life.
LN: What are some of the most prevalent ailments that you treat and are they all diet related?
Dr. LS: The conditions that I typically treat include hormone imbalances, digestive problems, fatigue of unknown origin, joint pain, autoimmune disorders, frequent colds and flus, depression, headaches, and pelvic health issues such as chronic vaginitis and urinary tract infections. Women often have concerns about their bone, breast, and heart health and want to know what they can do to prevent osteoporosis, breast cancer, and heart disease. Diet plays a huge role in every aspect of our well-being. It is one of the pillars of our health, and a critical part of changing the course of any disease process.
LN: Would you give us an overview of the Five Elements, Qi (chee), and “energetics” and tell us why understanding these could help alleviate myriad health problems.
Dr. LS: The Five Elements are the five basic properties that, according to Chinese medicine, are present throughout the natural world: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. All of the Five Elements are also said to be present in the internal natural world of your own body. Each is associated with particular traits and tendencies – you can think of them as metaphors for qualities, or capacities, found in your body and expressed in your physiology, your emotions, and your spirit. One of the Five Elements usually dominates your personality, and this can be crucial to your health – which is why the book goes into great detail about how you can come to know what your “dominant element” is. By understanding which of the five tends to be your dominant element, you can begin to make lifestyle choices to keep that element balanced, which in turn will keep your whole body healthier.
Qi is perhaps the single most important concept in Chinese medicine. Qi is your body’s vital force – not merely the energy of your physical body, but the life force that is the essence of your being. Chinese medicine uses a systematic approach for maintaining and promoting health, based on the premise that Qi is responsible for health and disease. Yin and yang – the opposites that exist everywhere in the universe, and in your body – are characteristics or forms of Qi. When your yin and yang are in harmony, you will be in perfect health.
The term “energetics” relates to your Qi. If your Qi is low, you are more prone to illness. By using “energy medicine,” working with your Qi, and strengthening and supporting your vital force, you can heal on a very deep level.
LN: Although you explain this in great detail in your book, what practices make up what you call the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle?
Dr. LS: First of all, the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle is all about balance. It includes a healthy diet, regular exercise, taking time for all of your emotional and physical needs, living by your values, and good detoxification. Most people are surprised that good detoxification is so important, but taking the garbage of out of your body can make all the difference in how well it works. I often use this metaphor: if you don’t take the garbage out of your house, things can quickly get pretty uncomfortable! Well, this is also true of your body. Making sure that you do regular internal housecleaning by sweating, having consistent bowel movements, moving your lymph, and increasing your circulation with exercise, can all ensure that you have an optimally functioning body. And detoxification includes limiting your exposure to environmental toxins by making the healthiest choices when it comes to products that you use in your daily life such as cleaning and personal care items.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle includes making sure that you are balancing your Qi. For instance, if you do a lot of what I call “yang exercises,” like running, you will want to also do what I call “yin exercises,” like yoga, to create harmony. Another example is with your diet: if you eat a lot of what are known in Chinese medicine as energetically “cold” foods, you will want to create dietary balance by eating some energetically “hot” foods as well. This is an important tool from the Chinese tradition that you can use to help achieve the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle, so in the book I provide lists of foods that are energetically cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot.
The Naturally Healthy Lifestyle also means using the least toxic, least invasive treatments first if your body does become ill. Herbal and nutritional supplements can not only help to keep you strong, but can also enhance your body’s own ability to heal if you get sick.
LN: In a recent news magazine/television show they illuminated the alarming rate of patient illnesses and deaths due to infections acquired while in the hospital. With certain conditions necessitating hospitalization, what could patients with some knowledge of natural healing do to protect themselves?
Dr. LS: For one thing, if you are a patient in the hospital you want to be sure that your health care practitioners are washing their hands thoroughly! Many infections in hospitals are due to poor hygiene by health care workers.
If you are not currently a patient in the hospital but you want to do whatever you can to protect yourself from any illness due to infections, keep your immune system strong. You can do this with the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle and Diet that I outline in the book. If you need an extra boost, you can use herbal and nutritional supplements to give your immune system the tools to function optimally. For example, one of my favorite immune enhancers is Reishi mushroom. It has been used for thousands of years to support Qi, and recent research has found that it contains compounds that increase your immune system’s ability to fight infection even before it starts.
LN: There is also a lot of controversy over a variety of prescription drugs as well as those available from drugstore shelves. We hear how ibuprofen and acetaminophen can cause many health issues. Is it realistic to expect people never to take pain killers? And what would you say to those indulging in their use weekly?
Dr. LS: What we need to do is use natural medicine as much as possible, and dip into the vat of prescription medication only when absolutely necessary. We all know that many, if not most, pharmaceutical drugs come with long warning lists of undesirable or dangerous side-effects. Herbal and nutritional supplements can also have undesirable effects if used incorrectly, but most are very safe and have a solid track record of effectiveness with few side-effects. The fact that Chinese herbal formulas have been used traditionally for thousands of years gives us great reassurance about their safety – a kind of reassurance that we know we can never have when a newly-developed drug is released on the market. Our modern method of “approving” drugs for the market is such a rush job, relatively speaking, in the scheme of things – when you compare it to the rich history of herbs that have stood the test of time for millennia.
If you are indulging in pain killers on a weekly or even daily basis, look for the underlying cause of your condition, and do whatever you can to remove the obstacles to your cure. You may be able to use natural anti-inflammatory medications, if needed, such as bromelain, curcumin, or boswellia. Some people get free from the pain cycle with acupuncture and traditional Chinese herbal formulas. Seek out a licensed naturopathic physician or acupuncturist to help you create a new path to wellness.
LN: Chapter One is essential reading in making clear your philosophy and the basic principles of your work. And subsequent chapters deal with kidneys, liver, heart (and spirit), digestion, hormones, bones, breast health, and mind, complete with a “best of” list of tools and techniques. Packed with well-explained health advice, charts, and engaging and helpful patient’s stories, Natural Choices for Women’s Health is an incredible deal at just $15.95. But, since what we put into our bodies (in combination with exercise) will determine how we create and improve our health, what do you advise for the economically-challenged who can’t afford to purchase only organic food or high end supplements?
Dr. LS: Great health can be so simple. It doesn’t necessarily require fancy food, but good, clean, high-quality food is essential. It doesn’t mean you have to take a hundred supplements a day. In most cases, a good multiple vitamin is all you really need for basic health maintenance. My advice is this: if you don’t have access to organic foods, purchase locally-grown foods whenever you can (especially avoid buying foods grown outside the U.S., where regulations on crop pesticides may be lax), and wash your fruit and vegetables carefully with natural soap and water. Buy whole grains, and if you are not a vegetarian, whenever possible choose low-mercury seafood and free range meat, eggs, and poultry. With a healthy diet and the right lifestyle, you will significantly decrease your risk of acute and chronic disease.
LN: Do you think there are significant changes regarding the Western medicine health practitioner’s attitude to the use of Eastern and herbal medicine? What are some of the ways patients can be better prepared and more knowledgeable about their health care treatment when seeing a traditional doctor?
Dr. LS: Yes, there are significant changes happening all over the country in the minds of Western health practitioners. They are interested in natural medicine from both the Eastern and the Western perspective, because they see how dramatically their patients’ health can improve after working with a naturopathic physician or an acupuncturist.
When seeing your medical doctor, remember that conventional Western and natural medicine can and do work together. There may be times when you need the skills of a conventionally-trained medical doctor for diagnosing or treating a particular condition, and sometimes you may need to take pharmaceutical medicine. But you will also want to seek the skills of natural health practitioners, because they will help you address the underlying cause of the condition and assist your body in its journey back to wellness. Where conventionally-trained doctors may be least able to help you is in the area of creating great health. As I often tell my patients if a medical doctor suggests that they take a drug for long term treatment, no drug can replace a lifetime of healthy choices.
Patients can be better prepared and more knowledgeable about their health care treatment by understanding that a medical doctor is not trained in natural medicine. The education of a licensed naturopathic physician is extensive in this area and involves a four-year post-graduate medical program. Many of my patients have medical doctors as part of their health care team, and I collaborate with them on a daily basis to help patients get the best of both kinds of medicine.
LN: Explain a little about your “Six-Point Plan to Heal Your Digestive System.”
Dr. LS: I designed the Six-Point Plan so that you can use it not only to heal your digestive system but also to optimize the health of your entire body. The plan is based on the work I’ve done with thousands of patients over the past 12 years. It’s a do-it-yourself plan that includes a food allergy test, a digestive cleanse, and supplements to keep your intestines free of yeast, abnormal bacteria and parasites. It also includes my recommendations for a diet that will support the health of your digestive system, as well as my advice for cultivating friendly flora in your intestines.
The people who find my plan especially beneficial may or may not have digestive symptoms – or they may have symptoms that are seemingly unrelated. The digestive system can be linked not only to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, but also to a wide range of other problems including asthma, eczema, migraine headaches, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, hives and other skin rashes. The Six-Point Plan is easy to implement and can help many people who suffer from all of these conditions, and more.
LN: What are some of the most common contributors to PMS?
Dr. LS: The most common contributors to PMS are a standard American diet, lack of exercise, too much stress, poor elimination of hormones, and low thyroid function. One of the most frequent consequences of these factors is that a woman’s liver isn’t able to break down estrogen efficiently, resulting in a condition known as estrogen dominance (which is too much estrogen compared to progesterone). In the book I recommend a detailed plan for treating PMS from a Western naturopathic perspective; in addition to the Naturally Healthy Lifestyle and Diet, my plan includes a comprehensive liver cleanse, nutritional supplements to balance your body, and more. I also recommend ways that you can resolve PMS from the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine, where it is perceived quite differently from the way it is in the West. For instance, symptoms of frustration and irritability are seen as stagnation of Liver Qi, and treatment is aimed at keeping your Qi flowing through diet, exercise, and specific herbal medicines. There are Chinese herbal formulas that can treat the underlying causes of PMS and significantly enhance your well-being.
LN: What are some of the ways a woman can find relief from hot flashes, night sweats, irritability, and wakefulness during the transition of menopause? And what does experiencing these symptoms reveal about a woman’s health?
Dr. LS: When a woman comes to see me who is experiencing hot flashes, night sweats, irritability, and insomnia during perimenopause or menopause, I treat her with both naturopathic medicine and Chinese medicine. From a Western point of view, she is experiencing a decrease in her hormone levels and going through a natural transition in her life. I help support her in this transition by prescribing foods and herbs rich in phytoestrogens (natural substances found in plants that have estrogen-like effects on the body) such as soy and alfalfa, black cohosh and red clover. I also recommend that she finds ways to decrease stress.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, her symptoms are consistent with what is known as “yin deficiency.” Yin is the “feminine” aspect of Qi, and yang is the masculine aspect. You can think of yin as water, and yang as fire. If a woman is lacking in yin, or water, she tends to have a relatively greater amount of yang, or fire. This results in feelings of flashes of heat, inability to sleep at night, and irritability. In the Eastern view, it is best if she eats energetically “cold” and “cooling” foods such as watermelon, kelp, asparagus, and cucumbers, and avoids “warming” and “hot” foods such as cherries, cauliflower, soybean oil, and trout. Chinese medicine also offers a wealth of information on herbs and herbal formulas that are “cooling.”
LN: Stress appears to be an unavoidable effect of today’s information-overloaded, multi-tasking world. What would you recommend as a supplement/diet/technique-based de-stressor? And how can the use of aromatherapy and flower essences help?
Dr. LS: One of the most important things we can do is to give ourselves time to do “nothing”. I call this “flop time” – the opportunity to simply flop on a couch, in a hammock, or at the beach. Recently a patient came to see me who is very successful in her career, has three kids, and at 39 years of age is utterly exhausted! While talking with her, it became clear that she knew how to make all the right choices with her diet and lifestyle. However, her life had become so overwhelming that she often found herself going to fast food restaurants and bypassing the gym. I realized that this busy career woman and mother didn’t need yet one more goal she had to reach, or a lecture on what to do. It was obvious that her jaunts to fast food restaurants and lack of exercise were her ways of rebelling from always having to be “perfect” and achievement oriented. My first recommendation to her was to simply create time for herself where she could just BE – whether that meant buying a frivolous blouse or watching a movie and eating popcorn. She simply needed time to have fun and while away the hours, and she needed someone to tell her it was okay to let some things go every now and then. She needed some quality “flop time.”
Along with lifestyle changes, aromatherapy and flower essences can be wonderful tools for creating shifts in our moods. Aromatherapy is particularly effective because scents are picked up by your olfactory nerve, which has direct access to your limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. You can use aromatherapy oils on a daily basis to nurture yourself and regain a sense of emotional balance. At the end of the day, give yourself a treat by drawing a bath and sprinkling in your favorite oils. It can leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed.
Flower essences are botanical medicines made from flowers and preserved in liquid form. They are a type of “energy” medicine, and their effects can be subtle but powerful. They can help lift a sad person out of an emotional quagmire or help an angry person become calm. Keeping your favorite flower essences on hand may help you to better cope with stress and get more out of your life.
LN: The contribution of Natural Choices for Women’s Health is invaluable. You’ve put so much work into this book – it’s a “bible” of health how to’s. You’ve also included a supplements/suppliers/resource guide in the back of the book. What about consultations? Do you accept phone calls or queries from out of state?
Dr. LS: Thanks so much. I truly hope the book proves beneficial to its readers for many years to come. Writing it was really a labor of love for natural medicine – for both me and my husband Alex, who co-authored the book. We wanted to show as many people as possible how simple great health can be, and how natural medicine can profoundly change the quality of women’s lives.
At this time I’m not doing phone consultations, largely because I’m so busy with the patients that I currently see in my office. Also, I like to meet the people that I work with face-to-face because I gather a lot of unspoken information about them that way. But I’m continuing to travel and appear as a public speaker for many health groups, conferences, and expositions – so I guess you could say that I do “group consultations.”
LN: Before I go off to get some Bergamot and Sweet Orange, I wanted to comment on the back of the book’s blurb: “Innovative, authoritative and truly comprehensive, Natural Choices for Women’s Health is sure to become the standard reference for women seeking advice on attaining maximum physical and emotional wellness naturally.” This says it all! Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise with us.
Dr. LS: Thank you, Karen, for your time and interest – and special thanks to Living Natural magazine for this opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers. I hope I’ve helped inspire them to create great health in their lives with natural medicine.
Karen Villanueva is a publicist specializing in author/book promotions. The volunteer publicist for New Mexico Book Association www.nmbook.org, she has been involved in the natural health industry since the mid-seventies. Website: www.authorcare.com