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Christiane Northrup, M.D., '75: A state of mind
Put your hand on your heart," says Dr. Christiane Northrup as she places her left hand on her own chest. "High heart up here, and low heart down here. This is your low heart," she explains, patting her right hand on her lower abdomen. "We're going to energize your low heart, babe, okay? That's our plan."
The woman Northrup is talking to believes that a hysterectomy has permanently ruined her sex life.
"I'mgoing to have you close your eyes," Northrup continues, "and I want you to smile—this is an inner smile." The advice that Northrup is dispensing is almost as unusual as the location of this consultation. She and the woman are not in a medical exam room but on the set of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Northrup is leading the entire audience—as well as Oprah herself—through a qigong (pronounced "chi gung") exercise.
"And," Northrup instructs, "I want you to breathe into your heart and smile. Send that smile into your heart. Feel your heart opening like a flower. Mmmmmmmm. And now send that energy down to your low heart. Okay, exhale and send it down to your low heart. Breathe back into your high heart. Keep the smile going, and now smile down into your low heart with your right hand and now feel it growing warm down there." The audience is rapt.
"Where's my low heart?" Oprah asks. Her innocent question breaks the serious mood, and the audience erupts in laughter.
"Right here!" Northrup says, moving her hand down a little more. "Right here."
"Ohhhh, there it is!" Oprah says, smiling broadly. "Oh! It's there!"
"You can make it even lower," adds Northrup, "but for television we're going to make it right here." She pats her pelvic area again and then instructs Oprah and the audience to use their consciousness
to smile. "We're putting our attention down there," she says, pausing, "because energy follows thought. Energy follows thought," she repeats, "and you have energy in your hand."
"Energy follows thought" could well be Northrup's mantra. For more than two decades, she's been writing and speaking about the power of the mind to heal—or harm—the body. "Every thought we think," she says a few weeks after her appearance on Oprah, "every emotion we have, is a biochemical reality in the body." While conventional medicine has begun to acknowledge and examine a mind-body connection, Northrup takes the concept much further—to a level that many physicians consider heretical.
For example, in her first book, Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom—which has sold more than 1.4 million copies since it was first published in 1994—Northrup goes beyond giving the standard physiological explanation for fibroids, a
common gynecological problem. Fibroids "result when we are flowing life energy into dead ends, such as jobs or relationships that we have outgrown," she writes in the book. "I ask women with fibroids to meditate on their relationships with other people and [on] how they express their creativity."
Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom also includes a section on chakras, seven energy centers in the body identified by yoga philosophy. She suggests that energy blockages in the chakras can be related to everything from chronic neck pain to Parkinson's disease.
Northrup hasn't always been this comfortable giving advice that is so far afield from mainstream medicine. In the early 1980s, when she was part of a private group practice, she was much more concerned about the opinions of her medical colleagues. "I used to close my office door before I would talk to a woman with breast cancer about nutrition," she admits. "I was afraid that my colleagues would see and would criticize me." She promoted a high-fiber, whole-foods diet to decrease circulating estrogen levels and lower blood sugar. She saw people get better with that approach.
As the years passed, Northrup found herself more and more drawn to alternative, non-Western medicine. She joined the American Holistic Medical Association (and later became its president) and gave lectures at the EastWest Foundation, an organization founded byMichio Kushi, who popularized themacrobiotic diet in the United States. Northrup herself, and her two young daughters, began to follow a vegan diet, meaning they didn't eat any food derived from animals—no milk or eggs as well as no meat. More and more, she integrated nutrition advice and supplementation into her practice, though always "within the bounds of what was considered reasonable" by her colleagues, who were firmly rooted in conventional medicine.
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Jennifer Durgin is Dartmouth Medicine magazine's senior writer.