Holistic Health Foundations
As a young girl, you might have giggled, squirmed, or looked away as you learned about the female reproductive system in school. Many of our mothers rarely shared much additional knowledge about “what goes on down there” except to tell us how to stay clean and not get pregnant. This incomplete introduction to the uterus epitomizes most Western women’s relationship to this purely female organ. Forgotten, cursed, or ignored, our uteruses are considered by most of us to be either problematic or insignificant—except on the occasions we focus our attention on becoming pregnant.
However, for every human being, the uterus is our first home. It is our original source of life as humans and, at least so far, essential to our continuance as a race. You and I both began in a uterus and so did everyone else we know.
In my mid-twenties, it was my interest in our society’s attitudes about the uterus that kept me home in the United States to study menopause instead of going to West Africa as I had originally planned. At the time, I was a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Virginia. I was intrigued with the then-blossoming field of medical anthropology and knew I wanted to study women’s health as an anthropologist.
I had previously lived, studied, and taught in the small West African country of Togo. When I began grad school, I assumed I would move to Togo for several years to conduct my dissertation research, a traditional anthropology rite of passage. However, political conditions in Togo had exploded, making it no longer a viable option. While doing anthropological research in the neighboring country of Burkina Faso, I learned more about the divergence of uterine health patterns between American and African women. I discovered that some West African women looked positively on menstruation and menopause, which made me wonder why our society approached these same bodily processes with such embarrassment and apprehension. I felt that I needed to understand my own culture’s gender attitudes and experiences before continuing my research elsewhere.
I decided to follow in the footsteps of some of the most cutting-edge ethnographic research at the time, which involved turning the cultural microscope on ourselves to better understand the patterns influencing our lives and health care. I chose to stay in the States and focus my investigation on African-American and white women to explore how race and class affect women’s attitudes and experiences with their health. I conducted a portion of my study in clinical settings to learn more about the ways in which women are treated in our health care system.
When I begin my fieldwork, I was not certain that I would have as much access to my research subjects’ lives as I was honored to have as an anthropologist in Africa. To my surprise, the people in my study graciously welcomed me into their work and their lives. Doctors, nurses, and health educators let me observe their interactions with their patients. These health care providers took the time to talk to me about their hopes, concerns, and grievances about their careers. Women invited me into their homes or met me for interviews, where they shared intimate pictures of the ways their uterine health impacted their lives and bodies. During interviews, women frequently told me I was the first person other than their doctors with whom they had spoken so candidly about these issues. A few women expressed embarrassment in talking about their uterine health. Several women told me that they were so reluctant to talk about menstruation that they generally put off visiting their doctors about excessive bleeding or painful periods until their situation was so debilitating that they had to seek help. However, the majority seemed to enjoy being freely able to discuss their experiences with someone who was truly interested.
Hundreds of women kindly allowed me into the treatment rooms where they experienced the vulnerability inherent to gynecological exams. They let me be present while they were diagnosed with fibroids, endometriosis, early menopause, and cancer, or were presented with the treatment options available for their conditions. I attended support groups for perimenopausal and menopausal women looking for assistance for conditions that many thought were too taboo to discuss openly with friends and family.
A Researcher’s Journey
My investigation of uterine health connected me to my roots in a surprising way. I was raised in an environment that revered medical science. My father was a dentist, and other family members and friends were dentists or physicians. I had pondered becoming a physician myself and considered getting a dual PhD/MD focusing on women’s health—until my research took me down an unexpected path.
I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, where holistic health modalities were practiced widely until my parents’ generation. My maternal grandparents and great-aunt had been raised using these complementary techniques. They all had advanced college degrees, and my great-aunt was a certified reflexologist and nutritionist. My grandmother was a university professor, while my grandfather was a school superintendent and principal. They used biomedicine as their primary form of health care, yet they integrated nutrition and reflexology into their self-care. When I was young, they taught me about reflexology, herbs, crystals, and organic farming. My great-aunt encouraged me and my siblings to study holistic health and other cultural traditions.
My father and his colleagues embraced biomedicine as the way of the future. They regarded these mind-body health customs as antiquated and outdated, and they instilled in me a view of medical science as the only way of tending to my health. My father and siblings laughed at my mother’s family’s “weird habits.” By ten or eleven, I too began to brush off this traditional knowledge. As a teenager, I ignored my grandparents’ and great-aunt’s suggestions on how I could use holistic methods to improve my health. However, when my research began to reveal that, at least in the area of women’s health, Western medicine did not have all the answers, I realized that perhaps the elders in my family had been onto something after all.
Shortly after I started my research, a twist of fate reintroduced me to holistic medicine at a time when I was ready to listen and learn. A native healer I met through a common friend suggested that she could teach me about mind-body approaches. I began apprenticing with this practitioner, who combined Cherokee therapies from her family background with Asian and African mind-body techniques. For more than three years, I studied visualization, meditation, guided imagery, energetic balancing, herbs, and intuitive healing under her guidance.
By the time I completed my PhD, I knew I wanted to help bring this information about the power of complementary medicine to the world, so I continued to look for opportunities that would help increase my knowledge. I moved to Washington, D.C. where I worked as a political appointee in the administration of President Bill Clinton and continued my integrative health training.
In the Clinton administration, I worked with the White House, Congress, and other federal agencies to improve the educational and health opportunities for women and children. The experience opened my eyes to the ways government programs can assist people in creating better lives. It also helped me understand firsthand how corporate interests affect health care policies and practices, often to the detriment of our health and wellness. Even though this work was rewarding, I knew my purpose lay down a different road. I broadened my foundation in traditional healing by studying with a naturopath in Chicago and training in spiritual life coaching and conscious connected breathing facilitation in Maryland and Virginia.
I also expanded my anthropology research in women’s health to other areas of the country. I interviewed more than one hundred white, African-American, Asian, Latina, and Native American women of all ages throughout the United States. Like the women in the earlier phase of study, they generously disclosed their experiences and attitudes about uterine health to me. Additionally, I interviewed a cross-section of holistic healers to understand how different types of mind-body disciplines approach uterine health imbalances.
When the Clinton administration ended, I began my practice as a mind-body healer and life coach in Washington, D.C. My personal experience with an early miscarriage two years later motivated me to learn even more about using mind-body techniques to establish uterine wellness. During my subsequent pregnancy I delved deeper into holistic health traditions to help carry my pregnancy to term and experience natural childbirth.
I began to share this knowledge through workshops and private consultations, where I met hundreds of women with diverse uterine issues looking for effective noninvasive treatments. Integrating the expertise I acquired in the various branches of complementary medicine, I developed a program of nutritional support, stress reduction, life coaching, visualization, and transformational breathing that has assisted my clients in healing PMS, pelvic pain, infertility, menopausal symptoms, and other chronic health problems. Part two of this book, the Optimal Uterine Health Plan, grew out of this program for my clients.
In 2006, I returned to my hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I continue to assist women across the country and internationally with their healing and empowerment. Drawing on the experiences of my own clients as well as those of women who have healed their uterine problems using other complementary modalities—such as acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, nutrition, massage, and bodywork—I have written this book to help answer the urgent call for a healthier, whole-body approach to reducing uterine pain and problems.
The New Medicine
In Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century, best-selling author and physicist Michio Kaku affirms that as more studies are done to demonstrate the immense effect of the mind-body connection on the cellular and molecular levels, medicine as we know it will be vastly improved.1 Currently, biomedical treatments tend to isolate uterine dysfunctions without generally exploring women’s nutritional, emotional, and exercise patterns—even though research shows that stress, lifestyle, and other mind-body factors have a huge impact on uterine health. This compartmentalized strategy is standard in our current health care system, because our entire scientific framework has been shaped by a four-hundred-year-old pact that physicians entered into in an effort to appease religious leaders. René Descartes, a seventeenth-century scientist and philosopher, made an agreement with the pope in order to be permitted to dissect human corpses. Descartes vowed that medicine would rule over only the physical body while leaving the mind, emotions, and spirit to the Church.
The Cartesian split continues to dominate medicine and science to this day. It has also encouraged our society to separate human experience into two distinct spheres: body and mind. This ideology positioned the body as a grouping of mechanical parts to be controlled by the mind rather than viewing human experience as a dynamic combination of body, mind, spirit, energy, and emotion, as holistic approaches do. In this process the rational intelligence of the mind (which Western culture associates with men) became elevated over embodied experience and knowledge, which have been considered the domain of women and female healers. This philosophy not only affects the way Western medicine is practiced, but also significantly influences the way you and I live and relate to our bodies.
The reintroduction of traditional medicine to the West in the past forty years, along with the findings of modern science, have challenged this mind-body separation. Non-Western medical systems have brought to light the importance of incorporating emotional, energetic, and societal factors on uterine wellness. In traditional Chinese medicine, for example, the uterus sits in the dantian, the body’s energetic center. Chinese medicine proposes that there is an important relationship between the uterus and the heart, and biomedical research now confirms the influence of the uterus on heart health. The Chinese believe an energy channel runs though the core of every woman’s torso connecting these two organs. Sadness, anger, and unresolved issues about one’s relationships and identity as a woman move between the heart and the uterus, affecting women’s cycles, reproductive health, and experiences during menopause. In this system, emotional healing is essential to strengthening uterine health.
In South Asian–based chakra healing, the uterus is situated in the second chakra, the body’s center for creativity, relationships, sexuality, and financial prosperity. In this energy medicine system, the uterus embodies our capacity for relating to others as well as to the world at large. In the chakra framework, when our relationships and interactions are out of balance, the organs of the second chakra become weakened or diseased. If women continually block their personal power and creativity out of fear, the energy and health of the uterus will be negatively affected. Consequently, creative expression, healthy relationships, and opening up to personal power facilitate balanced energy and healing in the uterus.
Western medicine is at a crossroads where ineffective mechanistic practices are starting to be replaced by these and other integrative approaches. The emergence of holistic healing promises to revitalize a medical system that seems to be slowly running out of breath. Merging these methods will improve the efficacy and reduce the costs of our current medical system while bridging the expertise of so many talented biomedical and complementary practitioners. It will also help change Western medicine for the better by erasing the erroneous belief in a disconnection between body, mind, and spirit that has plagued our science and culture for the past four hundred years.
The most advanced levels of scientific research have heralded this new path, but putting research into practice is a slow process, especially in a world where medical practitioners are burdened by ever-expanding workloads and where funding for experiments is usually based on potential industry profits. At the top echelons of medical education, medical students are learning to embrace this innovative whole-body approach. I hold a vision that one day everyone will have access to quality health care that combines holistic methods with excellent biomedical care that focuses on keeping the whole person well. However, it may be many years before these new understandings trickle down to all medical specialties and practitioners. In the meantime, I encourage you to take your health into your own hands. As you learn to combine these two forms of medicine in the ways that work best for your own life, you will reap the health benefits that all of us deserve.
As Westerners, most of us still give preference to our minds and thoughts, which we unsuccessfully use to attempt to control our emotions, energy, spirit, and bodies. One of the primary principles of mind-body healing involves letting go of this illusion of control and becoming conscious of your whole being. Most integrative approaches use the breath to assist people in connecting more deeply with body and spirit. I became aware of the power of the breath when I first lived in West Africa. I was nineteen when I left Arkansas and went to Togo, West Africa, to study French and learn about African culture.
Excerpted from The Uterine Health Companion by Eve Agee. Copyright © 2010 by Eve Agee. Excerpted by permission of Celestial Arts, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.