By Gretchen DuBeau
Executive and Legal Director
Alliance for Natural Health USA
How our executive director’s difficult personal journey became a career
dedicated to protecting your natural health options,
and why the tide is turning in our favor
I’ve always believed that obstacles are opportunities in disguise, and the growth and learning derived from the most difficult of journeys are some of life’s greatest gifts. Perhaps that’s why, when my health utterly deteriorated at the age of 31, illness didn’t turn into devastation.
You know the old story: put a frog into a pot of boiling water, and it jumps right out, but put it in a pot of cool water and then turn on the heat, and the frog will complacently let itself be boiled alive. That was me. I’ve always been so good at keeping all the proverbial balls in the air—always finding the reserves necessary to get things done—that I didn’t even realize that my body was completely falling apart.
I was at an OB checkup after the birth of my daughter when my midwife asked me whether I was feeling tired. I had to think about it. Being a new mom was supposed to be exhausting, wasn’t it? But yes, I told her, I suppose I was a bit more tired than usual. She ran routine blood work and called me several days later to tell me that I had hypothyroidism and needed to see an endocrinologist.
“Hypo-what?” I said.
Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, is a disorder of the endocrine system in which the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone. I saw my first endocrinologist the following week. He ran some tests and confirmed that not only was I hypothyroid, but he had never seen such a high test result. The higher your levels of TSH, or thyroid-stimulating hormone, the worse your thyroid is performing; most good endocrinologists would agree that optimal TSH is somewhere between 1 and 2. My TSH was 174! He was surprised that with such a progressed disease, I was still able to walk.
By the time the results were in, fatigue had started to overwhelm me. I was the consummate “health nut,” so this hit me especially hard. I was given synthetic thyroid replacement hormone, but I was still exhausted. I started sleeping fourteen hours every night and taking three-hour naps in the afternoon. And the depression! And the nausea! I felt sick all over, all the time. Life was lived in tiny increments, windows of barely tolerable activity until the times when I could sleep. I would think, “It’s noon. In another half-hour I can have a 45-minute nap,” or “4 p.m.! Only four more hours till bedtime!”
With the synthetic thyroid treatment, my TSH levels came back into normal range. I saw a series of conventional doctors (including a total of five different endocrinologists), and each one of them said my test results were perfectly normal, so I was fine. But I was so far from fine that I couldn’t even articulate or identify the extent of my dysfunction.
Sadly, my daughter’s first couple of years are a blur, something I will forever lament. But she was also my inspiration. I dug in my heels, and with all my resolve I started to ask questions—starting with “Why?” Why did I become hypothyroid when I was such a health nut and so young? And why are all of these doctors telling me that a piece of paper says I am fine, so it must be so, even though I feel like death?
A Major About-Face
None of these questions, as you might imagine, were popular with my doctors, who couldn’t answer any of them. So I fired them. And I resolved to become my own advocate. I knew that my reality starkly contrasted with the one being trumpeted by the “trusted white coat,” and even though I was functioning at half-mast, I put my faith in myself, and moved on.
I began to read everything I could about hypothyroidism, and I discovered there are a lot of opinions about it—its causes, its complications, its cures. And I noticed that the writers who explored these issues, and grappled with the very questions I had raised, were integrative physicians. These are medical doctors who elect to receive advanced training in natural therapies, and they are most interested in addressing the root cause of disease rather than simply treating symptoms, as much of conventional medicine does—a crucial distinction. Let me explain.
A 1985 landmark report on nutrition in medical schools by the National Academy of Sciences found that on average, future physicians received only twenty-one hours of nutrition instruction over four years; two decades later, they receive even fewer hours. And their education focuses mainly on diagnosing disease states and then treating those disease states with conventional drugs. For example, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, and my conventional doctors—every single one—sought to treat me with drugs.
While integrative physicians also utilize drugs when necessary, they first utilize natural therapies—food and dietary supplements, for example—that don’t carry the negative side effects that drugs do. And they first seek to use these natural therapies to bring the body back into homeostasis so that it can heal itself—eliminating the underlying illness—rather than treating and managing the symptoms of chronic disease. Integrative physicians strive for optimal health in their patients. They don’t ask whether or not a patient has a disease, but whether or not a patient is healthy.
So here I was, now 32 years old and feeling 90. And I had stumbled onto this entirely different way of treating patients, of “doing” medicine. I had no idea how complicated my case was, or that it would take several years and an immutable commitment if I wanted my life back. I saw the best integrative physicians in the country, and I learned a great deal.
It turned out that I wasn’t just hypothyroid. I had Hashimoto’s, a disease of the immune system that manifests as thyroid dysfunction. I also had a severely impaired ability to detoxify the environmental pollutants we encounter on a daily basis, such as benzene in paint, exhaust from cars, and glyphosate on genetically engineered tofu, because of personal genetic polymorphisms or defects. Genetic polymorphisms are natural variations in a gene, DNA sequence, or chromosome—they’re responsible for differing characteristics in individuals of the same population or species.
Think of your body as a bathtub, slowly being filled with environmental contaminants—the pesticides on your tomatoes, the parabens in your face cream, and the BPA in your plastic lunch container. If your “bathtub drain” is clear, then while the toxins may do some damage on their way out, they will nevertheless exit your body. If the drain is clogged—because of an ill-functioning system caused by genetic mutations, stress, too many exposures, a poor diet, or other lifestyle factors—your “tub” will overflow, making every fresh chemical exposure a new assault, and causing dysfunction in all the connected major body systems.
My gut was so inflamed and damaged from the build-up of toxins and opportunistic gut infections that I was unable to absorb nutrients from my food. I was malnourished, which was like pouring gasoline on my raging internal fire. All of my defenses were beyond spent, and this led to a series of additional viral and bacterial infections, imbalances in my major hormonal systems, and finally, full-blown autoimmune disease.
This was such a crucial first step—identifying each of the health obstacles I needed to overcome, and understanding their root causes. While the process was overwhelming, it was also empowering to finally have a road map and competent doctors to help me along the way with practical advice.
Full disclosure: it was really, really hard. I had so many infections that I can’t remember them all; certainly Lyme disease was the worst. I read dozens and dozens of books, and took hundreds of dietary supplements. I had so many nutrient IVs that I lost count. Sometimes I had to get more than thirty vials of blood taken at once to monitor all of the nutrient levels and biological factors at play. But I slowly came back to life, and I have come through it all not a different person, but more myself than I ever was or could have been otherwise, so I don’t regret it. And I have learned through this process how important access to every piece of my own medical puzzle was to regaining health and vitality.
Not My Story Alone
Why should you care? I think you and I share the same health challenges. Perhaps mine manifested in a severe way. But maybe not any more severe than yours or those of your loved ones. It could have gone in a different direction for me. I could have just taken the thyroid drugs and managed to get through my life without identifying and eliminating the root causes and truly healing. Some days would have been better than others, severe fatigue and digestive issues, naps on the weekends, short attention span, heartburn, depression, maybe some day all of this leading to cancer—an all-too-common trajectory for many Americans.
My story sounds dramatic only because I made it that way. I bloody refused to accept things the way they were—neither my condition nor the answers I had been given. But sadly, poor health is the outcome for too many of us. Maybe it’s not Hashimoto’s for you or your best friend. Maybe it’s another autoimmune disease, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease, more than heart disease and cancer combined.
Or maybe your health decline is just beginning. It’s nothing that you can even articulate, and certainly not something your doctor would find on a lab report. You just don’t feel well anymore, or you are tired, or you get heartburn sometimes. None of this is normal! The body talks to us for a reason. And if ignored—or “patched over” by eliminating symptoms with prescription drugs, such as acid blockers—the body will just speak louder and louder, until you listen.
If I hadn’t listened to my body’s cries, I’d have two more autoimmune diseases by now. If I hadn’t identified autoimmunity as one of my major players, I never would have reversed it. And I did, by the way, despite being told by conventional doctors that this was impossible. My antibodies—all evidence of Hashimoto’s—have been gone for years. Maybe for some of you, it’s cancer, or Parkinson’s. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
And that’s the great news—the best-kept secret of all: We have the tools and the knowledge to experience optimal health. By utilizing integrative medicine and Mother Nature, we can all eliminate the root causes of disease, allowing the body to heal itself.
Learning this changed my life, not only because I am stronger and healthier physically than I have ever been in my life, but because one of the opportunities ingrained in this most difficult of journeys also led to a deeply satisfying career change. Today, I am the executive and legal director of the Alliance for Natural Health USA—a nonprofit organization that goes head-to-head with the conventional medical paradigm. We’re politically active, and we’re not afraid to take on the pharmaceutical companies eager to sell one-size-fits-all pills as well as the biotech companies making synthetically manufactured food for the masses.
We are engaged in a number of important campaigns: fighting the use of genetically modified organisms and toxic herbicides in our food; maintaining access to honestly healthy foods like real milk and grass-fed beef; protecting the integrity of organic standards; upholding citizens’ rights to vaccine choice; and advocating for the best healthcare possible for America’s citizens. ANH-USA is dedicated to promoting natural and sustainable health—and, in particular, consumer freedom of choice in healthcare—through good science and good law.
As I struggled to regain my health, three tools became of primary importance, and these are the three primary focuses of our organization as well: integrative doctors and practitioners; truly individualized medicine; and carefully chosen nutritional supplements.
The problem is, each of these vital tools is threatened. The medical establishment targets integrative doctors, so many Americans do not have access to the practitioner of their choice. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is trying to pass regulations to restrict access to compounded, individualized medicines and preparations. And the pharmaceutical industry is doing everything it can to crush its chief competition—nutritional supplements—by getting its friends in government (the FDA in particular) to do its dirty work.
Let’s look at each of the three in greater depth:
The Practitioners of Your Choice
What does it mean to have access to the doctor or healthcare practitioner of your choice? And why isn’t it a given?
Integrative physicians are targeted simply because their approaches are different. In many states, anonymous complaints are sufficient—which means an insurance company can anonymously lodge a complaint against a doctor who, for example, uses expensive lab testing to measure nutrient deficiencies or toxicity levels. That physician then has to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending his or her (demonstrably superior) patient care, without ever learning that the complaint began simply because an insurance company didn’t want to pay for it!
Many conventional physicians don’t understand integrative medicine—even though an integrative physician is just an MD who has had extra training. Some are hostile to the idea of natural treatment modalities; others simply don’t like the competition. State medical boards, run by conventional doctors, single out those practicing really cutting-edge medicine and label it “outside the standard of care”—meaning that another doctor in a similar situation would likely have done something different. The “standard of care” is a legal standard—and it might be true that other doctors would have treated the patient differently, but only because most of conventional medicine is thirty years behind the latest advances in science.
At ANH-USA, we work to protect your access to the healthcare practitioners of your choice. We educate the public, and work with state legislatures and state medical boards to modify monopolistic laws and create better practice protections for integrative doctors. Most importantly, our network of half a million grassroots activists lobby their own legislators to make natural healthcare in their state open and accessible to everyone.
Any list of the greatest integrative physicians of America would include Jonathan V. Wright, MD, founder of the Tahoma Clinic in Washington state. He is a pioneer who has developed innovative and successful natural therapies utilizing food, supplements, and lifestyle changes for a host of maladies that conventional medicine cannot cure. His style of medicine represents our future. Unfortunately, the state’s Medical Quality Assurance Commission (MQAC) is notorious for treating integrative physicians more harshly than their conventional counterparts, and MQAC has attacked and harassed Dr. Wright at every opportunity, often with trivial charges. As a result of our public relations outreach and research demonstrating their abuse of the process, MQAC is currently being investigated by the Washington State Auditor’s Office.
Compounding is a method of preparing drug or nutrient ingredients that are individualized for a patient’s specific needs.
Compounding allows prescribers to create medications that are the exact strength, dosage, and ingredient mix best suited to treat an individual patient, customizing medical treatment depending on the patient’s allergies, age, medical background, and even flavor and delivery preferences.
Common examples include nutrient IVs to support malnourished patients unable to cleave nutrients from food; hormone preparations such as Estriol, the natural and bioidentical estrogen replacement therapy millions of women rely on; individually dosed testosterone for sensitive patients; and time-release thyroid.
Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry lobbied Congress to pass the Drug Quality and Security Act, which gave the FDA increased authority over compounding pharmacies, and the agency responded by trying to regulate estriol, other hormones, and hundreds of other vital compounded medications out of existence. ANH-USA is working with a huge coalition of interested organizations, physicians, and individuals. We are using regulatory, legislative, and legal action to protect individualized medicine and hold the FDA accountable to the American public. And we’re making progress—the House Appropriations Committee recently scolded the FDA for implementing the law “in a manner inconsistent with its legislative intent.” This isn’t the first time that members of Congress have made it clear that the FDA is going too far in its compounding regulations.
We are a country of malnourished individuals. Industrial agricultural practices have raped the soil of her nutrients, which translates to lower levels in our food. As one researcher put it, “You’d have to eat ten servings of spinach to get the same level of minerals from just one serving about fifty years ago.” On top of that, as a nation, our dietary habits are extremely poor, and we often reach for processed and fast food. Even those of us with impeccable diets sometimes have impaired abilities to digest food and make use of what nutrients are still there.
Our bodies simply require abundant nutrients to function optimally, reverse disease, and heal from within. Nutritional supplements fill the void when diets are insufficient and, more importantly, provide huge amounts of nourishment that no diet could ever supply when disease has created extreme imbalances.
Here’s the problem: supplements, and everything they represent—a natural, integrative approach to health not reliant on patented “blockbuster” drugs—threaten the medical establishment, which is pulling the strings. The FDA, the pharmaceutical industry, and a handful of rogue politicians are trying to regulate supplements out of existence. Their goal? A pre-market approval system akin to the FDA drug approval process, even though Congress, in passing the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, said supplements should be regulated as food, not drugs.
The truth is, supplements are already highly regulated, by both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission, and they must adhere to strict current good manufacturing practices to ensure the safety of the products consumers buy. In this case, the current system actually works: supplements have a sterling track record of safety. One is actually more likely to get killed by lightning than to die from taking dietary supplements.
ANH-USA is working directly with lawmakers to ensure continued access to supplements. With the help of our network of citizen activists, we’ve successfully thwarted numerous attempts to sweep supplements off your store shelves. We even forced the FDA to rewrite its guidance on how new supplements are treated—which kept over 29,000 different safe and effective supplements available to the consumers who need them so desperately.
A Powerful Future
What I think is the most important and inspiring aspect of our work is not simply that we are changing the conventional medical paradigm—and we are. It’s not just that we’re protecting natural healthcare for millions of Americans—though we are. It’s that this organization is nothing more than a group of 500,000 individuals who care enough to get involved. Together we are making such an important difference. Won’t you join us? Learn more about our grassroots movement at ANH-USA.org.
Originally published in The Optimist magazine.