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Cynthia Li in ocean with her husband

I embarked on an experiment in healing in 2009. For two years, I’d been suffering debilitating exhaustion. My identity as a physician, wife, and mother was crumbling. Housebound, I was forced to quit my job at a San Francisco clinic. My relationship with my husband, David, was held together by its last thread, and I could barely get off the couch to care for my two young daughters. I had hit rock bottom.

A diagnosis of autoimmune thyroiditis (also known as Hashimoto’s disease) a few years earlier had explained some, but not all, of my symptoms, which included vertigo, heart palpitations, muscle aches, anxiety, insomnia, brain fog, nausea, and hypersensitivity to noise and light. Lab tests had come back “normal,” and I’d seen numerous specialists: No one had answers.

I diagnosed myself with chronic fatigue syndrome, but this didn’t provide any good treatment options — only more questions.

My medical training had taught me that a patient is either sick or well; the test is positive or negative. Now, my own mysterious illness was showing me the limitations of that model.

To reclaim my life, I had to venture outside the black-and-white mindset of reductionist science and step into the expansive human experience — my human experience — with its many shades of gray. For me, this was uncharted territory.

I named my experiment “How to Get Off the Couch” and realized that my healing journey would be one part science, one part art, and one part faith.

Time to Experiment

Consulting my Pathology 101 textbook from medical school sparked an aha! moment: Chronic diseases don’t develop suddenly. They begin as subtle imbalances and low-grade inflammation, often years or decades before a diagnosis can be made.

My mind — schooled in the sick–well paradigm — hadn’t seen inflammation as a treatable disease. But now the sensations in my body were undeniable. Inflammation had been brewing for a long time.

I’d been a physically and emotionally sensitive child. I hated feeling weak, so I learned to be tough. I pushed through grueling 90-hour weeks as a medical student. I worked with Doctors Without Borders at an HIV/AIDS clinic in rural China.

But after I gave birth to our first child in 2005 and developed Hashimoto’s, I felt the toughness wearing thin. Then came my second pregnancy, which coincided with acute gastroenteritis that sent me into a chronic flulike state compounded by vertigo.

To regain my energy, I started with sleep — the time when the body repairs cells and quashes inflammation. I began going to bed and getting up at consistent times; I wore a sleep mask and earplugs to filter out streetlights and traffic noise.

I reset my internal clock by getting sunlight in the morning and dimming lights after dark. I started taking melatonin after I learned that it could reduce stress and inflammation.

I also added daily doses of nature to my regimen. My nervous system felt less revved up when I strolled in a park or sat under the weeping cypress in our backyard. When we moved from San Francisco to Berkeley, in part to retreat from the commotion of our former neighborhood, I added houseplants to the bedrooms and living areas.

As I inched my way up the “functionality scale,” I wanted to avoid wasting effort on methods that were likely to fail, so I began developing my intuition to help me home in on modalities that would be most effective. My reclaimed sensitivity became one of my greatest gifts, as sensitivity and intuition are connected, and I got better at sensing what my body needed.

Although I was skeptical about alternative practices, I listened when several friends testified to the efficacy of acupuncture and herbs, and I let my intuition guide me. I made an appointment with a well-­regarded acupuncturist, who took my pulse and asked questions about everything from my relationships to the quality of my urine.

During the first visit, he inserted just two whisker-like needles, one into each of my palms. Thirty minutes later, I woke from the deepest sleep I’d had in years.

The Path to Healing

After two months of acupuncture and herbs, the results were confirmed: I had enough energy to leave the house for short outings almost daily.

Over the following months, my acupuncturist recommended I practice qigong, a movement meditation I’d seen people do in public squares during visits to my parents in Beijing. He said it could help my chi, or life-force energy, flow more freely.

My analytical mind determined that the slow, deliberate motions of qigong posed few risks and held the possibility of increased energy. So I signed up for a workshop and learned a practice called “Lift Qi Up, Pour Qi Down.” I went home inspired to practice twice a day for 15 minutes.

If I was too tired or dizzy to physically do the practice, I would visualize it. The way the brain works, visualizing the movements has similar benefits to doing them. Within a few weeks, my chronic vertigo diminished dramatically. I could even do the practice standing with my eyes closed.

There were many other lessons from my research: After learning that certain chemicals can disrupt hormones and trigger autoimmune reactions, I cleared our home of nonstick pans and plastic bottles, and I ­began buying organic produce whenever possible.

I also began cooking more anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense foods, and I tested myself for food allergies. I didn’t test positive for celiac disease, but there was evidence of potential sensitivities to gluten and dairy. A trial elimination diet confirmed these intolerances.

Investigating hidden infections, I tested positive for Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and treated that with prescription drugs and supplements. Over time, my energy increased, my dizziness improved, and contrary to what I’d learned in medical training, the autoimmunity in my body was reversing. I knew this because my thyroid medication dose became too strong; I tapered it down by 75 percent. After several years, I was able to stop it completely.

Each new step made me feel more empowered. “Treating” is what a doctor does; it’s one-directional, and the patient passively receives a procedure or drug. For EBV and other infections, this is very useful.

But “healing” is learning how to tap into the body’s innate intelligence and can be done with or without a doctor. It’s reaffirming because it comes from within.

A New Health Paradigm

Today I’m way off the couch. I continue to care for myself by eating well, exercising, and focusing on joy. For the past two years, I’ve been deepening two key practices: my qigong routine (up to two hours a day) and my intuition. I’m healthier now than ever. It feels like a radical remission.

My experience inspired me to write a book, Brave New Medicine, to share how I uncovered the root causes of my autoimmune illnesses. I also started a private practice in integrative and functional medicine, which blends cutting-edge science with the holistic techniques I learned firsthand. Now I remind my patients that I’m not the captain of their ship; they are. I’m simply their navigator.

I speak with many mainstream doctors who express their desire for a similar change. I believe we need to expand integrative and functional medicine on a broad scale, right now.

Cynthia’s Top 3 Success Strategies

1. Heal the gut: Having imbalanced gut flora affects the whole body. Cynthia recommends avoiding processed starches, sugars, and oils, and eating a diet rich in vegetables, fiber, healthy fats, and protein.

2. Inhabit your body: She suggests staying present with your body, even when you’re sick. “You can’t heal from something you’re mentally detached from.”

3. Practice pleasure: Cynthia’s favorite prescriptions include walking in nature for 15 minutes (five times per week, barefoot if possible) and watching funny videos and laughing — even if you have to fake it at first.

This originally appeared as “Brave New Medicine” in the April 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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