Brave New Medicine, Cynthia Li, MD. Oakland: Reveal Press, 2019.
Summary: When a physician trained in internal medicine experiences a debilitating autoimmune illness that the medical establishment couldn’t heal, she pursues a journey addressing both body and mind that allow her body to heal.
Cynthia Li was proud of her training in medicine. After surviving a tragic loss, she marries David and begins a family. And with the birth of her first child her own health begins to unravel because of an autoimmune illness beginning with her thyroid, an illness where her immune system attacked her body–a racing heart, sleeplessness, loss of energy and a host of other symptoms that left her unable to get off the couch. She had become the “difficult patient.” There seemed to be neither cause nor remedy that doctors who shared her training could find. She struggled through a second pregnancy, with tensions in the marriage growing.
The book traces her journey toward healing that began with asking a new question, “how to get off the couch?” She began with her sleeplessness by addressing her daily rhythms and sleep rituals. She gives herself permission to receive and become part of a community of support. She discovers the importance of daily doses of nature. She recognizes that toxins in her home and her body can contribute to inflammatory responses and takes steps to detoxify. She learns to pay attention to intuition for what to work on next. She discovers the connection between mental states and gene expression and learns the importance of moving from flight or fight stress to “rest and digest” states that heal rather than inflame tissue.
Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters was the one on learning to inhabit your body. She recognizes how we are often disconnected and out of touch with our own bodies. She found a great deal of help through meditative techniques, qiqong practice, and acupuncture to harness and release the power of qi. She mentions in passing weird occurrences in her home as she was engaged in these practices, and this raised a red flag for me. As a Christian, I believe in a God in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and in whose presence and power we are strengthened both spiritually and bodily. I also believe there are influences not of God that may be malign. I think there is a larger conversation to be had about mind-body meditative practices than can be had in this review, and the need for spiritual discernment in their practice. None of this is to question the experience of Dr. Li, nor the importance of reconnecting mind and body.
She also discovered what many are discovering–that our gut health, the biological mix of organisms in our intestinal tract–can be out of whack. She practiced and proposed a 30 day reset diet and ongoing dietary practices to address this. She found the importance of breaking old habits that no longer serve one well. It has often been said that “laughter is the best medicine” and she discovered how important play and laughter are in improving our immune function. She started investigating hidden root causes behind chronic conditions, especially food allergies and stealth infections like the Epstein-Barr virus. Having experienced loss, she learned how to “bring grief out of the shadows.” Finally, she learned that in coming out of chronic illness, it was important to reclaim one’s purpose and find and tell one’s story.
She summarizes this journey in fifteen steps of “how to get off the couch.” After the narrative, she includes a section with practical advice and websites for following the fifteen steps, practices she has now integrated into her own medical practice.
This work is a gentle but powerful critique of Western medical practice. She notes the pressure of fifteen minute patient visits, the shortcuts taken in listening to patient histories that may ignore childhood traumas and family histories that may be at the root of health problems, the over-reliance on lab panels that can come back normal even when there are real problems. She observes the neglect of the factors learned in medical school that contribute over time to disease and our definitions of “health,” our neglect of the connections between mind and body, and the importance of seeing patients as whole people, and the importance of what our bodies are exposed to and what we put in them.
More importantly, Cynthia Li articulates a whole-life approach to health, nearly all of which happens outside doctors offices. It addresses how we eat, sleep, work, and play, and the environments within which we live, and our relationships with other human beings. Her book reminds us that before what we do, we are human be-ings. She explores how we “be” healthy, something no doctor may do for us, but can only do with us.
Disclaimer: This review, like the book, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, which if needed, should be sought from a trained professional.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.