Christiane Northrup, MD: Science Tainted with Strange Beliefs

After her daughter left for college, Christiane Northrup, MD, went for a morning walk one day. About halfway through her walk she developed an ache in her throat radiating up into her jaw. It felt like a fist was squeezing her esophagus. It persisted even after she returned home. What would you have done?

I think even the average layperson knows that this sounds like a possible heart attack and would call 911 or head for the nearest ER. Instead, Northrup called a medical intuitive who came over and “took out the Motherpeace tarot cards to try to get some clarity.” Together, they interpreted her “heartache” as resulting from her recent disappointment and grief over her family situation. She had unmet needs and it was “no wonder my heart was forced to speak up.”

This behavior from a scientifically trained MD boggles the mind. Christiane Northrup, MD, is a board certified OB/Gyn who has become something of a guru for American women’s health through a series of books, a newsletter, a website, appearances on Oprah, etc. Her third book, The Wisdom of Menopause, has been updated and revised; a friend told me all her menopausal friends are talking about this book. I read it and was appalled.

The first thing I noticed when I paged through her book was a diagram showing the “seven emotional centers” numbered from 1 at the feet to 7 on the top of the head, corresponding roughly to the seven chakras. The more I read, the more I shuddered.

My divorce culminated during what is astrologically known as my Chiron return….simultaneously I had been under the influence of an astrological configuration know as a yod…the purpose of this was to move me out of my old life…”

Yes, she believes in astrology. Also in angels, mysticism, feng shui, and Tarot cards. She believes her fibroids were trying to tell her something when they enlarged. She “turned her life over to Source energy.”

Her friend Mona Lisa has an MD as well as a PhD in neuroscience and is a practicing medical intuitive. She is

…able to ascertain the emotional and mental patterns associated with a person’s illness, knowing only their name and age, and without ever having seen them.

Sure, and pigs can fly!

Northrup provides a lot of good information about menopause, hormones, and health in general. Unfortunately it is mixed with information that scientific medicine does not accept as valid, that is not supported by any credible evidence. When she does quote evidence, she often quotes it selectively to reach conclusions different from the scientific consensus.

She promotes bioidentical hormones, all kinds of diet supplements, non-standard laboratory testing from Genova Diagnostics (formerly Great Smokies, a lab that is listed on Quackwatch as one to avoid). She recommends a number of Chinese herbs, for instance if you’re going to have cosmetic surgery, you should stock up on Yannan Pei Yan and take it 4 times a day to speed healing and reduce post-op bruising.

She recommends vitamin A to prevent heart disease: 25.000 IU of beta-carotene a day. According to The Medical Letter (Vol. 47, Issue 1213, 2005), this dose of vitamin A has been linked to an increase in the incidence of lung cancer, cardiovascular mortality and total mortality. High doses of vitamin A increase the risk of hip fracture in postmenopausal women and the risk of birth defects when taken in early pregnancy. The Medical Letter article concluded, “Women should not take vitamin A supplements during pregnancy or after menopause. No one should take high dose beta carotene supplements.”

She demonizes the artificial sweetener aspartame, calling it an excitotoxin that can kill brain cells and cause a multiple-sclerosis-like syndrome in some women.

Northrup gives some excellent conventional suggestions for treating insomnia, like avoiding caffeine, getting regular exercise, establishing a routine, etc. But then she throws in the recommendation to cover your bedroom mirrors at night, because the reflections in them can make you feel jumpy and unsafe. According to feng shui, mirrors enliven a room and increase the energy flow, which would keep you awake.

She tells us,

In many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region, the result of a lifetime of “swallowing” words she is aching to say.

She devotes 6 pages to “The Emotional Anatomy of Breast Cancer.” She thinks scientific studies have confirmed that our “emotional style” influences our risk of breast cancer and our ability to recover from it. “All illness is a hologram” and to understand it you have to listen to the message your body is sending you. If you were honest about your feelings, you might not have developed cancer.

I can see the appeal of her philosophy for the average woman. She stresses empowerment, taking control of one’s life, doing proactive things to prevent illness, and finding ways to make the menopausal years more satisfying than ever. As she puts it,

When we re-frame our symptoms and see them as our inner guidance knocking on the door of each emotional center, asking us to allow more light and wisdom into that particular area, then we don’t feel victimized by our bodies and we have the opportunity to feel empowered by the life energy that is coursing through us at midlife..

I’m all for the power of positive thinking, but I’d rather keep that thinking grounded in the real world. Northrop keeps escaping into fantasy.

It could be worse. She doesn’t recommend detoxification, reflexology, or homeopathy. But she sure does accept a lot of silly things. How can scientifically educated MDs fall for nonsense like astrology? It really disturbs me to hear such gullibility from someone who had every opportunity to learn critical thinking skills. It’s like having a PhD in paleontology tell us the world is only 6000 years old.

MDs who recommend quackery along with legitimate medical advice are arguably more dangerous than outright quacks, because people are more likely to take them seriously. Andrew Weil is another prime example: his “integrative medicine” integrates good evidence-based medicine with all kinds of alternative, unproven, belief-based treatments. He claims that his intuition is as valid a source of knowledge as scientific studies.

Northrup’s writings are a disconcerting mixture of good science, misinterpreted science, unproven and irrational treatments, recommendations that are actually dangerous, pop psychology, mysticism, and superstition. If she’d left out the nonsense, she could have written a very helpful book. But then I don’t suppose Oprah would have wanted her on the show. Science-based medicine doesn’t make for good television.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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