Finding the Balance Between Eastern and Western Medicine: A Conversation with Aviva Romm

by Julie Bolitho

On a blustery Friday night in 2009, I received a call from my doctor’s office at 10 o’clock. The on-call physician beseeched me to go to emergency room, but informed me that I could not drive myself: I either had to take a cab or have a loved one take me. “We don’t know how you’re functioning,” he said. “We think you could have a seizure at any moment.”

“I feel fine, though,” I replied. “I feel exactly the same.”

For two years, I had been regularly visiting my general practitioner, complaining of fatigue and lethargy. I neglected to mention the depression and anxiety that had haunted me since childhood, as I assumed it was simply an unshakeable part of my personality. Whenever I saw him, I had the distinct impression that he thought I was either lazy or a hypochondriac (or both). He frequently told me that my plant-based diet was to blame for my malaise, and that if I started eating meat, I would feel better.

I knew intuitively that my diet was not the problem, and told him that I’d felt better than I had in years when I gave up dairy, but he refused to acknowledge my symptoms as anything other than an exaggeration or overreaction—despite being aware of the thyroid cancer that had metastasized through my lymphatic system only a few years earlier, when I was 19.

At age 25, in my first year of pursuing a medical humanities master’s degree, I began having memory problems, hand tremors, and inaccurate peripheral vision. As symptoms worsened, I visited my doctor’s office. My GP was off duty, so I was treated by a medical student on her first round through general practice. She took my symptoms seriously, drew three vials of blood, and told me that the practice would call with the results should they be concerned with anything in the results.

Then that call came.

The local hospital ran the blood tests three times, as the results were so startling that the doctors thought they could not be real. My blood calcium had dropped to what they considered to be a fatally low range.  

After spending eight hours waiting in the emergency room, an overworked physician told me the same thing my GP had: You need to change your diet. She sent me home with prescription calcium supplements, and when I came back to the office on Monday, after diligently taking the prescription, they discovered that my blood calcium had dropped even lower.

When I told this story to Aviva Romm, she interrupted to say, “Your parathyroid function, though—surely they should have checked your parathyroid function!” And she was exactly right—with my history of autoimmune disease and thyroid cancer, my parathyroid function should have been an obvious place to go. Yet, far too often, preconceptions and cultural bias hold sway over patients’ stories and symptoms.

It was only after the second blood draw that a doctor realized my parathyroid function was to blame. Within days of receiving a new medicine, I felt better. My memory snapped back; the hand tremors and bleary peripheral vision disappeared. The doctors hypothesized that my body had adapted (likely for years) until it could no longer cope. The body is so remarkable in its ability to find extraordinary ways to survive, even when key components of health are missing. 

My case, while medically phenomenal, is far from extraordinary. Aviva, a Kripalu presenter and author of The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, believes that women with thyroid problems often fall through the medical cracks. After 25 years as a midwife, she earned a MD from Yale, specialized in women’s health, and anticipated that she would spend most of her time working with estrogen, progesterone, and fertility issues. Instead, she found herself repeatedly working with thyroid function. Woman after woman came to her exhausted—many with depression, weight gain, hair loss, a lack of sex drive and a basket of prescription antidepressants from other physicians. Many believed that they were going crazy.

Aviva began her healing career as an herbalist midwife. As a teenager, she abandoned all processed foods and chemical home and body products. She hasn’t lost these natural roots since becoming an MD. (Her Instagram feed recently boasted a photo of her favorite healers: turmeric, lemon, and garlic.) Yet, she is keen to point out that marrying alternative and Western medicine is key to our wellness as a species. “Humans would never have pursued medicine if all the natural remedies worked all the time,” she says. “We live in such a complex time that all the best natural approaches cannot always cope.” When it comes to thyroid health in particular, she recommends that her patients get lab tests and diagnoses rather than solely treating symptoms naturally.

Aviva believes that many thyroid and autoimmune diseases are rooted in environmental, nutritional, and emotional stresses. In her practice, she focuses on the modifiable contributors to thyroid dysfunction. How can we reduce stress? How can we nourish our bodies with every mouthful? Her focus is on how to activate the innate healing mechanisms of the body and bring into alignment what is currently out of alignment in women’s lives. Even after having dealt with thyroid dysfunction for the majority of my life (having been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease, at 14), I still learned something new from Aviva: Artificial sweeteners have been shown to inhibit thyroid function. (I felt again vindicated in the all-natural diet that I adopted years ago.)

According to Aviva, not only are women biologically more likely to have autoimmune and thyroid disorders (five times more likely statistically), but that women have also internalized oppression via cultural objectification of the female body. Needing to have a “beach body” or a “yoga body” is as deeply part of the problem as environmental endocrine disruptors. In effect, they are environmental endocrine disruptors, as women frequently internalize stress about the size, shape, and appearance of their bodies—and make unhealthy choices in pursuit of unrealistic ideals.

In earning my medical humanities degree, and in my experience with physicians, it has become increasingly apparent to me that the lifestyles forced upon many Western medical doctors (having only a few minutes to diagnosis a patient; being overworked during long, sleepless shifts) is also symptomatic of the very cultures causing the disease. Our medical systems seem to mirror our disease systems. The physicians are not to blame, but I believe that the culture that created both their need and their intense fallibilities is.

My teaching practice, years of a mindfulness practice, and getting on the right kinds of thyroid medications ultimately helped me to resolve my anxieties, which often manifested in a deep need to control. My personal advice to anyone suffering with a long-term disease, especially something as complex as an autoimmune disease, is to not only be an advocate for your health and to find the right care, but to also be patient. Knowledge accumulates over time. Your disease is part of your journey. Accepting this and growing both with and from this is key to a beloved lifetime.

Years after my parathyroid episode, I ran into a woman who looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place her. I asked her, “Do I know you?”

She replied, “Well, I know you. You’re calcium girl.”

My eyes widened with recognition. “You’re the GP!”

She smiled and nodded, and went on to tell me that my case was the kind one never forgets in a medical career. “How are you?” she asked, wanting the real answer rather than the obligatory “fine.”

“I’m really well. Thriving. Thanks to you. Thank you for taking me seriously.”

She smiled. “You were your own advocate, too.” She told me she was moving from England to California with her husband and that she was, for the time, more focused on being a mom than a doctor. She was seeking balance in her life. As we parted, she said, “It’s good to see you well.”

It’s good to be well.

Julie Bolitho is a Kripalu Yoga teacher from northern Michigan who currently resides in Oxfordshire, England. A Truman Scholar and a published poet and essayist, Julie is currently at work on a memoir.,