Story by SANDRA S. SORIA
Dr. Tieraona Low Dog is like no other doctor I’ve ever consulted.
She’s certainly got credentials—she’s a practicing physician with an M.D. behind her name who has contributed to medical textbooks, earned numerous fellowships, and was even invited to sit on a White House Commission.
But on the other hand, she’s a nationally recognized expert in integrative medicine, herbal treatments, and dietary supplementation, who is as likely to prescribe a tea as she is a pharmaceutical. And you won’t find her in a cold, intimidating office. Instead, you’ll meet at her Medicine Lodge Ranch, tucked into the trees in the vast Santa Fe National Forest.
Dr. Low Dog shares traditional, alternative treatments and practices modern medicine. She’s the best of both worlds. Most of all, she’s the kind of person I could talk to all day long and leave wanting to tap more from her deep pool of compassion, understanding, and wisdom.
Lucky for me, I had the chance to talk to her extensively. Lucky for you, we will share this conversation and others with you over the next several issues. (We’ll even pay a visit to the Medicine Lodge Ranch!)
My goal is to reset my lifestyle—to renew and recharge. I want to be less stressed and more energetic. I could definitely use a good night’s sleep. And I have some bad habits I’d like to swap for healthful ones. Bottom line: I want to feel better, Naturally.
Are these some of your goals, too? Then join me on this journey. Starting with this initial consultation with the good doctor.
Q: How did you determine that the best way forward for you was to combine modern medicine with natural, even ancient approaches to healing?
A: My upbringing was in the natural world. I loved being out in nature, hik- ing, camping, foraging. I went on to study midwifery, massage, martial arts, and herbal medicine. And then I went to medical school. I’ve always been deeply curious—it drives me. Over many years as an “alternative” medicine practitioner, I listened to hundreds of women who had interacted with conventional medicine and felt unseen, unheard, not well cared for. The answer to almost any problem was another prescription. I believed there had to be another way.
Q: What is the most common complaint you hear from women?
A: I think the most common complaints are: I’m tired, I don’t have much energy, I’m not sleeping well. I’m in a mental fog. I feel—then fill in the blank, irritable, anxious, worried, kind of down. These feelings don’t always show up in a lab test. Obviously, the first thing we do is listen, then rule out biological causes, which is important because if there’s a biological fix, we want to make it.
Q: Wow. Have you been in cahoots with my doctor because you just described me to a T. So, what are some potential biological causes?
A: We check the thyroid. We look at iron levels. We rule out autoimmune conditions. In other words, we look for things that can be fixed. I see 30-year-old women who are tired all the time and they think, I’m just tired all the time because I’ve got two kids and I’m working and I’ve got all of these things going on. Then you check their iron level and they’re anemic. So, you fix the iron issue and suddenly they’re not feeling nearly as tired and fatigued, and now they have more energy to go exercise.
Q: And what if the labs are within normal range? It’s been my experience that this is when the conversation ends and yet the issues still exist.
A: Assuming we’ve looked for the right things and asked the right questions, there are many times when diagnostic reports come back in the normal range. Then the patient will look at me and say, I know, but I’m still tired and I still feel irritable and I’m still not sleeping well. What’s wrong with me? is is a wonderful opportunity to have a conversation about her diet, sleep, and relationships. It’s a chance to dive deeper into the mystery that is her, and help her find ways to explore strategies for improving her health.
Q: What do you find when you peelback the layers?
A: I see a lot of suffering or pain. In many Western societies, we tend to view pain or suffering almost exclusively on the physical level. We forget that we’re not just physical beings. We’re spiritual beings. Many people, many women, suffer from a kind of soul pain. Even if it is manifesting as depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia. I ask, What’s getting in the way of your feeling better? It’s amazing how often women are very insightful. They can dig in and identify what’s keeping them stuck. Women often cry during those interactions. That’s soul pain, and it’s far more prevalent than we would like to talk about.
Q: And so I’m thinking you’re going to tell me you don’t have a pill for that?
A: There might be. But the bigger question is what’s going on that’s keeping you from feeling better? What’s driving that? It’s important for women to have the time and space to reflect inward, to check in and ask: Why am I eating really badly right now? Because I’m feeling really stressed. Why am I feeling really stressed? Often, it’s because they’ve got too much on their plates. They’re caring for parents and for kids, working at a job, cooking, and doing the laundry at midnight. It’s not unusual for women to feel so overwhelmed. Then she can begin to make the connection between consuming all those carbs and caffeine for fuel because she is feeling anxious at night and not sleeping well, which then drives her need to fuel the next day. It’s a vicious cycle.
Q: That feels like a trap a lot of us fall into for sure…but how do we begin to unburden?
A. We step back, identify where the problems are, and then think about how we can begin to break it down into bite-sized pieces. Maybe it’s by saying no to things that overcommit you. Maybe it’s by cutting way back on foods with added sugar and increasing protein and fat to have smoother blood sugar throughout the day and fewer periods of fatigue and irritability. How do we get you into a better sleep routine? How do we begin to bring herbs and other natural remedies into your life? This is all part of the conversation. In my experience, women like talking about organics, eating better and using herbal remedies for self-care. Women like feeling connected to nature and having more control over what’s happening in their lives.
Q: I feel like the hardest thing in the world is to break a bad habit. Any thoughts on how to do that?
A: Knowledge is when you know lots of things, lots of facts. While we have more information available to us than at any other time in history, knowledge can only get you so far. Wisdom is acting upon what you know. And the seeds of wisdom are planted the day you believe you are worth the effort. That’s where it starts. You’ve got to believe that you deserve to wake up in the morning feeling good. You’ve got to believe that you’re worth eating well and paying the extra money for organic and whole foods. You must believe you’re worthy to take the time for long walks or exercise. Real change always starts here. If it’s externally directed—you’re trying to do it for somebody else—it never lasts, ever.
Q: Where do supplements fit in here? And why do I somehow feel like they are cheating, that I should be able to get nutrition only from food.
A: I think it’s a false choice. It’s like, should I wear my seatbelt and also drive sober? I think you should do both. I think it is very difficult for most people to get everything they need in their diet. You were never intended to get all of your vitamin D from your diet. You were supposed to get it from being out in the sun. Most of us don’t labor in the fields, or hunt and gather, we’re not out in the sun 10 hours a day without sunscreen.
Q: Are there other common deficiencies women should be worried about?
A: In the CDC’s 2nd National Report on Biochemical Indicators of Diet and Nutrition, numerous deficiencies and insufficiencies were found. One that surprised me was vitamin B6. About 30 million Americans are low in this essential nutrient and it disproportionately affects women. Turns out that oral contraceptives can lower vitamin B6 levels. Vitamin B6 is necessary for making serotonin and melatonin. When B6 levels are low it can increase feelings of depression, low energy, inattention, and impact sleep. I wonder how many women taking birth control pills are aware of this connection.
Q: And you mentioned iron, too. How common is this?
A: Many women are low in iron, which is a bigger problem than you might think. Studies show that women who are low in iron struggle more at school and at work. It’s hard to be physically active. You fatigue more easily. You don’t have to have iron deficiency anemia, a more severe deficiency. Just having low iron is enough to impede learning and the ability to be physically active. While all menstruating or pregnant women can be at risk for low iron, it disproportionately impacts African American and Hispanic women. Most women benefit from taking a multivitamin with iron if menstruating or pregnant. Bottom line: Just take a high-quality multivitamin, so you know you’re covered.
Q: What is the single most important lifestyle change that someone can make to renew and recharge…to get on a new path?
“When I think of who I am and what I bring to medicine, I think of myself as the bridge between the woman growing peppermint in her garden and the researcher isolating menthol in a lab.”
—TIERAONA LOW DOG, M.D.
A: I think developing some sort of spiritual practice, whatever that looks like for you as an individual. I’m not speaking specifically about religion. I’m talking about a spiritual practice. This can take the form of long walks by the ocean or forest. It could be meditation, art, or prayer. The essence of any spiritual practice is to connect with something bigger and outside of ourselves. It’s a connection to what feeds and nurtures the deepest part of yourself. We are more than flesh and bone—we are spirit. The search for meaning and purpose is a fundamental part of being human. A richly nourished inner life is a source of strength during hard times.
Q: Are your patients surprised when a visit with their physician involves this kind of advice, rather than the old take two pills and call me in the morning?
A: Sometimes. I explore a wide array of topics with my patients. We dive into nutrition, stress, movement, the use of dietary supplements, or whether a pharmaceutical is appropriate. People appreciate having a broader conversation with their physician. And yet, the times I remember the most are when I feel “the shift” happen. When it happens for someone, there’s an opening, an opportunity for change to take place.
Q: Are there other ways we can change bad habits—like say, drinking too much? I’m asking for a friend, of course.
A: You first must be honest about what you are getting out of the habit you want to change. If you think you drink too much, step back and ask, What do I enjoy about that extra glass or two of wine or scotch? Does it make you feel relaxed? Does it allow you to be more social? Does it make the pain go away for a while? By giving someone the space and safety to explore their feelings instead of just saying “you need to stop drinking,” it allows for the seeds of change to be planted. If you find yourself saying, I really have to lose 20 pounds, or I really need to exercise 3 days every week, or something like this, step back and reflect on what would have to happen for you to make your desire a reality.
Q: I’ve read that the number of prescriptions for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are through the roof these days. How do we get happy? How do we just calm down already?
A: Contentment is what most people strive for. A contented life doesn’t mean that sometimes it’s not hard or sad or beautiful. It simply means that in this moment, I am content. There’s a saying that anxiety isn’t caused from worrying about the future but from wanting to control it. But it’s an unhealthy illusion to think you can personally fix all the problems of the world or believe that all the world’s problems are your fault. Nurture your relationships, your children. Work for the things that matter deeply to you. And at the end of the day, set it down. Let it go.
Q: So, basically I need to control wanting to control everything?
A: I’d say, you’re already ahead of the game—humor is a wonderful way of keeping your balance. There will always be things in your life, and in the world, that challenge our hope, our beliefs, our sense of self. That’s why it is so important to take care of yourself. Self-care isn’t a luxury, it’s necessary for your survival.
Learn more about Dr. Low Dog—including her online courses or visiting Medicine Lodge Ranch—at drlowdog.com.