Cynthia Li, MD
, is a physician, author, and speaker. Currently, she has a private practice in integrative and functional medicine, and serves as faculty for the Healer’s Art program at the University of California San Francisco Medical School. She is author of a new book, Brave New Medicine: A Doctor's Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness
Dr. Li's first calling was to underserved communities, in settings as diverse as Kaiser Permanente Medical Center's HIV/AIDS division, San Francisco General Hospital, St. Anthony’s Medical Clinic for the homeless, and Doctors Without Borders in rural China. She became interested in evolutionary biology, ancestral health, functional medicine
, and the art of intuition while on her own personal health journey
-- involving a decade-long "dark night of the soul," in which she developed complex, debilitating conditions that, despite being an expert in chronic diseases, she didn't know how to treat. She was housebound for 2 years. Beyond this physical crisis, there was an existential one: she hadn't believed these kinds of conditions to be real. She explored, both scientifically and experientially, a wide variety of complementary approaches to Western medicine, including traditional Chinese medicine, mind-body medicine, cranial osteopathy, and whole foods-based nutrition.
About 15 years ago, Dr. Li learned she had Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune thyroid condition. Following a year of treatment and recurring extreme fatigue, she diagnosed herself with chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia, a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, before going to a psychiatrist who recommended (to her dismay) that she see an immunologist. Dr. Li found herself in the group of patients that either (a) was not recognized or validated by the health community, and/or (b) was not help-able. With no one to decipher her symptoms, Dr. Li became housebound and “went back to basics” to began reading about how chronic disease develops. She recognized that diseases are not defined by a set of criteria but exist instead on a continuum, and she realized that she'd had underlying imbalances for many years, starting out as subtle symptoms that she had either disregarded or pushed beyond.
Feeling increasingly motivated, she started exploring the fundamental connection between nourishment and health, including our inextricable spiritual and physical connectedness to our outer world as well as the mysterious inner world of the microbiome-gut microorganisms, with which we have co-evolved for millennia. She dove deeper into how gene expression is affected by what we eat, drink, breathe, think, believe, and how we move our bodies, and experimented with integrative medicine, acupuncture, herbs, and mind-body medicine.
Dr. Li later learned about functional medicine, which she describes as an important turning point, giving her hope both as a patient and as a doctor. Yet even then, she had such little energy that it was easy for her to have “hope fatigue.” Instead of trying to think positively or be optimistic all the time, she learned to release the tremendous grief and shame she was carrying through attending a grief ritual. “As a side effect, what ends up filling up that space is health,” she says. She eventually returned to clinical practice, but with a very different set of eyes: one that saw the beautiful complexity of the body, mind, and spirit; and what it looks like when that wholesome balance is disturbed.
In her memoir, Brave New Medicine
, Dr. Li details the disabling autoimmune illness that forced her to question her medical training, embrace the principles of integrative and functional medicine, and unlock her body’s innate potential to heal. Challenging contemporary medical norms and drawing upon cutting-edge science, ancient healing arts, and the power of intuition to offer a fresh, new perspective for doctors and patients alike, she also explores what healthcare might look like if doctors had an immersion in wellness: “Would we have that experience to be able to translate to our patients?” Experiencing “autoimmunity changed my practice of medicine,” she says.
Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, doctor and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies
, says that “Li’s writing is so intimate — and so exacting — that it cuts like a knife. She raises fundamental questions about the future of medicine, her own future, and about being a doctor and a patient at the same time. The result is a beautiful book that will be read and remembered for years to come.”
Anne Lamott, New York Times
bestselling author of Bird by Bird
, and Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
, describes Brave New Medicine
as “a harrowing and somehow also charming account by a brilliant doctor of how she healed her body, mind, spirit and soul from a debilitating autoimmune disease. After her doctors had given up on her, with a husband and two little children at home, she broke out of the constraints of Western medicine, and found her way home to health, renewal, and her own true self. This beautifully written prescriptive book is going to change and even save people’s lives.” Dr. Michael Lerner
describes the book as a “memoir for our time.”
Dr. Li a member of the American Board of Internal Medicine, the Institute for Functional Medicine, and Integrative Medicine for the Underserved (IM4US)
. She is a contributor to Huffington Post’s Thrive Global
and Psychology Today
. She lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband, 2 daughters, their dog, a hamster, and 50,000 honeybees. She enjoys gardening, urban farming, traditional cooking, playing the piano and ukulele, reading, hiking, and camping. To stay grounded and balanced, she practices Wisdom Healing Qigong
Join us in conversation with this gifted scientist and healer!
Five Questions with Cynthia Li
What Makes You Come Alive?
Connecting to my body. For so much of my life, I wasn't connected to my body. I was 90% mental, and the body and spirit were "extra." If I felt any kind of discomfort, I detached or pushed past the symptoms. Interestingly, I went into medicine, a field dedicated to healing the body--something I hadn't inhabited myself. It wasn't until my personal health crisis, which catapulted me into the No Man's Land where mainstream medicine (my own paradigm) didn't venture, that I learned the difference between treating and healing, between managing acute conditions versus addressing the root causes of chronic conditions, between existing and being truly alive. Health isn't a state of not-disease, but one of empowerment and vitality that is based in the body. My daily practice in Wisdom Healing Qigong has taught me lessons I couldn't learn from a textbook or lecture.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
My second health crisis, when I was 45, was the largest turning point in a healing journey that spanned more than a decade. When the first crisis struck, I was a few years out from residency training. I became housebound by profound exhaustion and chronic vertigo--what I'd later diagnose as chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia (a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system). I didn't know how to treat these conditions. But I also knew there was a lot I didn't know.When the second crisis hit, I'd been making slow, steady strides in reclaiming my health. Basic science. Then environmental health. Integrative and functional medicine. Intuitive medicine. Ancient healing arts like acupuncture and qigong. Ancestral foods. And more. So at this point, I had no choice but to go deeper into the spiritual and energetic dimensions of healing. It catalyzed my recovery beyond what science can explain, into the realm of radical remissions. Can't make this stuff up!
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
For several years, I worked in a free clinic for refugees and homeless patients. Once or twice a week, a podiatrist would come, and I often referred patients to him. One day, his clinic door was cracked open, and I happened to catch a glimpse of the scene inside: the podiatrist was hunched over, gently tending the feet of a man who likely lived on the streets, the doctor's headlamp on, his eyes focused, his hands gently cleaning and blotting what were likely wounds or callouses or blisters on the feet of his patient. This act of kindness wasn't directed at me. But it has remained with me. And continues to open me to the potential generosity and compassion of strangers.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
I don't have a bucket list, but if I did, it might include living in a small cottage or shack overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
One-line Message for the World?
Our capacity to heal others is directly related to our capacity to heal (and love) ourselves.