My Creative Life: Dr Sara Gottfried

As I told her in an email reply yesterday, I have such a girl crush on my next Creative life interviewee. Dr Sara Gottfried is a champion of women’s health, something she practices in her work and life as a doctor, a yoga teacher, a writer and a mother. She’s the author of the forthcoming book, The Hormone Cure, and shares her wisdom with women across the globe from her medical practice in Berkeley, CA. On her about page she writes: “I believe PMS is a legitimate health concern, no different than a sprained ankle” — this was when I knew we were meant to meet one day :)

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Dr Sara Gottfried…

SC: Did you always know you wanted to specialise in women’s health? How did this path begin for you?

SG: I was one of those annoying people in medical school who loved everything – from surgery to psychiatry to primary care. I particularly loved psychiatry because it felt like surgery to me – surgery to mend the heart and soul, and the medical frontier of the next century, but not with answers found in the bottom of a pill bottle. But to answer your question, no on women’s health. It came to me later as a way of integrating many loves into one package.

I’m a devout, card-carrying but irreverent third-wave feminist. What I loved about obstetrics and gynecology is that it knit together all the things that held potent meaning for me. I was honored to attend women’s births and in awe of the transformational container of birth. I am blessed to have followed in Christiane Northrup’s footsteps as she redefined women’s health and gynecology, and empowered women to participate in their surgeries with regional anesthesia, as opposed to being knockout flat on an operative table – the ultimate in female objectification.

I loved the political agenda in women’s health, from reproductive choice to more research dollars for underserved conditions women face such as breast cancer and osteoporosis. Truly, the personal is political when it comes to women and health.

I trained as a physician-scientist at Harvard and MIT so that I would have the cred to take on women’s health and broaden the conversation so that women no longer feel dismissed, or perhaps worse, that their issues are somehow a moral failing. To me, that’s the worst aspect of patriarchal, old-school medicine – that women blame themselves for conditions they face such as Premenstrual Syndrome, anxiety, infertility and disordered eating.

But you asked how the path began, and I must give credit here to my great-grandmother. She was a whole foodist yogini from Palo Alto, CA who arrived at our doorstep when I was growing up on the East Coast with suitcases of wheatberries, carob cookies and wheat germ. She slept on a board and practiced yoga. She taught me the magic of our innate intelligence when it comes to health, and that planted the seeds that grew into my love of integrative and natural women’s health, or what I call organic gynecology.

You’re a doctor, a writer, a yoga teacher and a mother — how do you marry all these vocations together? What does a typical day look like for you?

One thing I know for sure, to cop an Oprah moment, is that marriage is not easy, at least conscious marriage. Susan-Piver-approved marriage. Most days are wildly out of proportion in the doctor or writing direction, and far less in the yoga or mom direction. I don’t seek balance, that mythical place of a seesaw at horizontal – I just try not to let the seesaw slam down so hard that it knocks the wind out of me.

I’m an early riser at 5am. It’s the only time of the day that my household is quiet. I practice a power ritual of: tea, meditation, intention, yoga, maybe some sacred texts and mantra. I have bucking-bronco physiology that favors negative thinking, food addiction, attention deficit, irritability, and a chronically chaotic home office. The power ritual is a non-negotiable to retrain my brain toward grace, in 15 minutes or less.

Then I write. I try to get 30 to 60 minutes in before the kids wake up. It’s not enough time but it’s what works right now. The other times I write are when a patient cancels or my husband takes the kids somewhere for a few blessed hours on the weekend, or I’ve carved out a 2-hour block on a Wednesday or Friday. I see patients either in my office or virtually on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Breakfast is crucially important to me. All the data shows the benefit of dinner together with your family, but I love the energy of breakfast. The promise of the day – hearing what my kids are thinking about, their dreams, what’s up for them at school. Eating together with Geneen Roth eating guidelines (Sit. Eat. Talk. Not in a car.) in practice, though my kids don’t know that. I eat a measured amount of raw oat groats pureed with almonds, and with berries plus chia seeds. Divine. I look at grain and gain weight, so this is my only grain of the day.

I love taking my kids to school and picking them up. I cram a full-time medical practice into those hours in between. The only way I accomplish that is with a fab group of virtual assistants who keep me sane and MANAGE ME. I start seeing patients around 8:30am and finish at 3:30pm before the kid pick up. After pick up, we head to my LEED-Platinum green Craftsman bungalow for homework and I make dinner. Sometimes I’ll do a bit of research for my book if there’s a spare moment. Today I’m writing about high stress hormones and how they screw up your hormones. I write from both personal and professional experience with high cortisol!

We all have dinner together around 7pm, including my husband who works long days as a green entrepreneur and change agent. We also have a digital sabbatical every week from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown.  It helps me find the eye of the storm.

In your opinion, what are the top three things women can do for their health and vitality every day?

Meditate (in any form – for you, Susannah, photography seems to be your form of meditation), take fish oil and cultivate gratitude with girlfriends. I like to call that the girlfriend gratitude groove – it fills you with oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding, and gives you a touchstone for all that is working in your life. Our minds like to focus on what’s not working, and we have to constantly reset our compass.

I suffer dreadfully (understatement!) with PMS every month and it’s getting worse the older I get (I’m 38) — could you share any words of wisdom for me and my fellow PMS sisters?

Right there with you, Susannah, until I figured out what is most effective.

·      Chastetree vitex is my favorite herb for PMS. More effective than Prozac and virtually no side effects. Very well proven to reduce PMS.
·      Take calcium and magnesium daily. Many women know this but drop off in their consistency yet it lowers PMS symptoms by 30-50%.
·      Exercise moderately 4 days per week. Frequency seems more important than intensity when it comes to combatting PMS.
·      Find the juicy message of your PMS. Rather than just medicate it away – is there some wisdom about the truth you’re not acknowledging. Often I find PMS keeps you from tolerating bad behavior in others. Pointing that out kindly is a major challenge in the throes of PMS – so notice and perhaps revisit later when kindness feels more possible

What and who inspires you – could you share some links and recommendations with us?

Gwen Bell is rocking my world right now. I love her utterly original reflections and contributions.

I crave the blog of Marta Dansie, probably because I’ve got ADD and my home just doesn’t ever look like hers. I can live vicariously in her orderly home office. Orgasmic eye candy.

I’m insane for the design of Natalie Chanin and the revolution she’s started with slow clothing in Alabama with artisanal needle workers.

Ana Forrest is my yoga teacher and just wrote a terrific book, Fierce Medicine. She helps me find the path out of my garden of dark thoughts into the compost heap of beauty and promise.

For medicine – well, it’s harder here to find inspiration. Most of the pioneers are much older than me such as Chris Northrup, Mark Hyman and Andy Weil. I’m loving the work of Atul Gawande but he’s very mainstream. Smart but conventional.

What is the message you want to share with the world? (in other words, what do you consider to be your life’s work?)

Women are so used to being dismissed for their health problems that they hardly even notice anymore. That needs to change. I believe in changing it. We have so many proven ways to help manage PMS, low energy, weight gain, and stress. We have so many choices about how to do it safely with both ancient wisdom and cutting-edge treatments, and I want to broadcast those choices. I see many of my patients seeking the counsel of their girlfriends because their doc offered them a birth control pill or an anti-depressant, and it left them cold. Insufficient answers and interest on the part of your doctor needs to be hunted down, identified and shifted into something more helpful. I want to broaden the conversation, broaden the container so women are informed and empowered about their health, and never again dismissed or brushed off.

What are you working on next?

We just now are launching Mission Ignition, a 30-day program to deal with the #1 issue my 10,000 patients face: low sex drive. I’ve figured out proven ways to double sex drive using a combination of adrenal, sex hormone and thyroid balancing together with sacred anatomy and a new model of female sexuality. Can’t wait to share it with my first group online starting October 25, 2011. You can sign up for my free October 12 teleseminar, 3.5 Sex Drive Myths Even Your Doctor Believes (+ 1 Half-Truth) happening at 11:30am Pacific. Register here to get call-in details or to get the recording sent afterward.

You’re having a dinner party and can invite six famous people from the past or present – who would you choose and why?

Maureen Dowd. She’s hilarious and it would be fun to catch up on world events with her.

Tara Parker Pope. She has a great mind for what matters in medicine and I love her columns in the New York Times. I always get new ideas from her. I’d love to thank her for that and see what makes her tick.

Jim Collins. He makes business more palatable and artful for me and I think he’s genius.

Anna Deveare Smith. I got to meet her last month in Berkeley and her art form blows me away. Have you ever seen her do Lance Armstrong? I was peeing my pants.

Barbara Ehrenreich. So damn smart. I could use her feedback on how to not overindulge in positive thinking.

Bethenny Frankel. I’m not sure why I like her so damn much, but I love her direct form of communication. It really works for me, but I do think she needs a natural hormone consult.

As an alternate, say if Bethenny blows me off at the last minute, I’d choose Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, nobel laureate at UCSF who discovered that stress shortens women’s telomeres and accelerates the aging process. I’d love to get a download on every possible thing proven to help women lengthen their telomeres. Oh, BTW, telomeres are like shoe-lace caps on chromosomes that keep them from unraveling.

* * * * *
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today, Sara! Isn’t she amazing? I’m off to buy some fish oil, calcium and magnesium right now…. seriously.

15 responses
  1. Clare Mulvany

    Really enjoyed reading Sara’s interview this morning. Thanks for much for sharing her work with me- very inspiring. I am just re-reading ‘Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom’ at the moment- Christiane Northrups’s seminal book, who she refers to. Have you ever read it? I highly recommend also…

  2. Jo

    I can’t believe in ALL the conversations we’ve had about health and/or awesome women we’ve never talked about Sara Gottfried! I love her. And I love my magnesium.

  3. Marcela

    “Truly, the personal is political when it comes to women and health.” YES, yes, yes!

  4. susannah

    My copy is very well thumbed too :)

  5. michelle gd

    what an incredible interview to read…so much to get me thinking this morning. i can totally see why you have a girl crush on sara!!!

  6. Nina

    Thanks, Susannah! I’m a WBWW devotee too but hadn’t heard of Sara Gottfried before.

  7. Beatrice Clay

    WOW! I needed to hear all of that. I feel the love in every word. This was inspiring to say the very least. In this moment, I feel like I am last on my list (crazy because I make the list each and every time); I am enouraged though to create a non-negotiable morning power ritual and babystep my way toward a more grounded stable peaceful place (in 15 minutes or less ;) THANKS for sharing this!

  8. Katherine

    Fantastic stuff Susannah, thanks for sharing about Sara. And you better believe I’m going to stock up on that chastetree vitex!

  9. patti scanlon

    Wow what a wonderful person and interview Thank you Susannah for providing this.

  10. Dana Barbieri

    Thank you, thank you both! The PMS is a killer for me too. I am going to start taking my calcium and magnesium again and definitely going to add in the chasteberry vitex. Is there a recommended dose?
    Great post!

  11. sonrie

    Thank you – I really enjoyed reading about this practitioner and the importance of women’s medicine. :) Off to take a brisk walk.

  12. Susie M

    Wow! I am so on the same page as Sara and need to talk to her! I live not too far and have been searching for a gyn who talks this talk. Thank you so much, Susannah. You know I’m going to make an appointment with her tomorrow!

  13. Marianne

    Fantastic interview with someone whose work I really admire. Women’s health – definitely political as well as intensely personal.

  14. mati McDonough

    This is the best interview and so helpful for my pms struggles. I am so excited that she lives in my neck of the woods in Berkeley! Thank you.

  15. Holly

    Thank you so much for such a fantastic interview, Susannah! I’m 38 too and as I’m getting older my PMS is definitely getting worse. When I told my husband about Dr. Gottfried’s recommendation to take Calcium & Magnesium, he quickly said that we should go out and get a big bottle! Ha! I guess I’m not the only one that has been suffering from my PMS!

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