Ali Shapiro on Finding Wellness Through Natural Medicine
In 2004, Ali Shapiro became her own healthcare advocate after 10 years of struggling to find remedies for her depression, IBS, acne, and binge eating. Her journey led her to also take on her eating issues and infertility, all of which she combatted through natural medicine, alternative practitioners, her own food model, challenging authority, and an insatiable curiosity.
Ali’s story is part of Rupa Health’s Be Your Own Healthcare Advocate series, where we share the stories of patients who take their health issues and wellbeing into their own hands.
What do you do for work?
I am an Integrative Health Expert, the creator of Truce with Food®, and the host of the Insatiable podcast.
What health issues were you experiencing?
In my early 20s, I was diagnosed with depression, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and acne resistance to antibiotic and Accutane. In my late 30s, I was diagnosed with infertility.
How did you go about finding a solution? How many doctors/experts did you see during this time period? Tell us about your journey.
I accidentally became my own health care advocate back in 2004. Holistic health was still for hippies and functional medicine (FM) wasn't a movement. I had been struggling with my issues for a good ten years and had looked to doctor's to help me, only to come up helpless.
I enrolled in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in 2006 and learned about the importance of getting off processed foods. I did this on my own. At IIN, I was introduced to FM and found an amazing FM practitioner Jackie Doyle. She guided me to get off gluten, get on probiotics and helped me heal my gut.
I had mostly reversed my IBS, my skin cleared up, and my depression was 50% better, which felt like a 100% at the time. Little did I know I was just getting started...
I found that while I felt amazing, I couldn't keep it up. My bingeing and emotional eating felt even more shameful because it aggravated my IBS, depression and acne. I knew how to feel amazing—why wasn't I doing it? Unsatisfied with the results from Mindful Eating, Mindfulness Based-Stress Reduction, and therapy, I went to graduate school to understand inconsistency as a symptom, just like my depression, IBS, and acne weren't diagnosis, but symptoms.
I discovered my eating issues were from unresolved trauma, mainly from having cancer as a teenager. I created my own model Truce with Food®, rooted in developmental psychology which takes a root-cause resolution to changing habits we want to stop (versus start). I was able to free myself from my 18 year battle with food, clear up my depression completely and finally be consistent to resolve all my health issues. I continue to feel healthier and healthier the more I learn (despite getting older).
This experience was transformational in me learning how assertive and discerning I would have to be to navigate my health choices, especially as a first generation childhood cancer survivor where this isn't a lot of data about the long-term effects of our treatments.
All the wonderful health outcomes I experienced in the last 15 years would set the stage for being 39 and diagnosed with infertility and early menopause, most likely from the chemo. In my greatest "health care advocate" triumph, I opted out of the only option Western Medicine presented me, IVF + donor egg, and worked with a naturopath and acupuncturist, plus my own research, to get pregnant naturally at 40. I'm due with a baby boy in three months!
When did you realize something wasn't right? What symptoms were you experiencing?
Depression: it took so much effort to feel stable and my default was a deep emptiness. Acne: obvious! IBS: acid re-flux, intense abdominal pain, constipation.
How long did you struggle before either getting a diagnosis or starting to feel better?
My diagnosis was the problem! They were symptoms. It took me a good two years to feel more relief than I thought possible (from the start of school to healing my gut).
Tell us about your lowest point. What happened, how did you deal with it?
I think the lowest point was before I started healing. Thinking I would have to live with depression because it was "genetic" and that battling my weight, the best I could hope for was self-acceptance that seemed like resignation. My infertility diagnosis was a very low point because I felt I had done so much to take care of myself and still, it wasn't enough and this problem came from teenage cancer, which already felt so unfair. But I dealt with it by being in the sadness, grief and loss, not running from it. I came out of it being clear I did want to be a parent and realized I had several choices aside from IVF + donor egg. And then I got to work on my top choice, which was giving natural medicine the chance it deserved. The hardest part was patience and not knowing and I'm so glad I took the risk!
What ended up being the most helpful resources or treatments for you?
At this point, my own Truce with Food® model. It's what I wish I had 15 years ago, which would have saved me so much time, money and dead-ends. It's a process for clients to deeply heal and in that process, understand what healing tools work for them. Yes, they learn about nutrition, gut health and blood sugar (i.e Functional Medicine) and how to eat for their bodies. But more importantly, they are able to heal emotional patterns that have caused stress and unhealthy habits for decades. This is the missing component to being consistent and healing that our symptoms are asking of us. This process also enables clients to go through the adult development transformation required to feel authoritative with their bodies and health. In a culture that grooms women to doubt their bodies, symptoms and pain, it's a revolutionary act to undergo this type of authoritative transformation. This process also teaches clients how to listen to their body to discern what other support and tools they will need so their life doesn't become about wellness. Rather, wellness is the process to live a meaningful life, which is equally important to well-being.
What was the most frustrating part of your journey?
How we define integrative and holistic. Going to an integrative medicine center is great, yet it's not as efficient or as effective to see a dietician, health coach and/or therapist individually and separately. It's amazing the results when one person can integrate these three ways of thinking and offer you an elegant solution. It saves time, money and hope in the long-run.
What was a high moment or a turning point in your journey?
Being free of depression was astounding. I really thought it was genetic and I had a serotonin deficiency. Overcoming these "sacred cow" talking points led me to question practically everything...and that spiritual awakening has served me well and something I draw upon when things aren't going so well.
How has this experience impacted or shaped your life today?
I left my corporate job and started a company to help share the intellectual property, Truce with Food®, I created in graduate school. I am medication free and the healthiest I've ever been at 40. I'm pregnant! I'm optimistic. I'm resilient. Every area of my life has been dramatically impacted for the best.
What motivated you to keep going in search of answers? What made you determined to find a solution?
My Dad used to call me steady pressure, which today would be called "persistence". So I had some of it in me. But my pain and wanting relief kept me going. Then it was incremental relief and insatiable curiosity that kept me experimenting and researching. Then it was justice for others when I learned how far our medical system has drifted from supporting people to be well. And then I found it so gratifying to support others who want to become their own health advocates. And it's fun to keep asking "how good can it get?".
How did holistic or integrative care shape your journey?
Without it, I think I would still have acne, IBS and be depressed. And I would have developed none of the resilience or discernment required for me to leave my corporate job and start and run a company. It literally saved and gave me a life.
How difficult was it for you to find a holistic or integrative practitioner? What were the main barriers here?
When I was first unwell, I didn't know what I needed and there weren't many options, including none covered by insurance (this was 16 years ago...a lot has changed!). So that was a main barrier. Many of those have been dissolved, depending on your privilege. These days I find it relatively easy thanks to my own expertise, experience and again, privilege.
How are you doing today?
Fantastic (knock on wood. I'm optimistic, not naive to think health is all in our control!)
What do you do to stay healthy today?
I keep a simple routine: morning sunlight of at least 30 minutes, filtered, unflourinated water, movement 4-5 days a week, a whole foods, gluten-free diet, being with dog and my husband outside in nature as much as possible. And I love my work. And I'm always working on cultivating meaningful friendships, both personally and professionally. I don't do a lot of super foods, supplements or trends. I think simplicity is a key to wellness.
How do you define "being healthy"?
Are you taking in life? It's not about a diagnosis or not. It's a way of being where you can take in life, digest and metabolize (i.e. make something useful from your experiences).
What advice do you have for someone that's trying to figure out their own health concerns?
Stay insatiably curious about your symptoms and root causes. Find practitioners you trust and who believe in the body’s capacity to heal and trust your body. Experiment and expect a non-linear journey.
What does it mean to you to "be your own health advocate"?
Being your own health care advocate is about becoming the CEO of your health. It's expanding your ability to be with complexity and all the interlocking parts of your body—from gut health, to blood sugar to emotional patterns to finding deep meaning in your symptoms and life. It's challenging authority and accepting that science is a process, not a destination. It's best to have various view points to consider when making your health-care choices, because no one has the answer. And it's making sure you are clear on all your choices, not just the ones offered by the status quo. It's also committing to experimenting and learning as you go as your bodies feedback system beats any bell-curve science studies because none of us have bell-curve health histories coming into each day.
Ali now shares her Truce with Food® process and other coaching support to help people find their food freedom, and runs her podcast, Insatiable, where she discusses “more truthful approaches” to diet derailments.
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