INTERVIEW WITH NATUROPATHIC EXPERT DR. SHARON STILLS
For this edition of The Archive of Healing’s “Special Topics,” the Archive's former Assistant Director, Julie Gaynes, reached out to one of our Advisory Board members, Dr. Sharon Stills, to talk about menopause, naturopathic medicine, and a little bit about her personal journey to becoming a doctor.
Dr. Stills is a naturopathic healer specializing in women’s health and oncology. An advisor of the Bio Regulatory Medicine Institute and creator of the Red Hot Sexy Meno (pause) program, she lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona. In addition to tending to clients around the world, she runs a podcast called “The Science of Self-Healing.” Her mission, alongside the Bio Regulatory Medicine Institute, is to make Bioregulatory Medicine a household term.
AH: What brought you to the fields of women’s health and oncology?
Dr. Stills: When I first got my license as a naturopath, I saw bipolar and schizophrenic patients who were dealing with psychiatric issues, and I didn't really focus on oncology or women's health. But then I opened up my clinic in 2002. One of my first patients was a pancreatic cancer patient. And I thought, Well, I've never treated cancer, but I understand how the body works. And so I treated him and he got better. That blossomed my oncology career, because all the people that he knew came to me.
And with women’s health, I had a woman come in with Suzanne Somers' book. My client told me, “I want bio-identical hormone treatment.” I was taken aback that the book was written by Suzanne Somers from "Three's Company." But I have an open mind. I read the book, and I thought, actually this makes a lot of sense. And I can do it even better. Not in an egotistical way; just from all the things I knew about health and so forth. So I started to treat this client and she was thrilled. And then I thought, wow, I'm going to do this. So my practice became really focused on oncology and women's health and bioidentical hormone replacement. I was in my early to mid 30s, and I was becoming this menopause expert. I was seeing all these women whose husbands were sending me flowers. It was just amazing.
AH: You hinted that your interests in naturopathic medicine began with people suffering from bipolar and schizophrenic disorders. Can you talk about what motivated you to pursue a career in naturopathic medicine in the first place?
Dr. Stills: Initially I wanted to be a pediatrician, because my eldest son had very bad ear infections. He had eczema, and I realized that the antibiotics the pediatrician were giving him were not helping. I had a friend at the time who was into holistic medicine, and so I started to become aware of the connection between nutrition and health. I got really into it, and did a lot of my own research.
When I got divorced at 24, I had a three year old and a one year old, but I decided I was going to pursue my passion: I was going to become a practitioner in naturopathic medicine. I had gotten married early, and had lots of drug and alcohol addictions in my teens. I had never gone to college. I had no clue that I still needed to complete my undergrad. But I went back to school, first to become a pediatrician. And I also had an interest in psychiatrics because my elder brother had committed suicide.
AH: So initially you weren’t focused on women’s health. But do you think there were latent aspects of your personal life that led you to put your stakes in that direction?
Dr. Stills: I have a history of horrific hormonal imbalance. When I was in my twenties, I would struggle with PMS three weeks out of the month. Maybe I had a few good days right after I bled. I would be so bloated, people would ask me when the baby was due. At the time I was twenty-five, and was attending Traditional Chinese Oriental Massage School. The people at the school would yell at me for being a vegan, telling me it was messing up my cycles and that I had to eat meat. But I was zealous. Being vegan was my identity. I made my kids wear buttons that said, “We don't eat anything with a face.”
But one of my own tenets is to heal myself as an example for my clients. So, especially after I started my own practice and began working with menopausal women, I started to work with my own hormones. And so the PMS I mentioned earlier went away. The cycles got better. And then before I knew it, ten to twelve years later, I went through menopause and I had no symptoms. I never had a hot flash. And I attribute that to my perimenopausal experience of balancing my hormones and moving my liver, moving my lymphatic system. Of taking care of my dentistry. Of having passion in my life, of sleeping, of eating, of exercising. All these things. And so I was very fortunate because this is what I do. But most women are not aware that they need to monitor their lives properly.
AH: On your website, you give really compelling testimony for the fact that many women have issues with hormones all their lives. Why do you feel that most women don't express concerns about their hormones until they're of a menopausal age?
Dr. Stills: There are a few answers to that. One of them is that we've been conditioned in society to believe that hormones aren't really an issue for women until they have hot flashes. Most women at age thirty-five aren’t thinking about menopause. We think menopause happens in our fifties and sixties. The average age of menopause is fifty. Some women go into menopause at sixty. I was finished at forty-eight. So when women are thirty-five and having hormonal issues, they're just not thinking “this is perimenopause.” And if they go to a typical doctor and complain about mood swings or depression, they're given an SSRI. If they complain about problems with their cycle, heavy bleeding, cramping migraines, they're often given the pill. And if they complain about sleepless nights, then they're given Ambien. So women are never told in a typical physician’s or even a typical gynecologist's office that “this could be your hormone(s) starting to go out of balance.” Also, we get so much of our information online and from social media platforms, and unfortunately a lot of information about hormonal imbalance is not really accurate.
So why do women not really think about their hormones? Because if they're younger, if they have recurring physical or psychological challenges, they don't think it's a hormonal issue. And when they're older, and they're thinking about it, they're going for horse estrogens. And so that's why so many women suffer.
AH: Tell us about “horse estrogens.” What is your opinion about synthetic hormone treatment for menopause, particularly pharmaceutical estrogen pills?
Dr. Stills: We associate hot flashes with low estrogen and negative effects of menopause. We've been conditioned to think of estrogen as a thing we can get over the counter. Like, “Oh you're having menopause? I'll give you estrogen.”
But estrogen is really an umbrella of different types of estrogens. There are the ones that we're most familiar with in the human body: One: Estrone; Two: Estradiol; and Three: Estriol. Some women go for the pharmaceutical synthetic hormones that have hormones like Premarin. Premarin is a hormone that comes from pregnant horses. The horse's body, especially when pregnant, makes these hormones that we humans have never even seen in our bodies, that even a non-pregnant horse has never seen. Synthetics wouldn't even be good for a horse that's not pregnant, and these synthetic medications are now being ingested by humans.
AH: And what happens when women use these synthetic medications over an extended period of time?
Dr. Stills: I commonly see women have these hormone pellets inserted into them. It is thought to be a natural therapy, but I don’t believe it. These clients of mine will be way overdosed on testosterone. When I see them, sometimes we just have to take them off the testosterone. We’ve got to support the eliminatory organs: the liver, the gallbladder, the gut, the lymphatic system. Cleanse the terrain. There's always the option to come back to balance with natural hormones.
AH: How specifically does your hormone treatment differ from pharmaceutical treatment?
Dr. Stills: People who've been to conventional physicians think, with pharmaceutical hormone supplements, mild hormonal swings are as good as it gets. So they push away all hormonal supplements and say “hormones don't really work.” Or they’ll freak out because there are so many things online about hormones, and most supplemental hormones that cause concern are the pharmaceutical hormones. But what I work with are bioidentical hormones. They're identical to what our body produces. And so they're literally apples and oranges compared to synthetic hormones. You can't compare what happens from pharmaceutical hormones to what happens from the bioidentical hormones.
AH: It sounds like your business has thrived primarily from word-of-mouth success stories from your clients. Did you ever have to do extra legwork to get the word out about your practice?
Dr. Stills: The only advertising I ever did was when I first started my practice. I went around and did some lectures about hormonal imbalances and put flyers in places where I knew women were looking into their health. The adverts said, “Hey, if you are age thirty-five or above and you're experiencing this, it could be your hormones. Come let me help you.” I wanted to really get it out there to women. I've been in practice for over twenty years and I still have patients who come in and are on synthetic hormones and are not feeling good or were overdosed or under-dosed and I have to work to bring them back to balance.
AH: I understand that your bioidentical hormone treatment serves as a long-term supplement to healthy lifestyle changes. Are any of your patients intimidated by long-term commitments to hormone maintenance?
Dr. Stills: Sure. A lot of times, women will say, “How long am I going to be on this?” To me hormones are not just about alleviating hot flashes. Hot flashes occur because the hypothalamus is not signaling properly. And so at the end the ovaries stop releasing estrogen. And this is a normal thing that happens. It's normal that as we age, we lose production of hormones. And so supplemental hormones are not just to get us through hot flashes, but to help with bone health, brain health, and preventing Alzheimer's. They help with cardiovascular issues, and they help with skin and hair and sex drive and sex experience and orgasms and immune functions and on and on and on. So how long are you going to take hormone supplements? As long as you want to age gracefully and feel healthy! That's my personal opinion.
AH: While you got your license in naturopathic medicine here in the United States, you draw from medicinal practices from all over the world. What sorts of training encouraged you to diversify your practice?
Dr. Stills: I am a primary care physician here in Arizona and have a DEA license, but my naturopathic medical training drew largely from medicinal wisdoms beyond U.S. conventional medicine. Naturopathic training is a different training than conventional medical school. The first two years are pretty identical. We're in the anatomy lab breathing in the formaldehyde. We were studying pharmacology and biochemistry and embryology and physiology and anatomy. But then from there, where conventional medicine just teaches you how to diagnose and which medication to give, we naturopaths then begin to learn how to really heal. We study Mind-Body medicine, homeopathy, botanical medicine, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, nutrition and physical medicine. We study a lot of different branches of naturopathic medicine from different parts of the world and get a really great basis. I went through that initial conventional training because, first of all, I wanted to be able to converse with other physicians and understand where they were coming from. I have been practicing for twenty years, and I'm still constantly training and going to conferences and workshops and learning.
AH: Knowing what you do about conventional medicine in the U.S., where do you think it falls short, if at all?
Dr. Stills: We have forgotten how to look at chronic illness, and how to prevent it. So prevention is always easier than reversal.
Meanwhile, Chinese medicine, Vedic medicine, Tibetan Medicine have been around for thousands of years. And practitioners of these kinds of medicine understand how preventive medicine improves our health. We know their medicine works without having to do a double blind placebo study.
AH: It sounds like you’re saying conventional medicine often doesn’t pay enough attention to psychosomatic health?
Dr. Stills: No, unfortunately. And now it's even worse because even naturopathic schools have become more allopathic in their training. My eldest son just graduated from a naturopathy program, so I’ve gotten to see what naturopathy programs look like now. There are some doctors who really put a strong emphasis on the psychosomatic connection. But as a whole, no. Most modern medicine doesn’t really look at the whole person. When you are having migraines, it's often a hormonal imbalance. But there can also be other factors. Are you having headaches because you just can't handle what is going on in your life?
AH: What do you mean by that? How can women know when their lifestyles are interfering with their hormonal heath?
Dr. Stills: Our lifestyle really affects us. First and foremost, we have to be happy. This life is fleeting, it’s short, and it’s a gift. It is really true that as you get older, the years go quicker. And so it's up to us to live well. This is why I write menopause with a parentheses around the “pause”. Because menopause is really an excellent opportunity for you to pause and take inventory of your life, where you've been, where you are and where you want to go. If you don't take that inventory, no one's going to do it for you. And I don't want to see you on your deathbed with regrets that you didn't live your dreams, that you didn't follow your passion because you were just stuck in the rat race or stuck in false beliefs or stuck in fear. So many women are not happy in their lives. They're staying in relationships or marriages they don't want to be in anymore. They're giving to too many people. They don't put themselves first, and so they're out of sync. And hormones are about rhythm and balance. When you're out of rhythm and balance in your life, it manifests in your physiology.
AH: Can you give an example of how lifestyle conditions can impede or improve our holistic health?
Dr. Stills: I’ll give a personal example. When I was 25, I was in bed for a month with chickenpox and then from there, it went into pneumonia. I was in bed for another month. And then from there, it went into chronic fatigue. And then one day, I thought “I just can't get out of bed. Why can’t I engage in my life? And I realized that I was stressed because my kids were gone all day, and they were the most important things to me. I was a massage therapist, and I was massaging at an office far from the house. I was unhappy. I just didn't like where my life was. In that moment I thought, “Hey, what if I homeschool my kids, and then I can go to night school? And what if I run my massage business out of the house?” After that realization I changed my whole life. And it got me from horizontal to vertical.
And then as soon as my youngest son went off to college, I called my friend and told her, “We're going to Machu Picchu. It's time.” When we got to Machu Picchu, I got my period early. And it has a lot to do with my hormones, which I have since really balanced.
I stood on the top of Kilimanjaro when I went through menopause. And it wasn't to say Hey, I stood on Kilimanjaro. It was for internal validation. I was telling myself, Hey, you're now in menopause. The world is your oyster, you are climbing the largest freestanding mountain in Africa, and this is just the beginning. It just worked out perfectly that I stood on the top of Kilimanjaro a year to the day before my period stopped. And the only reason that happened was because the airlines lost our luggage. So the universe is always conspiring to help you even when you think it isn't.
AH: What do you think causes some menopausal women to think that the universe is conspiring against them?
Dr. Stills: Women are really conditioned in our society to think menopause is the end. I had one client tell me once, “I was told when you go through menopause, you die.” She really believed that. When a lot of women reach menopause, they think they're no longer important. They think they’ll lose their sex appeal, lose their everything.
The typical narrative goes like this: as you get older, you get sicker and you have pain and you get fat and you don't feel good. That’s all B.S. I can tell you: I'm fifty-three and I feel healthier now than I did when I was twenty. And it's because of the lifestyle and the medicine I embrace and because I am really in touch with what's important to me. The reason I call menopause “the second sacred act” is really to flip the script for women. I think we really support our lives and ourselves and our positive neurochemical connections in the brain when we do what we say we're going to do. Someone who says, I'm going to lose five pounds and doesn't lose them winds up beating themselves up. But someone who says they're going to do something and does it? They feel good about themselves.
AH: Are there specific aspects of your practice geared towards the psychological and energetic benefits of flipping the script for menopausal women?
Dr. Stills: I used to run Crone ceremonies, which is what the Native Americans do when a woman goes through menopause. They feel that when a woman is no longer bleeding, she's no longer losing her wisdom to the earth. She's retaining it. And so she becomes a wise Crone. Native cultures seem to revere the elders more than [caucasian] society. We kind of just put the elders out to pasture like they’re not important anymore, especially women. I run women's retreats with a friend of mine who is a yoga teacher, and we call them the Women of Wisdom Retreats, in which we do salon-style circles in which we talk about the beauty of menopause.
I also use color puncture. Color puncture is a technique from Germany that uses different colored lights and crystals on different parts of the body in different zones. It's the work of Peter Mandela, who's a genius. And that is very deep work. It's working with bio photons which impact the energy field of the body. Because we are energy, even though we don't appear that way. And so we have to address the energy field, the bio field and healing. I have studied extensively in Europe, learning different ways of how we clear the field, from neural therapy to injecting scars.
AH: We’ve talked a lot about flipping the script as a lifestyle practice. Are there points where it has served you to go off-script as a doctor?
Dr. Stills: I'm very eclectic in what I do. Every patient needs different things. And I do a lot of lifestyle and education implementation because our lifestyle is crucial to how we heal. I'm obsessed with people being hydrated. I'm obsessed with people sleeping, I'm obsessed with people moving their bodies. I'm obsessed with people chewing their food and eating the right foods. And at the right time, I'm obsessed with people being happy and having joy in their lives. And so there's so much that goes into being a fulfilled woman, a fulfilled human being, and being healthy. And so it's so much more than just knowing where to stick the needle.
There are things I know intuitively. You don't need to study to know that sleeping helps your health. I just know that if I have any woman who comes in on the birth control pill, I have to get them off of it. Fertility treatments are a little different, because some women are desperate to have a baby. And they've done that. I do work a lot with infertility. There's a lot that can be done, but it just depends when a patient is coming to me and their history or so forth. And so then I'm just straightforward that we have to do a lot of rebalancing and detoxing if they've taken the pill and other harmful medications.
I always go back to that first cancer patient I had that taught me a really profound lesson as a young doctor: “Never listen to the societal myths about health. Cancer is a death sentence.” Yes, supposedly. But I don't believe in death sentences. I always think there's hope. I always think there's a miracle just waiting to manifest and you just have to tap into it.