Doctor prescribes naturopathic approach for healthier life


December 1, 2011

Bright-eyed, slender and with glowing skin, Dr. Robyn Barlow is the picture of health.

A new acquaintance might not guess that for more than 20 years she suffered chronic health problems, including ongoing gastrointestinal dysfunction and severe eczema.

"I was covered in a rash all the time ... It was all around my eyes, on my face, on my arms, on my abdomen. It seemed like a day didn’t go by where someone didn’t say, ‘What’s that all over your face?’ The only thing the doctors would ever do is just give me cortisone cream," Barlow said in a recent interview.

Five years after graduating from Haines High School, Barlow had completed the University of Washington’s pre-med program and was determined to resolve her health issues.

She saw a naturopathic doctor in Bellingham, Wash., who used a blood test to trace her health problems to allergies to wheat and dairy. A new diet and a year later, her ailments were gone.

"All those years of living with the rash, and nobody ever asked me anything about my diet," Barlow said.

Recovery led her to research naturopathy. Once satisfied that its medical schools required a comprehensive science curriculum, she knew she had found her path. "I really wanted the science foundation to be part of the medicine. I didn’t want to be practicing something that wasn’t credible or respectable. This fit in really well with what I believe in and what I want to do."

Licensed naturopaths are graduates of four-year, accredited naturopathic medical schools. Like conventional MDs, NDs must undergo board examinations to obtain their state licenses to practice as primary care physicians. Barlow’s classes included standards like anatomy, physiology, and chemistry, but she also learned holistic approaches, including nutrition, acupuncture, homeopathic and botanical medicine, and counseling.

She compares naturopathy to medicine as it was practiced in the first half of the 20th century, before pharmaceuticals and surgery came to dominate treatment. "They are the answers to a lot of things, but not everything, particularly not the chronic issues."

Barlow, 36, now has her own, full-time practice in Chico, Calif. She was back in Haines in November to visit family and see patients here. She’s hoping to serve her hometown on an intermittent basis during future visits.

Raised in Haines by mother Linnus Danner, Barlow traces her interest in science to classes with former local school teachers John Bruce and Frank Holmes. A fatal accident outside her house on Mud Bay Road also influenced her. A good friend was badly injured and an acquaintance died. "I felt so helpless. It was a terrible feeling."

Danner said her daughter, from a young age, always took her future seriously. "She invested some money, on her eighth grade math teacher’s advice, after her grandmother died. And when she graduated, that money paid off her undergraduate student loans."

Before starting graduate studies, Barlow wanted to fulfill a separate dream: a hitch in the Peace Corps. "Because it is so isolated, Haines gave me a real desire to see and experience other places and things." She was stationed in a Pulaar village at the edge of the Sahara desert in Mauritania.

Danner recalled visiting her daughter in Africa: "She was in the poorest country on earth. We had to drive from the closest city for two days in a truck to get to her village. It was 120 degrees...I don’t know how she lived through it. I was pretty worried about her, but she stuck it out."

Barlow was impressed that villagers negotiated the hazards of their rugged lives with only traditional and nature-based cures. When a young woman in her host family received "horrific" burns to her face and torso from a spilled pot of boiling beans, Barlow expected permanent scarring. "But they packed clay on her burn, and it healed wonderfully," she said.

She also learned about herself. "I learned a lot about how we are as a culture, our agendas, how you have to drop that in a place that is ruled by nature and what the season is...I learned to go with the flow more, to value a more flexible, fluid culture rather than (one that is) dogmatic and regimented and not in tune with Mother Nature."

In Chico, Barlow spends her days treating people whose complaints are largely a reflection of a super-charged culture. She sees stress-related hormone imbalances and sleep disorders; many of her patients suffer from metabolic imbalances, such as weight gain and type II diabetes, a result of the poor dietary and exercise choices.

She said she is struck by the number of women she sees whose complaints stem from efforts to balance family and work loads, resulting in stress. Humans evolved to respond to moments of stress with adrenaline, but for too many people, the "fight-or-flight" mode is never switched off, Barlow said.

Her prescription: Make sleep a priority, set aside adequate time for social and recreational activities, get exercise, and eat with the seasons, including local foods when available, and a varied diet.

For lack of market-fresh food year-round, Haines residents also should take a food-based multivitamin. "It’s so simple," she says, with a half-laugh, "but some people need a real health scare before they start changing."

Barlow said she tries to follow her own advice and not overwork. "I make time for social things, there is a great park...I have a very supportive, wonderful boyfriend."

Still, she said, her profession is consuming. "My practice is (like) my marriage and my kid. I can’t imagine having the time (to have children). I didn’t realize that by choosing to go into medicine, I was choosing not to have a family, but it turned out that way."

Barlow said she was "nowhere near" paying off her graduate school debts. She said she enjoys living in California, but there are a few things she can’t quite get used to, like working indoors on sunny days. "When the sun is out in Haines, you better get out there. But here, it’s like, oh, wait, tomorrow is going to be sunny, too.’"

And there are many things she misses about Haines: "Just the beauty of it, the mountains, the water, the different seasons, the snow... When I am here, I can’t stop looking at the mountains."

She also wants to return to Africa. "All the ethnicity and rich culture in that continent is so interesting to me. I have never felt so alive as I did when I lived in Africa. I learned so much about life in such a short time."

"Over the Mountains" is a series spotlighting Haines students who have achieved success.


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