When journalist Susannah Meadows's 3-year-old son, Shepherd, developed juvenile idiopathic arthritis, medicine did little to relieve his pain. So Meadows took matters into her own hands, putting her son on a special diet (for example: no to gluten, yes to fish oil) while keeping him on his meds. Several months later, Shepherd, who had been limping, was pirouetting and running.

As Meadows began doing research for an article about her experience, she heard of other patients who'd found ways to get better on their own. Their stories—compiled in Meadows's book, The Other Side of Impossible: Ordinary People Who Faced Daunting Medical Challenges and Refused to Give Up—involve cases of multiple sclerosis, food allergies, intractable epilepsy, and ADHD. While the microbiome of gut bacteria, thought to influence health and immunity, features prominently, this is not an ode to green juice or gluten avoidance. Meadows is more interested in unpacking how her subjects found hope—and relief—in the face of dispiriting diagnoses. We asked her to share what she's learned about unconventional healing.

O: How is your son doing?

Susannah Meadows: He's a regular 9-year-old who doesn't even remember what arthritis felt like. I often take a moment to think how lucky we are.

O: The most amazing thing wasn't that the eating plan seemed to help; it was the "healer" who was able to reintroduce gluten and dairy to his diet.

SM: Yes, Amy Thieringer—she's a nutrition and health coach—has no medical training, but while treating children with severe food allergies, she had the insight that some symptoms of anaphylaxis resemble severe anxiety. So she started addressing the fear of eating certain foods using elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy. And Thieringer saw similarities between Shepherd and children with allergies: Their bodies were mistakenly registering food as a threat. We can't be sure that's why Shepherd can tolerate those foods now, but she's had so much anecdotal success that researchers have launched a pilot study of her methods.

O: Do you believe we can use our minds to cure disease?

SM: No one is saying hope is a cure. But there are so many compelling studies on the mind-body connection. One of my favorites suggests that practitioners who are kind and project confidence can have a major impact on their patients' recoveries without prescribing drugs.

O: How did you keep despair at bay when your son was in constant pain?

SM: I didn't! That's part of why I wanted to write my book—to figure out how the people I profiled were able to have hope. Many survived challenging childhoods. Long before Terry Wahls reversed her MS symptoms, for example, she had to deal with growing up gay in a conservative community in Iowa in the '50s and '60s. Another mom who tenaciously pursued a cure for her son's severe food allergies had been abandoned by her father. I thought of these women when I talked to a neurobiologist who found, in a study of rats, that those who overcame a difficult circumstance when they were young were inoculated against helplessness. If someone in my family were to get sick again, I'd be more hopeful this time.

Illustration: Mouni Feddag

O: Many of the medical professionals you spoke with acknowledged that certain diets do seem to help alleviate symptoms of conditions like ADHD, arthritis, and MS. Why don't doctors prescribe them more?

SM: There is a lack of published science to support diet as a cure. Most of the research in this country is funded by private companies, and eating habits are not something you can patent and sell. Diets are also very hard to study. One reason is that we aren't blind to what we eat, so having a placebo control is tricky.

O: When should we listen to our healthcare provider, and when should we become our own "primary care doctor"?

SM: We don't have to choose between trusting our doctors and looking elsewhere for answers. I have full confidence in my son's rheumatologist, but that doesn't mean I don't ask questions and research possibilities that might not fall within his expertise. Patients are finding treatments developed outside Western medicine and using them in conjunction with drugs or when medicine doesn't have an answer. If there's no risk, why not try?

Medicine Labels Non-mainstream therapies used together with conventional medicine are considered "complementary." Practices that replace standard medical treatment are "alternative." Want more stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the Oprah.com Healthy Body newsletter!


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