Karyn Shanks MD
I’m always completely blown away by the incredible life stories I get to hear in my consultation room. Yet, we’re on this healing journey together, aren’t we? Searching for what we need to live a healing life. Each of us trying to reach our highest potential. So, allow me to share my story.
Much like you, I’ve lived through big health challenges, work-life balance smack-downs, burnout, and the struggles of life. While the challenges never stop, my healing journey has led me to create deep wells of resilience, and a joy for life that I would not otherwise have, through self-care that’s been my foundation.
What’s Most Important to Me
My journey has made it clear to me what’s most important:
How do I live every day, not just to fix the problems as they come along, but to nourish my highest energy, highest enthusiasm for the day ahead, and highest potential for living my best life?
Nothing Else Will Do
Because, now that I’m here, and know what I know, nothing short of that will do. I must have what fills my resilience tank to support me as I step up to whatever my life calls me to do—in work, play, and love. I must do what makes me most happy.
For many years in my earlier life I thought I was healthy. I ran miles every day. I ate a low-fat vegetarian diet. I worked and played hard. I burned the candle at both ends. I thought I had limitless energy and I lived like there was no tomorrow.
Until I couldn’t.
It wasn’t until my “universal smackdown” at the age of 35 that I realized how unsustainable that life was. While I was an essentially “healthy” adult woman by conventional standards, I reached a point of losing all reserve. With 2 small children, a home to manage, and a job to tend to, I was bone tired and in pain. More than just lack of sleep or overwhelm, my body had shut me down.
I felt lost. And frustrated. I had family and work I loved, but I was burned out and exhausted, and nothing I knew from my conventional medical training could help me. I couldn’t fix myself.
My New Path of Life, Health, and Medicine
This period of struggle led me to intensive exploration of Functional Medicine, nutritional biochemistry, core systems biology, and body-mind healing. Gradually I healed myself.
I profoundly changed the way I ate, giving up food irritants (like sugar, gluten, and dairy) and intensifying nutrition (protein, fats, and micronutrients deficient in my previous eating strategy). I put more emphasis on sleep and creating work-life balance that suited my needs. I dove deeply into reducing stress and nourishing my spirit through journaling, meditation, time in nature, and yoga.
Key to my healing was giving myself permission to put myself into more of a priority position in my own life. No longer could I put myself last—after my family, clients—everyone! And I had to let go of others’ expectations of me as a mom, a physician, a friend. I had to define my own priorities, values, and expectations. These were foundational to recovering my energy.
My Strong Core Sustains Me
I was able to strengthen the core of who I was. Not just who I was as a person, but the core of my energy and wellbeing. From this place of strength, I’ve been able to better manage new challenges to my health and wellness as they’ve come along—unexpected injuries, surgeries, and constellations of problems for which my conventional medicine colleagues have had no answers.
I’ve not only survived, but thrived, taking on new challenges (like writing my first book!) and experiencing a deeper joy in life than I ever thought possible.
To do this, I had to become the expert on me. And create a new lens to see my problems—one that sees the connections, the individual nuances, and takes me deeply into the complexity of it all, not trying to “fix” with a magic bullet. For this I’ve had to stay vigilant with reverent self-care every day.
Beyond relying on myself, I also had to learn to ask for help. In doing so, I created a team to help me—an amazing team of healers who have stepped up for me, see me as the unique person that I am, who love and support me, and have helped me heal. Oh, yes, it takes a team sometimes!
What Healing is All About
But it’s all worth it. Every bit of it. Because this journey of self-discovery has led not just to the energy I need to feel my best, but to the life energy that sustains my soul—the curiosity that leads me to spectacular places, the people (and dogs) I get to love and feel loved by, the work and play that give me joy … all the elements that nourish my life’s purpose.
This, to me, is what healing is all about.
My Healing Changed My Medicine
My Life School learning about how to heal has deeply influenced how I practice medicine. While my early roots in conventional Western biomedicine provided tools and a foundation for how I practice medicine even today, they were wholly insufficient to address my own complex needs and those of the many people I’ve worked with suffering with chronic complex illness.
I’ve had to learn, define, and create a new medicine. A medicine inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind principles, and wisdom gleaned from my clients’ transformational healing journeys over the past quarter century.
How I Demystify Chronic Illness
My work with clients and intensive study of the medical literature over the past 25 years has led me to a new way of understanding chronic illness. A critical new way of thinking about human beings and how we operate that demystifies chronic illness.
First and foremost, being ill is not a character flaw. It’s not something that’s wrong with you.
And, as we now know from twenty-first century human health science, illness is not your destiny.
Illness is a Story of Hope
As flattened as you may feel, illness is actually a story of hope—of your great untapped potential.
When you’re ill, your body is doing precisely what it was designed to do within its unique set of circumstances.
You’re Not Broken
It works like this:
When illness occurs, what’s happened is a collision between your unique genetics, your lifestyle, and the environment within which they all exist.
The response of your body to that collision—to that unique gene-lifestyle-environment relationship—is utterly precise, elegantly orchestrated, and meaningful. Not just a random train wreck.
So, no, you are not broken. You’re just not getting what you need to heal.
Epigenetics: The Science of Human Potential
This gene-environment relationship is the science of epigenetics—the science of human potential. No longer does the “illness is my destiny” story hold up to the scrutiny of science.
The epigenetics story of illness is one of hope. It puts our healing right into our own hands.
We can change our lifestyle and environment to change gene expression—to reverse illness.
Epigenetics: the Promise We Can Heal.
Epigenetics is the science of how our genes are expressed (and lead to our unique structure and function) depending on the environment they’re in. Everything from how we sleep, eat, and move, to how we think, feel, and love will affect our gene expression.
Therefore, all illnesses we can possibly experience are modified by what we do to nourish the healing environment: food, movement, sleep, stress, love, our thoughts, our feelings, our sense of safety, and so on.
And most chronic illnesses are reversible by creating a healing environment in which we can thrive.
This story of hope is our human story. It’s our potential to heal that sits squarely in our own hands.
What Do You Need to Decode Your Healing?
You need mentors (like me), fellow travelers (we’re all healing with you), and a roadmap with directions that you choose based on where you are and where you want to be. Not a one-size-fits-all protocol manual, but a nuanced roadmap to show you the bird’s eye view of the terrain of your healing. A roadmap that knows your path won’t look like everyone else’s but will be unique to your strengths and challenges.
This is my job as a physician. To hear your story. To show you the roadmap. To help you decode your healing and find your unique path to find it. To help you decode the illness-to-gene relationship. To help you answer the question: what do I need to heal?
How Do We Heal?
We carefully observe the story of our illness. We ask our bodies to show us the root causes and the directions we must go to heal.
Our health is always a simple balance between two things—what nourishing things do we need to thrive and what toxic things do we need to get rid of? So, we ask 2 essential questions of our illness story.
Our 2 essential questions of the illness story:
- Are there unmet needs stalling our healing (nutrients, sleep, movement, love, feeling safe, and so on)?
- What must be gotten rid of to unleash healing and vital energy (infections, allergens, toxins, bad habits, toxic emotions, and so on)?
It’s Not Simple
This is not simple. No, this is work. But it’s the work of your healing—the work of your life. You are complex. It takes time. And there are no magic bullets anyone can promise you.
But this is the only path to sustainable healing. It’s the only path to the energy, vibrancy, and untapped potential that we all really, ultimately, seek in our healing.
This work of our healing, though hard, is what allows us to glide sometimes … it creates the energy we need to thrive and experience the miraculous lives we were born to live.
The Beauty in Illness
The beauty of this work is how we’re called to a healing life.
Illness is our call to discover and live a healing life. Not a quick fix. Not to slap a band-aid on our problems. But to create changes in our lives that are lasting and lead to the deepest level of healing and energy.
Thought of in this way, illness becomes our wakeup call. Healing is what happens as we step up, claim our power, and take responsibility for our own healing.
Illness is a Story of Hope
Illness is a story of hope. Always. And it’s accessible to us all.
More About Karyn
Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician, teacher, and author of Heal—A Nine-Stage Roadmap to Recover Energy, Reverse Chronic Illness, and Claim the Potential of a Vibrant New You.
Karyn believes that health and vitality are essential for the highest expression of our human potential and that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves. During over twenty-five-years of medical practice she has helped thousands of clients with chronic illness to heal, and to regain their hope, their energy, and their life’s potential. Listening passionately to their stories while fully engaged with her own life-school of learning, Dr. Shanks has developed The Nine Domains of Healing roadmap that synthesizes what she has learned to be true: that healing is always possible, that it is within everyone’s grasp, and that it ultimately comes from within.
Whether working with clients suffering from debilitating disease, or those who feel there is more and want to feel like themselves again, she shares her extensive knowledge and experiences in a way that is approachable and leads clients into change that is doable. Guiding, teaching, and cheering on her clients (also kicking them in the butt when necessary!), Karyn is a mentor who connects with people and reminds them of what is possible.
Dr. Shanks received her medical degree from the University of Chicago and completed her training in Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa. Board certified in Internal Medicine and Functional Medicine, she is also a founding diplomat of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine. She will say, though, that her greatest teacher has been Life School, the profound lessons she has learned as a person, a physician, and a patient herself. She has integrated those lessons with the science, cultural wisdom, and experiential knowledge gleaned from her extensive work.
She is the founder and director of The Center for Medicine and Healing Arts in Iowa City. She is sought out nationally as a healer by her clients and as a mentor by Functional Medicine practitioners. In addition to numerous articles in the Huffington Post, Holstee, Thrive Global, and others, as well as her own weekly blog and email series “Dear Ones,” she is also the author of Big Energy: How We Reclaim Our Health, Our Vitality Our Lives, Let Go: The Nine Domains of Healing, Part One, and Love: The Nine Domains of Healing, Part Two.
Karyn lives in Iowa City with her husband and dogs. She is most proud of her two sons, beautifully launched and landed in their own lives. She loves her many playgrounds—the woods, gym, yoga studio, her back deck, and her writing room.
Contact her at [email protected].
Join Karyn and like-minded seekers of vibrant health in her exclusive Facebook group, Grit and Grace. This is where we share the hard work of self-care: our struggles, insights, and our stories.