Autoimmune mom Donna Jackson Nakazawa was tired of being sick. Her kids were growing up and preparing to go off to college while she was just trying to survive each day. A task as seemingly simple as taking the laundry up the stairs required several minutes of horizontal recovery time, knees bent, waiting for quivering legs to quiet.
Determined to get better, to joyfully help her kids grow up, Nakazawa’s amazing road to healing is detailed in her incredibly thought-provoking and eye-opening new book, “The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life” (Hudson Street Press, $25.95).
The book details Nakazawa’s yearlong path to happiness and healthfulness. “I set out to invite the reader to a different place of inner wellness. We need to do that every day because we are never totally there,” she says.
Nakazawa had spent a lifetime battling multiple autoimmune and other disorders, including small-fiber sensory neuropathy, pacemaker-controlled vasovagal syncope (a fainting and seizure disorder), pancytopenia (low blood cell count), Von Willebrand disease (lack of sufficient blood clotting) and thyroiditis. She’d been hospitalized and paralyzed twice with Guillain–Barré syndrome, which left her with nerve damage, muscle damage and spasms.
Nakazawa had had enough. Like any parent, Nakazawa’s instinct was to help her kids succeed, to be a loving, understanding and effective parent. But she also knew that in order to be there for her teenage son and daughter, she had to help herself first. “Before we can do anything for anyone in our surrounding lives, we have to understand the critical importance of our own reactivity,” she says. She knew she had to feel good to be a good parent. “Parenting is more joyful when you don’t react,” she says, because reaction causes heath-endangering stress.
So after years seeing multiple doctors, of trying different diets, treatments and medications, she had a life-changing meeting with an insightful and respected Johns Hopkins doctor. The doctor carefully examined her thick file and asked an unexpected question, “Did anything happen in your childhood that could have contributed to all this?” Stunned and wondering how the doctor had guessed, and what something that had happened decades ago had to do with her current health problems, Nakazawa answered “yes” — her beloved father had died unexpectedly when she was 12, and her mother had plunged into a deep grief that left the pre-teen girl largely on her own.
Nakazawa, an award-winning science journalist, was fascinated when her doctor went on to describe adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), a scientific breakthrough that demonstrates that kids who had experienced traumatic events in childhood often have lifelong recriminations from those traumas, including serious and chronic health disorders that can surface many years later.
Nakazawa, being the reporter she is, immediately began to research the ACE phenomenon, fascinated as she learned more.
She was willing to try just about anything to get her health back, and be the parent she knew she could be. However, she says, “I would have done it even if I never had kids. Whether we are a parent or not, we owe ourselves joy.”
Nakazawa and her doctor decided to try to find a path to healing by addressing the trauma she suffered as an adolescent, many years before. Could healing her mind — confronting and understanding those childhood traumas —also heal her body?
“We understand that ACEs change how the brain reacts for life,” she says. But mindfulness offers us an opportunity to reprogram our brains, she says, to become less reactive, less stressed out. Less stress equals less wear and tear. “Stress is within our control because we can control how we react to it,” she adds.
She and her doctor plotted a year-long course of healing, where Nakazawa would combine psychotherapy with other mind-body therapies. Leaving her medications, supplements and other factors unchanged, they worked out exactly which remedies they would try. “We had pages of ideas to pursue,” such as hands-on healing and laughter, she said, but ended up selecting treatments for which the existing scientific evidence was solid. She and her doctor settled on as meditation, yoga and acupuncture in addition to the psychotherapy.
With a scientific methodology, Nakazawa began with the mind—meditation, mindfulness and psychotherapy—and progressed to the body: yoga and acupuncture. Each phase, added to the previous, amazed her and her physicians with its healing power.
As the end of her year-long foray approached, Nakazawa sat down with her doctor and was astonished to discover how much better she felt. Her blood work, compared to baseline studies done before her healing process began, showed astonishing improvement.
Looking back at the notes taken before she embarked on her journey, she was amazed at how badly she had felt, and dazed at how far she’d come, and astonished by the impact her ACEs had had on her health.
Not all autoimmune disorders in all people can be explained by ACEs, of course, she says. “Life can come in all kinds of packages. Not everyone with autoimmune or other chronic conditions suffers from ACEs. However, statistically, it is more likely, and biophysically it makes a lot of sense. We understand that chronic stress influences our system the same way environmental stresses do.”
Nakazawa is grateful not only for her improved health, but also for the learnings she has gained along her path toward healing—learnings she can share with her children.
“We owe this to our kids. The life that is ahead of our kids is not going to be easier than the life we had. Rates of chronic diseases are going up. The world is full of great challenges. Our job is to help them react to those challenges,” she says.
The esteemed author and lecturer emphasizes that, today, she is not cured but that she is healing. “I’m so grateful to be feeling so well. I get up the steps and I’m so grateful. I do more good things for myself. I take more walks with my dogs. I take more time to do mindful breathing,” she says. “The balance of good days to bad is completely different. I’m in a place where the majority of days are good days.”
Nakazawa is the author of the award-winning “The Autoimmune Epidemic” and “Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?” and she is working on a fourth book.
About the Author
Gretchen Heber is an autoimmune mom and entrepreneur with more than 15 years of experience in online media. She has also worked with several daily newspapers across the United States, serving as a graphic designer, writer and editor.