How Autoimmunity Changed My Practice of Medicine

Doctor Cynthia Li's Journey with Autoimmunity

Up until my early 30s, I was living life at the fullest: traveling abroad for 6 months with my husband, working full-time in a primary HIV/AIDS clinic, and committed to living more sustainably. I was exercising regularly and eating a diet of mostly organic low-fat foods. The world was full of wonder and possibilities. Living life forward, I believed I was healthy. With hindsight being 20/20, I now realize I had underlying imbalances for many years already – subtle symptoms I either disregarded or pushed beyond, signs of mounting inflammation and physiological stress.

At 34, I had my first child, followed by postpartum thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition with the same pathophysiology as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I followed the usual course of seeing an endocrinologist and taking medication. My thyroid hormones normalized, as they often do in postpartum cases, but fatigue and dizziness persisted.

I was still functional, so in my doctors’ and my own opinions, I was doing well enough. At 36, a second pregnancy threw me into a state of severe, escalating symptoms no one could decipher– not my primary care doctor, various specialists, my acupuncturist, nor myself. I was housebound for 2 years, wallowing as a patient who was either (a) untreatable, or (b) unvalidated by the very medical community I trained in. I spiraled in a vortex of debilitating autonomic dysfunction, multiple food sensitivities, chronic fatigue, among others.

In my beginner’s mind, I wasn’t even convinced some of these conditions truly existed.

I was forced to take a medical leave. It took me 2 years to realize it wasn’t a new direction I needed, but an entirely new roadmap.

My SVHI presentation summarizes the paradigms I explored, from traditional Chinese medicine to evolutionary biology to environmental health to functional medicine. I tell the medical history, assessment, and evolution of my illness and healing journey through the framework of functional medicine, and the difference between how I was trained and how I understand health now. Autoimmunity changed my life and practice of medicine.

Key Points:

  • Acupuncture stabilized my autonomic nervous system enough so I could do some research on my own.
  • Neural retraining changed my core belief from that of a “sick person” to someone who could indeed get well.
  • My family, especially my children, sustained me during periods of utter darkness.
  • Ancestral diets not only taught me how to heal my gut, but how to connect with my food, connect with the larger ecosystem outside myself.
  • Removing gluten, dairy, and soy in the longer-term reduced my autoimmune response.
  • Identifying key nutrients like magnesium, antioxidants, vitamin D, active folate/B12 that my body needed to repair itself.
  • The intentional practice of pleasure further rewired my brain and dampened inflammation.
  • A grief ritual helped me befriend my grief, my shadows.
  • Forgiveness of myself, discovery of “essential” or true self removed an existential stress I didn’t know had been there since early childhood.
  • Qigong integrated the elements of mind-body-spirit of the above healing modalities.
  • Writing a memoir gave me insights to the beauty that surrounded and sustained me all along.

More About Dr. Li

Cynthia Li, MD, is a Bay Area clinician who practices internal and functional medicine.  Dr. Li did her medical training at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Her practice centered around public and environmental health, with a focus on underserved communities. She worked in the HIV/AIDS division of Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, volunteered with Doctors Without Borders at the first dedicated HIV/AIDS clinic in rural China, worked as a general internist and taught UCSF medical residents at San Francisco General Hospital and at the St. Anthony Free Medical Clinic in SF’s Tenderloin district. She has practiced functional medicine since 2012 and is a member of the American Board of Internal Medicine and the Institute for Functional Medicine.

To reach Dr. Li and learn more, please visit:

Take good care!

P.S: Want my help reversing an autoimmune condition?

If you live in the continental U.S. and are ready, willing, and able to invest in your best health, I offer Functional Medicine Total Health Transformation Programs over Zoom in collaboration with a skilled naturopathic doctor (ND). Get on my calendar for a free 30-minute discovery call.




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