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  Following Her Gut
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Following Her Gut

How functional medicine doctor Mary Pardee became the doctor she wished for when she was younger

Aric Sleeper

Mary Pardee’s path as a functional medicine and naturopathic medical doctor is paved by a desire to understand the connection between mind and body. This path has led her, among other places, to the Costa Rican jungle to sit with the sacred psychoactive plant medicine ayahuasca.

As the brew took hold, the doctor began to see some familiar faces. 

“For me, every plant medicine journey that I’ve been on, patients come into my brain,” says Pardee. “My clinical world comes in. I think that’s just me being a caretaker. My patients are always at the forefront of my mind.” 

On this occasion, one patient, in particular, came to mind—someone who was taking multiple prescription drugs for a flurry of disparate health issues. As the trip intensified, Pardee envisioned the heavily medicated patient held together with Band-Aids.

“The visual showed me that we are just keeping people held together without fixing the underlying issue,” says Pardee. “The idea is to view the whole person to get to the root of health issues, and I believe that mental health is at the root of most chronic illnesses.” 

Creating Her Own Solutions

Discovering the underlying cause of complex health issues has been a lifelong obsession for Pardee that began with her own medical mystery. Although growing up in the bucolic countryside of Westborough, Massachusetts was a magical experience for Pardee—riding horses and comforting her favorite one-horned goat, Twister—she was constantly tormented by digestion issues.

“I was poked and prodded by a lot of conventional doctors,” she says. “I had a colonoscopy and endoscopy at a young age, which, looking back, was slightly traumatic. I was put on a number of medications, but none of them worked. The symptoms would come back or I’d have side effects from the medications.”

Pardee was eventually diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. Despite it being a common disorder, there wasn’t an effective way to treat it. Finally, as a young adult, Pardee was told by a gastroenterologist that she’d exhausted all available treatment options and would have to endure the symptoms for the rest of her life. 

“I left that appointment in tears,” she recalls. “I was so disappointed with the bedside manner of that doctor, and I just didn’t believe him. I knew there was a solution. That was the point where I decided that I’d become the doctor I hadn’t found yet for myself.”

Pardee found her calling in functional and naturopathic medicine, which is a system that treats illness with the person’s physical, mental and spiritual health in mind, and compels practitioners to treat the root cause of a condition, not just the symptoms. Naturopathic doctors like Pardee try to treat medical conditions first with nutrition, herbs and physical activity, among other natural strategies, but are not averse to employing conventional medical techniques when appropriate.

“It’s a misunderstanding that naturopathic doctors are anti-medications,” says Pardee. “I prescribe medications all the time, but if I have an alternative solution that’s natural and has fewer side effects, I’ll use the alternative. It’s an integrative approach.”

After receiving an undergraduate degree in nutrition, and while still completing her doctorate in naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in San Diego, the unconventional medical student opened her own practice as a nutrition consultant and performance optimization coach for athletes. When her patients asked her for lab tests she wasn’t qualified to prescribe until she graduated, she found an alternative. 

“Thinking of it as an entrepreneur, I realized the solution was to hire a doctor,” she says. “I stepped out of the clinical role and into a business management role, and built the practice and the business from that perspective. Literally, on the day I got my license, I had a fully functioning practice.”

Pardee’s practice, Modrn Med, employs a team of doctors and consultants that specialize in gastrointestinal issues and the connection between mental health and gut health. Modrn Med is a virtual wellness practice, which means Pardee meets with patients across the country via video chat and sends lab testing equipment through the mail. 


From Gut Health to Mental Health

Through Modrn Med, Pardee also hosts live online talks to teach her patients about the relationship between physical and mental health—something that has a personal meaning for her. 

Even with her skills and knowledge as a naturopathic doctor, she didn’t completely remedy her own stomach issues until she factored in the role of mental health and got to the root of her anxiety. 

“It’s well established in the medical literature that there is a gut-brain connection,” says Pardee. “That connection comes in many forms. We have a physical connection through the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the gut. We also have the connection between the gut microbiome and the brain.” 

Problems in the gut can lead to anxiety and depression, and mental health issues can lead to irritable bowels, ad infinitum. The conversation between mind and body can turn into a lasting argument if one component is out of place, but the back and forth can also be a source of increased well-being if everything is in balance, says Pardee. 

“I am a firm believer that you have to address both at the same time to get lasting results,” she says. “That’s where naturopathic and functional medicine come in. You don’t treat the condition. You treat the person.”

Even with patients taking up most of her brain space, Pardee finds time for her own well-being. To keep her own health optimized, she weight trains five times a week, meditates daily and incorporates breathwork into her routine when she needs to feel more activated. She makes time to connect with friends or her therapist, and gives back to the community as a medical advisor for the nonprofit End Overdose. 

At the end of the day, however, Pardee finds the most satisfaction from helping people heal themselves. 

“I love when I’m sitting with my patients and they have that light bulb moment where they link their life story to their GI issues,” Pardee says. “That understanding is the first step in their healing journey, and that’s everything to me—because we’re all on the journey to become whole and uncover our authentic selves.”

Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist covering labor, drug reform, food and the arts.

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