Interview by Susan Clark.

DR JOLENE BRIGHTEN is a woman on a mission and that mission is to change the way we talk about women’s health – especially our hormones. With her new book, Is This Normal? being published in the UK next month, we discover what makes her so relatable that she has over 400,000 Instagram followers, and what makes her so passionate about natural health.

Before our interview, I am sent a formal document — a kind of guide, if you will — about how to interview Dr Brighten. This is the first time in too many years to count since journalism school I’ve been guided on how to chat with someone for a profile piece and I am not sure what to make of it.

At the very least, by the time we get to our allocated interview slot which is first thing in the morning for Dr Brighten who is based in the US and after lunch for me, I am not sure what to expect, which makes it even more of a delight that the good doctor – Doctor Disruptor as I’d quite like to call her – is a veritable breath of fresh air.

I thought I spoke quickly but I’m a laggard compared to Dr Brighten who is chatting at the speed of one of those Japanese bullet trains (320 km/hour, apparently). I love it. Because far from being stuffy or formal, she is one of the liveliest people I have ever interviewed and so passionate about naturopathy and helping people to optimum health, the 3000-mile gap and vast ocean that separates us (never mind the culture) closes instantly and I am putty in her formidable healing hands.

Dr Brighten likes to tell it like it is which is probably why she has such an enormous following on social media. She tells me her two superpowers are as follows: (1) she is relatable and (2) she likes nothing better than to take complex science, especially of the hormone-related variety, and turn it into content, spoken and written, that anyone can grasp.

Her first book, Beyond The Pill, tackled the practically taboo topic of the repercussions of prescribing synthetic birth control (hormones) to women of all ages and pretending there would be no long-term repercussions.

Published in February 2018, it offered a 30-day program supporting women transitioning off the pill, tackled the thornier topics of moods, fertility, periods and lost libido. In other words, here was a health practitioner finally willing to put their head above the parapet and tell not one but several generations of lost (in the health sense) women how to reclaim their own bodies.

Next month sees the UK publication of Dr Brighten’s eagerly anticipated second book, simply entitled Is This Normal?

“It’s the single biggest question and the one I get asked in my clinic the most,” she says by way of explaining the book’s name.

But before we dive into what we can expect from this latest offering, let’s go back – way back – to where Dr Brighten’s interest in health started and discover more about how she found her way to being one of the most respected naturopathic practitioners in the US and here.

We’ll start this exploration with a young child, who at the age of just eight, decides she wants to be a pharmacist when she grows up. Yup, a pharmacist!

“I had a friend whose mum was a pharmacist, and she would talk to us about the plant compounds that were used to make medicines, which I thought was the coolest thing. So even then, in childhood, I was fascinated by the marriage between the natural world and science,” she recalls.

Dr Brighten is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who made a new life in California and so she was also the first person in her family to go to college – eventually. I say eventually because she explains how, at the age of 17, she ‘tested out’ of school so she could find work and meet her family’s expectations.

She landed a job as a dental assistant and at the age of 20, encouraged by her dentist employer who recognised just how smart she was, made a plan to go to college and train to be a dentist herself.

And this is where her story becomes one where sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction, because there she is, all ready to study dentistry, when a dog bites her on her right (dominant) hand and damages her ring and little finger so badly, there’s no way she will be able to wield those instruments that your dentist uses, closing down that pathway as a career choice.

Still keen to study, Dr Brighten decided instead to first study organic chemistry and then take a Masters in nutrition.

“I was blown away by the idea that what you eat becomes you, which I understood was a really important health message that needed to be shared and so I would give talks about nutrition in local health stores near my home,” she explains.

Again, fate, if you will, took a hand in what happened next. Dr Brighten was giving one of those nutrition talks when a woman who described herself as a naturopath interrupted to tell her she had it all wrong and that all anyone needs to get and stay healthy is an enema and regular colonics.

“Of course, the woman was a fraud representing naturopathy that way but if she hadn’t come to my talk and spoken the way she did I wouldn’t have gone home to research what she had said and then discovered naturopathy for myself,” she says.

Now in her 11th year of practice, Dr Brighten is a born disruptor. Far from seeing herself as someone who ‘fixes’ or ‘heals’ her clients, she talks about the importance of teaching people how to heal themselves and I’m pretty sure that’s just one of the reasons her followers love her – she’s all about empowerment and especially, when it comes to their bodies and their health, the empowerment of women.

“I discovered that doctors withhold information from patients all the time which, combined with the fact most people only go to the doctor when they are sick, and are not encouraged to think about their health any other time, is very disempowering. I want to have the conversations that will change that.”

Dr Brighten is also not a fan of hectoring.

“We can encourage and show people how to shape their own health but not by only talking about what not to do: don’t drink, don’t smoke. How about the things they are doing that are good for their health and doing well? Why aren’t we talking about those things?”

In some ways it is solely down to fate that Dr Brighten has so much to say, share and teach about hormonal health, because even as she started her training to be a health practitioner, she thought she’d specialise in gut health. She’d suffered from digestive problems as a child and only later in life discovered she’d had a Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection which was responsible for her sickness and symptoms in childhood, including heartburn and gastric problems that she remembers as being “horrific”.

But when she began to study hormones and realised she could easily make sense of the hidden biochemical pathways that these compounds take in the body, seeing ‘patterns’ that many of her fellow student naturopaths struggled to understand, she had what she describes as an epiphany, and knew this would be her future.

“I can easily see patterns in chemistry that others just don’t see and so for me, hormones are just sexy,” she says.

In decades of health writing and reporting, I have never heard any health practitioner – or any of their clients/patients – describe hormones as sexy. I grew up overhearing women of a certain age talk about ‘The Curse’ and periods were something to be endured.

“It seems to me women’s medicine is something that is done to them, not with them, and this needs to change.” Dr Brighten suggests. “I remember hearing stories of traumatic births among the women in my own family and so I think for too long, women have not been listened to.

“We need to pay a lot more attention to women’s health and the conversations that currently take place on this topic are conversations I want to disrupt in a big way! The most important thing is to have the conversation and that’s what both my work and my books are about.”