Lifestyle Medicine: The Change We Need
A lot of people say “age is just a number”, while others fear the passing of time and the effects of aging on our body and mind. But, what if we could stop the clock, or maybe age more “youthfully”? Lifestyle medicine might be the answer.
And how about those headaches, stomach problems, skin issues, or random pain we have for no apparent reason, that turns out to be diabetes, hypertension, or another chronic condition? Yes, lifestyle medicine can help with that too, because it is a holistic approach that works to treat the actual causes of our diseases, and not only the symptoms.
The National Library of Medicine defines that specialty as “the systematic practice of assisting individuals and families to adopt and sustain behaviors that can improve health and quality of life”.
Its roots go back thousands of years ago. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates suggested that in order for someone to have good health, they should avoid eating excessive amounts of food and try to exercise even a bit. Precisely, a patient’s diet and physical activities are two of the six pillars of Lifestyle Medicine.
Lifestyle Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine
While the doctors we are used to meeting at hospitals and medical centers are trained to diagnose and treat symptoms of a disease, a physician with a lifestyle medicine background will focus on the underlying causes of the illness and look to natural, science-based treatments and prevention rather than just prescribing medication.
In this alternative, the doctor is the coordinator of a health professional team, while the patient should be an active partner in his own care, and will have to make changes to his lifestyle. The treatment is usually long-term and emphasizes motivation and compliance.
Experts agree that lifestyle medicine is very patient-centered and allows people to control their own health after changing bad practices in their life, focusing on nutrition, physical activity, stress management, healthy relationships, and other core principles.
6 Pillars of Lifestyle Medicine
Going back to the bases of this specialty, let’s talk about which elements of our daily life can have an impact on our health.
As we stated earlier, nutrition is one of the key elements of this specialty. Lifestyle physicians consider food as medicine, therefore, the better quality items that go into our body, the better the entire machine will run. In today’s world, what can we do to have a healthy diet? Maybe eliminate processed foods, refined sugars, and any triggering ingredients and eat more vegetables, fruits, and organic products in general.
Regular, consistent exercising also has tremendous benefits for our body and mind’s well-being. Experts recommend dedicating a minimum of 30 minutes daily to physical activity to improve our mental and physical health. Countless investigations show that switching up sedentary practices for more active ones improves blood flow, spurs weight loss, and reduces high blood pressure.
The Dalai Lama once said “A calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that’s very important for good health”. Managing negative stress can reduce anxiety, depression, and immune dysfunction. If we adopt practices like going to therapy, talking to a friend, meditation, art classes, or yoga, among many others, we can help our mind and body. By reducing stress, a person will see a dramatic improvement in other health issues like hypertension, high blood pressure and also prevent unhealthy practices like addiction to food or substances.
Avoiding risky substances
We are constantly exposed to dangerous and addictive substances, such as alcohol or tobacco, among others. Consuming these two excessively has been shown to increase the risk of chronic diseases, infertility, and death. Research from the National Institute of Drug Abuse shows that people with addiction usually have one or more associated health conditions, including lung or heart disease, cancer, stroke, or mental disorders. For example, tobacco smoke causes many cancers, methamphetamine is associated with severe dental problems, and inhaled drugs may damage or destroy nerve cells, either in the brain or the peripheral nervous system.
Sometimes we underestimate how beneficial for our well-being is a solid night of sleep. According to the CDC, adults should sleep 7 to 9 hours every night. The lack of rest after a long day of activities can throw off our entire system, dropping our energy levels and making us prone to unhealthy behaviors, like eating sugary foods for a quick energy boost. A good sleep routine will help us reset our minds, reduce stress, and regulate our appetites.
Positive Social Connections
Last but not least, we have our social environment. A positive circle of friends and loved ones has incredible effects on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. To achieve that, experts recommend improving current relationships, increasing social connections, and releasing toxic relationships based on unhealthy behaviors.
Each and every one of these elements can improve our life by itself, and also be a powerful tool for healthcare professionals to work with their patients and change their lifestyle. It’s not about prescribing a pill, but to heal the person from his or her unhealthy behaviors.
Experts believe that lifestyle medicine can address up to 80% of chronic diseases, and has the potential to arrest the decades-long rise in the prevalence of chronic conditions and their burdensome costs.
The financial burden of health
Usually, alongside the concerns about our health problems, comes worrying about our finances. Recent data from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows that chronic disease places a gigantic economic burden on both individuals and the healthcare system.
In the U.S. accumulated chronic and mental health conditions are responsible for 90% of the $3.8 trillion annually spent on healthcare, and the effects of non-communicable chronic diseases along with their associated medical costs have been cited as a frequent cause of bankruptcy in the country.
The latest National Health Interview Survey Data found that 41% of adults with diabetes reported financial hardship due to their medical bills. People with type 2 diabetes have to pay approximately $16,750 yearly in medical expenditures.
On the other hand, experts consider atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease the most expensive chronic disease, not only from a total healthcare cost standpoint, but also for individual costs, which tend to be over $2,000 annually out-of-pocket per individual with insurance.
These are just two cases inside the spectrum of chronic health problems. Imagine how much money and resources can be saved by changing our bad habits with the help of a Lifestyle Health specialist.