Lifestyle medicine is an evidence-based approach to preventing, treating and even reversing lifestyle-related health conditions through interventions such as nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep, alcohol moderation and smoking cessation.
This anti-prescriptive approach is novel amongst healthcare systems but is gaining credibility as growing evidence has shown that genetics only accounts for about 10% of disease risk, the remaining 90% is due to our lifestyles, behaviours and environment.
And as doctors begin looking at the role of lifestyle as medicine, a paradigm shift is taking place. If genes only account for a minor percentage of our risk for disease, our environment and lifestyle become crucial factors in whether we acquire long term health conditions. Indeed, many of our worlds’ most problematic chronic diseases can be prevented by changing our diets and lifestyles.
Some diseases commonly contracted as a result of lifestyle include Alzheimer’s disease, arteriosclerosis, certain types of cancers, chronic liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, nephritis and stroke.
These lifestyle-driven chronic conditions are spreading and fast. But the cure is not necessarily about prescribing a life-time supply of drugs to temporarily alleviate each patient’s symptoms. Lifestyle medicine is about assessing patients more broadly and the prescription of targeted, personalised interventions.
For example, randomized, controlled trials have demonstrated that lifestyle changes alone can often reverse the progression of severe coronary heart disease. Changes in a person’s everyday life can even reverse Type 2 diabetes and slow, stop or even reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer.
Studies like these are raising awareness of the power we have over our long-term health, and how potent the effects of our diet and lifestyle choices can be. The simple decisions that we make each day can make a dramatic difference to our well-being and our survival. This includes what we eat, our responses to stress, smoking, how much we exercise and the quality of our relationships.
When we become more aware of how powerfully our choices in diet and lifestyle affect us—for better and for worse—then we can make different ones. In many cases, these improvements may occur much more quickly than patients had once believed possible.
Your lifestyle is changing your genes
There is a growing body of literature highlighting how food, movement, sleep and rest affect our wellbeing, down to a molecular level.
This is especially evident in the field of epigenetics, the field concerned with how changing our lifestyle can alter our genes. Through our daily choices, we have the ability to turn on protective genes and turn off genes that promote inflammation, oxidative stress, and oncogenes that promote prostate cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer. Positive lifestyle changes also have the potential to lengthen telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that regulate aging, and this can slow aging at the cellular level.
The illnesses that come with stress
A strong example of our environment and lifestyle leading to disease is stress. When we are stressed, our bodies release powerful chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and aldosterone, which have multiple effects on the body. This can be motivational in the short term, but in the long-term, the effects are adverse.
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Heart rhythm disturbances
- Higher levels of stomach acid which can lead to stomach pain, indigestion and heartburn
- Decreased blood flow to the stomach and intestines with decreased ability to digest foods
- Muscle tension, which can lead to headache, neck and backaches
- Elevated blood clotting and thickness
- Raised cholesterol
- Raised blood sugar
- Short, shallow breathing
- Abnormalities in immune functioning
- Fluid retention
For a person with coronary heart disease, some of these effects can lead to chest pain, palpitations and sudden blockages of coronary arteries – leading to angina, irregular heartbeats or a heart attack.
Other stress- related conditions can include insomnia, sexual dysfunction, hyperactivity, ulcers, chronic headaches, backaches and high blood pressure. Worse even, on top of the physical effects, there are the psychological and mental reactions to stress, including acute and chronic anxiety and depression – especially when stress is chronic. Anger, irritability, as well as decreased concentration and memory are also well-known side effects. Numerous studies linked these emotions with an increased risk of heart problems.
Stress and its associated symptoms and reactions can also lead people to negative coping behaviours. Ironically, these coping mechanisms actually increase our stress levels and people can quickly find themselves caught in a vicious cycle. Some unhealthy responses to coping with stress include:
- Lack of sleep
- Addiction to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine
If stress is a cause for illnesses, what is the cure? There are a host of cures that taken together can boost our health, including exercise, healthy eating, social bonding, meditation and yoga to name a few – not to mention getting a good night’s sleep. In this post, we’ll touch on the health benefits of physical activity.
The health benefits of regular exercise
Regular aerobic exercise can improve your physical health and mental wellbeing in many ways, including:
- Increasing the efficiency of the heart
- Reducing the oxygen requirements of the heart during rest and activity
- Lowering resting blood pressure so that blood pressure medications may be decreased
- Decreasing triglyceride levels in the blood and increase the HDL-Cholesterol (good cholesterol) levels, making it harder for fats to build up inside artery walls
- Reducing blood sugar and triglyceride levels in the blood – so that the quantities of blood sugar reducing drugs can be decreased for those with diabetes
- Decreasing the blood’s ability to clot and stick to blood vessel walls, which decreases the risk for blood clots to block small arteries
- Increasing your ability to move, thus making it easier to perform daily activities
- Decreasing body fat and increasing muscle mass
- Increasing metabolism
- Increasing tolerance to stress by improving one’s outlook on life
- Decreasing hostility
- Increasing self-confidence and general sense of well-being
- Decreasing risk of osteoporosis
Aerobic exercise is continuous movement at a moderate to high level of intensity, for at least 20 minutes, such as swimming, cycling, walking and running. To stay healthy and mentally fit, we recommend minimising your levels of inactivity and making exercise an integral part of your daily life.
To learn more about lifestyle medicine and its benefits, please contact us with any questions or anything relating to health insurance.