When you get sick or suffer an injury, it’s reassuring to know that reliable, compassionate healthcare is on hand. But what if you could prevent a range of diseases and conditions from ever developing, or manage chronic conditions to reduce their impact?
That’s the basis of lifestyle medicine: Promoting daily choices that boost overall well-being and health. The American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) defines this practice as “…a medical specialty that uses therapeutic lifestyle interventions as a primary modality to treat chronic conditions.” These conditions include but are not limited to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity-related illness.
Throughout history, humans have utilized food, sleep, physical activity, and even recreational activities as medicine for body and mind. Current research from the late 20th century to today supports that these factors, along with other lifestyle choices, create a fundamental foundation for fitness and wellness.
Lifestyle medicine is largely split into six pillars of focus. Each of these has impacts of its own but implementing improvements in all these areas encourages a holistic increase in overall well-being.
Eating a diet rich in micronutrients and fiber while low in saturated fats is associated with multiple health benefits. Recent studies suggest that adopting a plant-based diet focused on legumes, nuts, and seeds could lower the risk of developing heart disease and strokes. Reducing sugar intake lowers the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes and could also decrease inflammation levels.
Moving your body regularly is a core pillar of lifestyle medicine. The benefits of regular physical activity include a lower risk of cardiovascular conditions, improved muscle and bone mass, reduced risk of osteoporosis, and a better mood.
Getting good sleep is vital for focus, balanced mood, weight management, pain management, and a range of other health concerns. A lack of sleep is linked to increased risk factors for depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions.
Stress has physical effects on the body that contribute to chronic illness. Too much cortisol (a stress hormone) can cause inflammation and lead to conditions like heart disease. Actively working to reduce stress and learning coping mechanisms benefits overall health.
Using alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs are associated with unhealthy lifestyles. Avoiding harmful substances greatly improves holistic well-being and reduces the need for healthcare interventions to treat chronic diseases.
Developing connections and community are vital aspects of the lifestyle medicine philosophy. Positive relationships help fight loneliness and bolster mental health, while increasing opportunities to engage in physical activity. Meaningful relationships can boost the resilience of an entire community.
There are many scientific articles that support the positive benefits of lifestyle medicine. For example, over 10% of the American population has diabetes, with 95% of this number suffering from type 2 diabetes. Diabetes can be deadly, and can also lead to amputations and other complications. Yet evidence shows that type 2 diabetes is not only treatable, but preventable and possibly reversible via lifestyle choices. Making the most impactful lifestyle changes could be as effective as bariatric surgery (also known as stomach bypass surgery or weight loss surgery) without the potential negative side effects.
For those with type 2 diabetes, the primary intervention is change in diet. The expert consensus is that dietary changes, with the support of therapy and medical advice, could reverse the disease and even lead to total remission.
Related reading: What is Insulin Resistance?
Nutrition and lifestyle changes also have impacts on obesity and heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends a low sodium, low sugar diet with a focus on replacing saturated fats with “good” fats such as nut, fish, and avocado oils. Studies show that avocado oil reduces LDL and VLDL levels, the cholesterol types associated with heart disease, as well as triglycerides that contribute to arteriosclerosis—the hardening of artery walls.
The science is clear that diet, increased movement, and other lifestyle changes maximize the body’s ability to fight disease and stay resilient.
Conventional medicine tends to take the approach of waiting until there is a health concern and then treating it. Lifestyle medicine works to improve holistic well-being to prevent the onset of chronic conditions.
Integrative health approaches today combine the benefits of lifestyle changes with required medical interventions and therapies. So rather than considering lifestyle medicine vs. traditional medicine as competing practices, medical professionals and patients should see them as entirely complementary to each other.
Small, regular changes are the key to implementing lifestyle medicine strategies. These may include:
- Setting a sleep routine or improving the sleep environment
- Seeking help with smoking cessation
- Reducing alcohol intake
- Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
- Swapping out sugary snacks for vegetables
- Taking up a new sport or hobby to meet new people
Behavioral modification and healthy choices are closely connected. When individuals focus on the thoughts and feelings that lead to behaviors associated with risky substances, for example, they can seek help to address the cause of the behavior as well as the symptoms. This could be addressed via cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Other behavior change models include the transtheoretical model which addresses stages within the process of a behavior from precontemplation through to maintenance of a habit.
Here at Brevard Health Alliance, we know that it’s vital to have caring, professional medical professionals on hand when you or a family member gets sick or has a health concern. We’re also highly invested in improving the overall health of our community, and lifestyle medicine has a key part to play in that. Awareness of diet, nutrition, sleep patterns, and regular movement provide a foundation for well-being, while conscious choices to avoid dangerous substances and make connections with others build up from that foundation.
Brevard Health Alliance works with patients across Brevard County to address and treat a range of conditions, including those that can be managed or even reversed with the application of lifestyle medicine. Read our resources on controlling conditions such as prediabetes or get in touch for more advice on preventative medicine and a healthier tomorrow.