Once perceived as the domain of medical experts tasked with keeping us healthy and disease at bay, the realm of personal healthcare has expanded. It now includes broader definitions, more integrated, preventive approaches — and, perhaps most important, us.
Most of us give little real thought to our health until it falters. We want to live our lives the way we want to live them, and then when our poor choices catch up with us and begin to impact our health and vitality, we want a doctor to fix us. Even then most of us prefer conventional medicine’s quick fix approach of ‘take this to treat that’ over the alternative of making nutritional adjustments and adopting a healthy lifestyle. What few realize is that symptom suppressing drugs allow the underlying condition to progress and your health to further deteriorate. In most instances you aren’t treating the underlying cause of your health issue, but rather masking those symptom(s) which are currently presenting. While palliative care is important, if that’s all that is provided you may weaken and soon you’ll need stronger and additional medications. Eventually, surgery may become necessary.
The problem is it is far more difficult to regain your health once it’s lost and this is the underlying principle of preventive medicine. It’s also a principle that’s being embraced by a growing number of people and institutions these days, in large part because our high-tech pharmaceutical and surgical attempts to treat and “cure” the results of unhealthy lifestyles have proven painfully inefficient, ineffective and expensive, from both an economic and human perspective.
The problem is it’s far easier to maintain good health than to regain it once it’s lost and this is the underlying principle of preventive medicine
In recent years, we’ve dumped record amounts of money into “fix-me” healthcare strategies, only to see rising levels of chronic diseases – particularly those related to poor nutrition and sedentary, stressful lifestyles.
The result: According to a population study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, today, for the first time in history, the current generation of children is predicted to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
The effects of obesity-related diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer, are expected to more than offset anticipated gains from medical advances in the next few decades.
Put another way: Our current approach to health is failing and we appear to be on the verge of a major shift in the duration of life in the United States. This is a public-health disaster, and we’ve brought it on ourselves.
Considering this, it’s no wonder, that the calls for proactive life-style change, preventive medicine and “consumer-directed healthcare” are growing louder. And we, the consumers in question, are responding and taking a more proactive approach to our health and wellness.
People are joining health clubs, taking yoga classes and meditating at unprecedented rates. Health-and-fitness related books and organic foods are flying off the shelves at stores, pod casts and blogs on health and wellness related topics are proliferating online, and we’re adopting diets and lifestyles that include grass-fed meat, raw, vegan gluten free, organic, non-GMO and Paleo. Parents are demanding better health-and-fitness education and more wholesome lunches in their children’s schools. And Americans are exploring alternative therapies in record numbers – even when they have to pay out-of-pocket. (According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, more than a third of U.S. adults have used a complementary or alternative therapy in the past year.)
In short, a growing number of us are taking a greater interest in (and responsibility for) bettering and maintaining our own health and that of our families and loved ones. Instead of acting as passive recipients of healthcare – reactively managing diseases and symptoms as they arise – we are becoming more actively engaged in the process of improving, protecting and sustaining our own health and wellness.
Something Ventured, Something Gained
In the process of engaging and investing in our own health, we are learning a great deal. We are expanding our understanding of how our bodies work, and the factors that either support or erode health and wellness. We are seeing that while genetics may predispose us towards certain conditions, our genes don’t determine our health and rather personal lifestyle variables (such as nutrition, physical activity, stress and proper sleep) are often the deciding factors in our risks for disease – and our opportunities for vitality.
And yet, even as we embrace the notion of personal responsibility, we’re discovering that our health is also profoundly influenced by a network of larger social, cultural and environmental circumstances over which we may have limited individual control.
Suddenly, we’re thinking about how agricultural and industrial trends – as well as current food policies – might affect our ability to eat as well as we’d like.
We’re interested in how our culture’s lack of time and space for daily physical activity might be influencing not just our fitness, but our cognitive health and general well-being.
We’re becoming more aware that polluted water, air and soil can undermine even our best attempts at safeguarding our health.
We are also becoming less willing, individually and collectively, to tolerate the massive costs and waste associated with the current approach to healthcare – an approach so weighted toward clinical disease and symptom suppression that many have dubbed it “sick care”.
Today, perhaps more than at any other time in history, our culture is engaged in a redefinition of what it means to be healthy, and a rethinking of the priorities on which both our personal and collective health depend. So here, with a view to supporting that redefinition, are four areas ripe for reframing: food, activity, environment and healthcare.
As a nation, we’ve done a considerable amount of thinking about how the aggressive marketing of unhealthy processed foods (and unhealthy food portions) have played a major role in creating our obesity epidemic.
While our love affair with both junk and fast foods may be far from over, it does seem that a great many of us are participating in a sort of mass consciousness-raising about how our collective food culture may be influencing our personal and collective well-being.
No where is this more apparent than in the exponential demand growth for healthful and natural foods, particularly those free of harmful additives and produced in environmentally sustainable ways. U.S. sales of organic food have increased by nearly 20 percent each year since 1990 and now total over $43.3B, while conventional food sales have seen a mere 2 to 3 percent annual growth over the same period. Most major grocery stores, including Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco have added organic food sections. And some of the nation’s largest food producers, has begun manufacturing organic products.
Interestingly, even as mass-market players are developing a taste for more nutritious and natural foods, many consumers are becoming more intrigued by the benefits of local and artisanal whole foods – the kinds produced by people, not mega-corporations. Interest in local farmers’ markets, fair trade products and community-supported agriculture (CSA) groups has expanded substantially in the past several years.
Last year, Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006), a lengthy and well-researched tome that tracks our food on its journey from source to plate, became a surprise bestseller. His essay “Unhappy Meals,” appeared in The New York Times in January and was voraciously read and widely forwarded – despite its 12-page length.
For the first time in a long time, the most popular and influential dietary-advice books are all advocating for more or less the same thing: a natural, whole-foods, plant-based diet based on variety and balance – not caloric or macronutrient wizardry.
From: “If it looks good and tastes good, I’m in… particularly if it’s fast and/or cheap (or it claims to be ‘low-cal’).”
To: “I’d like healthier, more wholesome choices to be easier and more accessible. I’m looking for better nutritional quality from the foods I put on my plate and preferably organic non-GMO, and I’m willing to pay for it because my health and the health of my family is worth the investment.”
We now know that a sedentary lifestyle leads not only to excess weight, but also to a variety of serious health problems and disease risks. In a groundbreaking 1989 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at the Cooper Institute (a division of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas) found that even minimal rates of exercising can reduce the risk of dying from any cause by 58 percent! Since then, a variety of studies have confirmed that exercise can improve mental clarity, mood, immunity, hormonal balance, quality of life and general vitality.
By now we’ve also all heard that sitting is the new smoking and that it will kill you even if you exercise. There’s really compelling evidence showing that when you sit for extended lengths of time, disease processes set in that independently raise your mortality risk, even if you eat right, exercise regularly and are fit. Physical inactivity has been identified as the fourth-leading risk factor for death for people all around the world, according to the World Health Organization. Prolonged sitting, meaning sitting for eight to 12 hours or more a day, increased your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 90 percent, cardiovascular disease by 64 percent, prostate and breast cancer by 30 percent, uterine cancer by 66 percent, and lung cancer by 54 percent. After 10 to 20 year of sitting for 6 hours a day, you may have lost up to 7 years of quality adjusted life years, that is years without medical issues or death. Download a pdf. poster on the health hazards of sitting.
We’re getting the message. More people than ever are joining gyms and health clubs and otherwise engaging in physical activity, with their long-term health in mind. A 2015 national consumer study conducted by American Sports Data Inc. found that the total number of U.S. health-club members had climbed to a record high of 53.3 million people – a 25.3 percent increase since 2005. More of us are participating in running, spinning, biking, walking – and, of course, yoga. In 1998, 5.7 million Americans practiced yoga. Yoga Journal’s second annual “Yoga in America” survey suggested that that number leapt to 36 million in 2016!
From: “Exercise is for fitness buffs and those that are obsessed with their physical appearance. I’m too busy to work out.”
To: “Activity is an essential component of well-being and quality of life. Moving feels good, improves cognitive function, improves stress tolerance and wards off disease – so I make it a priority!”
We can do a lot of things right, however, if we’re drinking toxic water (filled with fluoride, chlorine), inhaling polluted air, cooking with nonstick cookware (that includes polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE), aka Teflon and also used as water, stain and grease repellents for food wrap, carpeting, furniture, and clothing.), and eating processed foods that are full of chemicals and additives as well as food grown in compromised soil or treated with toxic herbicides and/or pesticides, we’re unlikely to enjoy a high level of vitality. The connections between environmental health and personal health are becoming clearer all the time.
Tap water is teeming with toxins. The Environmental Working Group found over 140 contaminants in tap water. In addition, over the past few years, studies have shown that pharmaceuticals, like prescription and over the counter drugs, are being found in tap water. Some of the most common drugs found in water are: antibiotics, anti-depressants, birth control pills, seizure medication, cancer treatments, pain killers, tranquilizers and cholesterol-lowering compounds. Many bottled waters have been shown to be just as bad as tap water often include additional toxins such as BPAs that leach from the plastic bottles themselves. BPA interferes with our hormones. Excessive levels of BPA have been linked to health problems like cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, leaky gut, and irritable bowel.
Diminishing air quality due to coal and petroleum emissions is associated with an increase in respiratory ailments and cancers. Heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides, and industrial chemicals jeopardize our health by entering our water, air and food supply, then lodging in our cell tissues. Concerns about the neurological impacts of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) are also becoming more pronounced as our homes are now wireless and our cell phone networks have become increasing more powerful.
Thanks to better coverage of such issues by the mainstream media, more of us are becoming aware that our health depends not just on our personal behaviors, but also on the larger physical and cultural environment in which we exist.
The doctors of tomorrow must understand that health is not just described in terms of the physical and emotional health of the person. Health should be defined in the broadest possible terms. A healthy human must have a nurturing physical, social and economic environment. Since the environment will increasingly affect human health, ecosystem health must be a critical part of our future doctors’ training.
We need to be knowledgeable about the environmental issues affecting our health and advocate for a healthier environment.
From: “I have little control over the pollutants in my environment and whether they make me sick, so what’s the point of trying to change the way I’m living?”
To: “My health and the health of the environment are directly connected. I want to drink clean water, breathe clean air and eat food grown in clean soil. That’s why I’m choosing greener, more sustainable, eco-friendly and energy-efficient products.”
Drive through any city, even small towns, and you’ll see alternative health clinics specializing in functional medicine, chiropractic, nutrition, acupuncture or naturopathy.
So-called alternative healing modalities aren’t really alternative anymore. These practices – often based on time-proven methods of preventive medicine – have become mainstream.
And there’s good reason for this. Healthcare consumers, providers and policy makers are all quickly waking up to the fact that conventional Western medicine – with its dependence on long-term pharmaceutical use and expensive interventions – is not serving the real needs of a population (and economy) in the throes of a chronic-disease crisis. In response, some of the best established medical institutions and most respected health experts are advocating for change – and making it happen.
The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) in Gig Harbor, Wash., is among the most promising beacons of hope on this horizon. Established in 1992, and overseen by an impressive collection of leading medical minds, the IFM (www.functionalmedicine.org) is committed to reeducating and reorienting medical professionals along more integrated, patient-centered lines – in keeping with the very best established science. Their clinical approach: identifying and addressing the root causes of complex, chronic disease in a specific individual, then resolving causal imbalances (not just isolated symptoms of those imbalances).
What this means, practically, is that functional medicine seeks not just to diagnose maladies and apply various prescribed treatments (such as symptom-suppressing drugs), but rather to sleuth out the underlying health challenges that those problems are expressing – all with the end goal of returning a patient to optimal health and vitality, not just managing his or her disease state.
Functional medicine concerns itself with “the unique interactions among genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors influencing both health and complex, chronic disease.” Looking at a patient with a skin rash, a digestive problem and joint pain, for example, a doctor of functional medicine would start by investigating whether there might be an underlying, common factor (such as inflammation) in all three conditions.
Then, rather than attempting to treat the three inflammatory problems separately, or simply dosing the patient with anti-inflammatory drugs, he or she might (through lab testing and inquiry) go looking for the root cause of the inflammation (such as a food sensitivity or intolerance, leaky gut, stress or heavy-metal toxicity).
Once the cause or causes are determined, the doctor would then work with the patient on removing or neutralizing those causes – whether through nutritional and lifestyle adjustments, conventional medical treatment, alternative treatments, or all of the above.
Over 80 percent of the disease and dysfunction problems in this country are chronic and complex. Conventional medicine needs to expand its repertoire and better address these chronic, complex diseases – and functional medicine can help it do that.
Similar integrative approaches are being considered and increasingly embraced by a variety of medical institutions and organizations, many of which recognize that for individual behaviors to change, they will have to be directed and supported by new organizational, cultural and methodological paradigms.
What this means for regular folks: Choosing a healthy lifestyle, and getting helpful support with that, is likely to get a whole lot easier. And the more of us who demand higher-quality healthcare and better outcomes, the more likely we’ll be to get them.
From: “If I get sick, I’ll just go to the doctor and take the pills they give me. If the pills don’t work, there’s always surgery.”
To: “I’m in charge of building and maintaining my health. I want to start taking steps toward sustaining my good health, now. I want to work with expert partners who care about me, who can help me understand all the factors affecting my health and wellness, and who are invested in helping me achieve my highest expression of health and regain my vitality.”
Partners on the Journey
Clearly, as individuals, we have a great degree of control over many aspects of our health. But some components of our healthcare and the quality of our environment require collective action.
With the medical profession, business leaders and government all beginning to see the advantages of a more holistic, integrated and empowered approach to health, there’s no better time for us to begin the journey on our own personal path to well-being.
You can start by actively working to develop a healthier lifestyle, by thoughtfully researching your healthcare options, and by seeking out the rapidly expanding set of health-supporting resources that are right in front of you. There’s a better way of life on the horizon – and it’s moving closer all the time.