By Dushyant Viswanathan, MD | November 2, 2011
Over the past 100 years, we have seen the progressive advent of chronic medical illnesses such as systemic atherosclerosis, cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, and metabolic syndrome that is directly concordant with increasingly unhealthy lifestyles. Specifically, I refer to high stress, sedentary habits, and the ingestion of processed foodstuffs high in animal fat and synthetic chemicals. Every chronic illness we see today can be linked to the unhealthy lifestyle. Even with respect to cancer, only less than 5 percent of cancers are purely genetic in origin; the remainder is caused by damage to genes from insults that come from outside of the cell nucleus. Therefore, the theme of this column is to discuss essential aspects and emphasize the importance of the healthy lifestyle.
The healthy lifestyle is no secret to humanity nor to physicians; it has been the indubitable and reliable source of healing for thousands of years, and has been discussed by our ancestors and their physicians. Hippocrates said, “Walking is man’s best medicine; leave your drugs in the chemist’s pot if you can heal the patient with food.” More recent experts are in agreement. Dr. T.Colin Campbell of Cornell University has compiled a considerable amount of data attesting to the toxic effects of a processed meat and dairy rich diet, and the therapeutic benefits (unequalled by any medication) of a plant-based diet. Dr. Dean Ornish of the University of California, San Francisco has published data in numerous journals detailing how a comprehensive healthy lifestyle can not only prevent illness, but also reverse prostate cancer and ischemic cardiomyopathy.
Yet the majority of allopathic physicians rely almost exclusively on pharmaceutical drugs to treat medical illness. Simply put, this is colossally inadequate. Patients who receive care from allopathic physicians rarely heal, they become progressively sicker, and increasingly turn towards alternative and complementary forms of medicine: indeed the wellness industry has now blossomed into a trillion dollar industry.
My thesis is that the healthy lifestyle should be the first line treatment for any illness, and should be the first line of prevention for anyone who is headed for illness. In addition to having more substantiating data than any therapeutic modality known to mankind, the healthy lifestyle is exactly the lifestyle practiced by humans for millennia. Ingestion of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, fresh lean meats, being highly physically active, responding to stresses but not holding onto the mental impressions of those stresses thereafter, a sense of belonging to one’s social network as well as to one’s land, a healthy emotional life, and a sense of spiritual connectedness, continued learning even into one’s elder years, and perhaps most important, a sense of having a purpose in one’s life, are all components of the healthy lifestyle that will be explored here and in future essays.
Pathophysiologically all of this makes sense: to survive, the human organism must have healthy organs and tissues, including bloodstream. The buildup of toxins, remodeling hormones, inflammatory cytokines, heavy metals, and free radicals have been shown to be etiologic in the pathogenesis of most chronic illnesses plaguing our brethren today. These substances lead to disease at the cellular level, and DNA is frequently damaged. This is why there are alarming rates of increased cancer incidence in the world today, significantly increased compared to even a few decades ago. This is explained because as a species we have moved away from the healthy lifestyle espoused by our ancestors, the lifestyle essential for existence as a human being.
Sociologically and from a systems perspective, this makes sense as well. Major companies are realizing this and incentivizing their employees to quit smoking and practice the healthy lifestyle. Insurance companies should also fix premium rates according to lifestyle issues (especially now that pre-existing conditions cannot be a reason to deny insurance). Hospital administrators should institutionalize the healthy lifestyle, as it has been proven repeatedly to be the best method for healing chronic illness. A healthier person is less likely to be medically expensive, and even a very sick person who has acutely improved lifestyle and diet is less likely to have complications than a comparable sick person who has not made such changes. A simple and inexpensive method that can be done now is to change the food given to patients in hospitals and nursing homes. The only food that should be served in such settings is plant-based, whole-grain diets with no dairy or meat.
It is common sense, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t so common. This necessitates the writing of this essay. I write this with an extraordinary sense of urgency. As an internal medicine specialist working in an urban American hospital, all I see are diseases related to lifestyle. These diseases are not managed adequately by most physicians who simply prescribe pharmaceutical drugs. People are getting sicker, more depressed, and have a worsened quality of life when chronically ill. Medicare expenditures are rising in a failing attempt to meet this crisis. It is finally time to pay attention to the obvious. We must make comprehensive lifestyle changes the cornerstone of healthcare today.