Lifestyle medicine: How doctors are prescribing behavioral changes to reverse illness

Study Finds
5 Min Read

When doctors treat for health instead of disease, it’s called lifestyle medicine, and it has become a specialty within the field of medicine.

The American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) defines lifestyle medicine (LM) as “a medical specialty that uses therapeutic lifestyle interventions as a primary method to treat chronic conditions, including, but not limited to, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity.” Lifestyle medicine clinical providers are trained and practice the application of evidence-based lifestyle changes to treat, heal, and often reverse disease conditions.

Originating in 2004, this relatively new specialty is based on what are called the six pillars of lifestyle medicine: nutrition, physical activity, stress management, restorative sleep, social connection, and avoidance of risky substances. Let’s take a closer look at these pillars:

  1. Whole food, plant-based nutrition

There is copious scientific evidence supporting the use of a predominantly plant-based diet as an important strategy to prevent chronic disease, treat chronic conditions, and even reverse chronic illness. This type of diet is nutrient-dense and rich in fiber. To follow such a diet, choose a variety of minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

  1. Physical activity

Consistent, regular physical activity fends off the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle. It is essential for adults to both move their bodies in general activity and purposeful exercise at least weekly as part of overall health.

  1. Stress management

Stress can lead to improved health and productivity, or it can lead to anxiety, depression, obesity, immune dysfunction, and more adverse consequences. Recognizing negative stress responses and identifying coping mechanisms and stress-reduction techniques lead to improved well-being.

  1. Avoidance of risky substances

Use of any form of tobacco and alcohol consumption increases the risk of chronic disease and death. Treatments take time, a variety of approaches, and multiple attempts to eventually achieve success. Patience and support are vital elements to halting risky substance habits.

  1. Restorative sleep

Sleep delays and interruptions cause sluggishness, short attention span, decreased sociability, less deep sleep, fewer calories burned during the day, increased hunger, decreased feelings of fullness, insulin resistance, and impaired performance. Strive for seven or more hours per night.

  1. Social connection

Enriching social connections and relationships powerfully affects our mental, physical, and emotional health. Harnessing the power of relationships and social networks reinforces healing behaviors. The most important predictor of human happiness and long life is having strong social connections (which is why I elaborate further below). Blood pressure and heart rate improve even with brief, upbeat social interactions. The following tips may help you create and nurture important connections in your life:

How to form new social connections

  • A community resource center can provide information about local options for connecting with others.
  • Find community or online groups of those who share the same interests.
  • Join a religious or spiritual group.
  • Help at a local animal shelter to connect with other animal lovers.
  • Local sporting events, music performances, lectures, or art displays are places to meet others with similar interests.
  • Help organize community events by joining a committee.
  • Attend community celebrations like parades or walks.
  • Take courses at a community college.
  • Attend classes or events at your local library.
  • Volunteer – helping others improves the health of the helper, increases happiness, and introduces you to new people.

How to strengthen social connections

  • Try to quickly connect with people you see often during the week.
  • Try to stay positive while connecting with others.
  • Share new experiences.
  • Create ways to spend time with others.
  • Be there for those who need you.
  • Be flexible, supportive, and interested in what others are doing in their lives.

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