The World Health Organization estimates that, “by 2020 two-thirds of the global burden of disease will be attributable to chronic non-communicable diseases, most of them strongly associated with lifestyle.”
We are experiencing an increasing epidemic of life-style related health problems from obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, stroke, substance abuse and cancer.
Extensive research has shown that many of these chronic diseases associated with aging can be prevented and treated by adopting a healthy lifestyle. For example, 91% of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus are caused by unhealthy habits over a number of years. Being overweight increases the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus by 300%. The poorer our lifestyle habits the greater our risk of developing a debilitating disease.
Lifestyle changes make it possible to delay the onset of chronic disease by learning to adopt healthy habits that address nutrition, exercise, relaxation and rest, stress, emotional health and relationships. These changes not only prevent disease, but also increase longevity and good health. A healthy lifestyle can be defined as a pattern of positive personal behaviours that promote health and well-being, while preventing chronic disease. A healthy lifestyle is possible to sustain over years and needs to steer away from fad diets, excessive exercise and quick fixes. Consistence and moderation are key components of a healthy lifestyle.
Lifestyle medicine is not restricted to the adult or aging population, and is becoming increasingly more important with the increase of obesity, metabolic syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in children and young adults. Contributing factors like a sedentary lifestyle, with little or no exercise, hours spent in front of computers or television screens and an oversupply of fast food with little nutritional value, are the main reasons for this 21st century phenomenon.
Relatively simple lifestyle changes that include eating more whole foods and less processed foods, staying physically active on a daily basis, losing weight and learning to manage stress better can help patients to avoid medications for hypertension, chronic inflammatory conditions and to reduce risk of strokes and heart attacks.
Eating a diet rich in micronutrients with enough healthy proteins provides our cells with the building blocks to make plenty of neurotransmitters including dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which help keep us balanced and happy. Addictions to sugar, nicotine and other recreational drugs are all symptoms of a society craving for sustainable solutions to find more happiness and fulfilment.
Physical activity is another key component of a healthy lifestyle. Moving our bodies regularly has all kinds of benefits; from lowering the risk of diabetes and heart disease to improving mood and enhancing libido. Exercise has been shown to be as effective as anti-depressants for mild depression and anxiety, with even longer-lasting effects. A daily form of movement or exercise is a healthy habit that supports bone and muscle health, lower stress levels, improves cellular oxygenation and improves overall circulation.
Disrupted sleeping patterns prevent natural healing and balancing of many systems in the body. During a healthy sleep cycle, our body releases hormones to accelerate healing, for example melatonin and growth hormone. Inflammation in the body is reduced, detoxification takes place, and damaged tissue is repaired while new cells are being formed. Recent studies have shown that insufficient sleep increases the risk of several common cancers, including breast cancer.
A lifestyle management program also aims to address stress-related disorders that contribute to the development of chronic diseases. Chronic stress stimulates the release of cortisol in the body, also called the stress-hormone. Over a longer period of time cortisol suppresses the immune system with the possible development of immune related problems. Chronic stress also slows down metabolism, increases fat storage in the body with the typical belly fat that is hard to shed. In lifestyle medicine patients are educated, supported and empowered to incorporate stress management techniques that stimulate the relaxation response in the body. This can include deep breathing, visualization, mindfulness and meditation.
Lifestyle changes are an integral part of an integrative approach to health and well-being and should always be part of the prescription for good health.