Lifestyle Medicine: Evidence-Based Practices for Your Well-being

Modern medicine requires a change. Healthcare spending is increasing year on year, and life expectancy is increasing to go with it. Yet, at the same time, 6 in 10 Americans have a chronic disease diagnosis, such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease, and 4 in 10 have two or more, according to the CDC. So, while people may be living longer, fewer of those years are healthy ones. The idea that prevention is better than cure is more relevant than ever. In this article, we’ll explore lifestyle medicine, what it is, and if it can answer the most pressing questions posed by modern healthcare.

What is lifestyle medicine?

According to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, lifestyle medicine is an approach that uses “therapeutic lifestyle interventions as a primary modality to treat chronic conditions including, but not limited to, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.”

In simpler terms, lifestyle medicine focuses on daily habits and behaviors, such as healthy eating, regular exercise, and stress management, to complement traditional medical approaches, including pharmaceutical treatments when necessary, for managing long-term illnesses. Rather than replacing medications or medical procedures, lifestyle medicine emphasizes the power of everyday choices to improve health alongside conventional care.

How are lifestyle medicine and conventional medicine different?

Lifestyle medicine is a proactive, evidence-based approach to address the root cause of disease before it arises by helping people adopt healthier behaviors. The most common chronic diseases, according to the CDC — cancer, diabetes, and heart disease — are largely driven by preventable risk factors, including smoking, low physical activity, poor diet, and excessive alcohol intake. Lifestyle medicine aims to reduce or stop these behaviors entirely, with the patient playing a more active role in their health journey.

Conventional medicine is reactive in its approach to patient care, though it shares many of the same principles as lifestyle medicine. This means the focus is more on addressing the symptoms and signs of a disease after it has arisen, with drug-based treatments and hospital-based tests. In conventional medicine, patients rely on their healthcare provider to guide them on treatments, although they can take an active role, too. Conventional medical approaches remain crucial in situations such as emergencies, infections, and trauma.

How are lifestyle medicine and holistic practice different?

Lifestyle medicine uses an evidence-based approach, focusing on interventions like diet, exercise, and stress management to prevent and treat chronic diseases. The holistic practice also uses many of these interventions, but it expands beyond the physical to emotional, spiritual, and environmental well-being.

Holistic practitioners may use a broad spectrum of therapies ranging from traditional to alternative. So, while lifestyle medicine operates within the evidence-based realm of medical practice, often in conjunction with conventional medicine, holistic practice steps into a broader, more diverse realm, sometimes incorporating practices without the same level of evidence.

What are the core components of lifestyle medicine?

Lifestyle medicine is divided into six pillars — whole-food, plant-predominant eating patterns, physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances, and positive social connection, which, when applied, can treat and even reverse conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

All pillars of lifestyle medicine are interconnected, and optimizing all of them in a treatment plan can result in improved health. For example, to improve sleep, it’s worth noting that stress management and avoiding risky substances such as alcohol may improve sleep quality.

Plant-based nutrition

This pillar is the nutritional cornerstone of lifestyle medicine, emphasizing a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. It advocates minimal consumption of processed foods and animal products, focusing on nutrient density and variety to prevent and reverse chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Physical activity

This pillar prescribes a mix of aerobic, resistance, flexibility, and balance exercises to enhance cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, body composition, and flexibility. Physical activity has many benefits to physical, social, and emotional health. Regular physical activity is beneficial in slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s as well as in preventing and improving risk factors for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and hyperlipidemia.

Restorative sleep

This pillar highlights the importance of sleep hygiene, aiming for 7–9 hours of restful sleep per night. Quality sleep is vital for health and well-being. Good sleep supports the body’s immune and repair processes, and poor sleep is linked to an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and depression.

Stress management

This pillar recognizes the role of stress in disease, which has been implicated in the development of multiple conditions, including heart disease, depression, and obesity. Effective stress management involves strategies like mindfulness, meditation, deep-breathing exercises, and time management, and addresses it through techniques that improve emotional and mental resilience.

Avoidance of risky substances

This pillar emphasizes the benefits of living a substance-free lifestyle to prevent cancer, liver disease, and other health issues by eliminating tobacco, limiting alcohol intake, and avoiding other harmful substances.

Positive social connection

Social relationships influence health outcomes, and this pillar promotes engaging in supportive, meaningful relationships and community involvement. In an analysis of over 140 studies published in PLOS Medicine, researchers found that people with stronger social relationships had a 50% higher chance of survival.

What are the possible benefits of lifestyle medicine?

On an individual level, lifestyle medicine is a proactive way of managing health. Many people wait until they are unwell to see a doctor, but lifestyle medicine aims to address the root causes of ill health before they have manifested. Additionally, lifestyle medicine interventions aim to avoid, where possible, the use of drugs when lifestyle changes can effectively manage or improve conditions, reducing the need for medications.

Beyond the individual, lifestyle medicine could benefit healthcare and society as a whole. Preventable, chronic diseases that are related to unhealthy lifestyles are the leading causes of death and illness and account for the majority of money spent on healthcare. With healthcare expenditure increasing year on year, lifestyle medicine offers a cost-effective solution.

Who is the right candidate for lifestyle medicine?

Lifestyle medicine is suitable for everyone seeking to improve their health, particularly those with or at risk for chronic conditions. Because it involves lifestyle changes, the ideal candidate is one willing to actively participate in their health care by adopting healthier habits.

Can lifestyle medicine help with chronic diseases?

Lifestyle medicine can be particularly effective for preventing, treating, and even reversing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Research published in The Lancet has shown that type 2 diabetes can be put into remission through weight loss, although subsequent studies have shown this may be difficult to achieve and maintain, which underscores the importance of prevention.

By addressing the lifestyle factors that contribute to these conditions, patients can often improve their health outcomes significantly without solely relying on medication.

Lifestyle medicine offers a proactive approach to health. While it's not a one-size-fits-all solution and won’t replace conventional treatments for everyone, it introduces a complementary path that could lead to reduced chronic diseases and healthcare costs. Balancing this approach with traditional medical care may offer a more comprehensive healthcare strategy, ensuring we live lives that are as healthy as they are long.

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