Despite throwing tons of money at the problem, Americans really are sicker than ever. Chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, anxiety and depression are wreaking havoc with our minds, bodies and bank accounts. Our “one ill—one pill” solutions are expensive, and frequently associated with adverse effects.
What to do?
For my part, I engage families every day, counseling about lifestyle prescriptions that include nutrition, fitness, rest, and stress-coping mind-body strategies. While my patients trend towards the greener, more holistic variety (as I’m sure do all you MBG readers), I find I’m revisiting the same themes in my quest to helps folks create a healthier life.
So here they are, the top 10 things I wish every American knew about health. Spread the word and put me out of business. I’ll happily spend more time doing yoga.
1. Prevention trumps treatment. Most people go to the doctor to fix a problem, and in many cases, these problems are chronic. Every doctor will tell you that it’s safer, more cost-effective and, simply easier to prevent a condition rather than treat it. All the major health issues we see – heart disease, diabetes, cancer – are much more amenable to preventive lifestyle strategies (nutrition, exercise, rest and mind-body medicine) than to expensive, quick-fix medications. Whenever possible, I recommend to my patients what I call the “Rx Life Solution,” prescribing wellness strategies such as gardening, yoga and meditation in place of costly and risky medications.
2. Real food is real medicine.
The original holistic doc, Hippocrates, said it best: “Let thy food be thy medicine.” There are more health promoting factors in a bowl of berries than in any drug on earth. What else has the power to prevent cancer, heart disease and diabetes? Real food, not processed pesticide-ridden GMO chemicals pretending to be food. Locally grown organic fruits and vegetables provide micronutrients that keep your body and brain in balance. Better yet: grow and prepare your own food. Take time to enjoy it. Eat together, sitting down, as a family or with good friends. Food has the power to nourish your body, mind and soul.
3. You have to unplug to recharge. We are a go-go-go culture. We multitask to exhaustion and massively overschedule ourselves and our kids. Chronic sleep deprivation is one of the greatest risk factors for depression, especially for teens. Remind your kids - and yourself - it's OK to stop. Create quiet, calm places to pause, both at home and at work. Schedule downtime. Feeling irritable when you shift from screen time to the real world? Back away from your devices and unplug. Your brain will thank you. Reducing mobile tech time will also limit your EMF and radiation exposure.
4. You can’t eliminate all the stress in the world… but you can develop better coping skills.
As much as we’d like to banish stress from our lives, it’s not going to happen. Accept this fact and spend your valuable time stocking your stress-coping toolbox with mind-body skills. The best methods to protect yourself from the toxic effects of stress are all related to cultivating mindfulness – the ability to pay attention to the present moment without dwelling on the past or future. Not sure where to start? Check out the Tree of Contemplative Practices and pick something, anything. Like to move? Try Vinyasa yoga or just dance til your hair sweats. Craving stillness? Explore Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a form of meditation. Feeling creative? Start a daily journal or take up sculpting. The beauty of mind-body medicine is that it only requires one person (you!) and it's cheap, available, safe and very effective.
5. Time spent in nature is not a luxury, it’s a medical necessity. Very few interventions have as great a power to heal the mind and body. So I frequently prescribe nature. It’s proven to positively affect mood, focus, energy level and stress response with no risk of severe adverse effects. Sign me up! While more Americans than ever live in urban areas, we still have access to green spaces. Go visit your local park or nature center to experience what author Richard Louv calls the "transformative power of the natural world." While you’re at it, don’t let our schools continue to eliminate free outdoor playtime. Too many are replacing recess with more time sitting at desks, and our kids are suffering from an epidemic of NDD – Nature Deficit Disorder. Stop the madness.
6. You don't have to choose between conventional health care and alternative medicine. I find that many families come to see me because they feel trapped between the worlds of conventional health care and alternative medicine. The good news is: you don't have to choose! The beauty of integrative medicine is that we use what is safest and works best. Period. We draw on the traditions of Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and Native American herbalism, but we don’t abandon conventional remedies when needed. Whether it’s acupuncture or surgery, or herbals or antibiotics, we decide together what’s best for you. I realize not everyone has access to an integrative practitioner. It’s why I wrote my book, Treatment Alternatives for Children. Side by side, you can review the top scientifically-based conventional and natural options for common conditions and consider what makes the most sense for you.
7. Good relationships are vital to your health.
Often overlooked in the quest for better health is the crucial role of relationships. Studies have shown that social support – surrounding ourselves with those who love and nurture us – can immunize us against depression, cancer and heart disease. How so? Stress is toxic, and healthy relationships blunt the impact stress has on our health. In fact, new research shows that social support can actually reduce inflammation, the root cause of many chronic illnesses. Additionally, the bond you have with your health care practitioner can be incredibly restorative. I'd argue that a positive, honest connection built on mutual trust is as necessary for healing as any prescribed treatment.
8. Going green just might save your life. Do you really need more reasons to make your life more eco-friendly? Maybe you’re trying to convince a skeptical friend or family member. Here’s some ammunition to make your case: Published studies find that increased use of chemicals in our cleaning products at hospitals and rampant overuse of antibiotics in farm animals are leading to superbugs with phenomenal resistance to all known antibiotics. As my work with Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center has taught me, an entire hospital can be safely and effectively cleaned using green cleaning products – and so can homes, schools and workplaces. You can even make a cool DIY all-natural hand sanitizer from a few essential oils, aloe vera gel and water that will save you money – and your health.
9. Germs are our friends. Yes, some bacteria are harmful, but not all. We coexist peacefully with billions of organisms that help us maintain a careful health balance for our gastrointestinal and immune systems. When this delicate balance is disturbed by exposure to antibiotics or in the increasing number of babies born via C-section (not exposed to normal vaginal bacteria at birth), we are at higher risk for allergies, obesity and diabetes. Thankfully, we have an answer: probiotics. Literally bugs “for life,” when given to pregnant women they can reduce the likelihood of allergic disorders and obesity in their babies years later. Eat more fermented foods with live active cultures and avoid cow’s milk yogurt if you’re dairy-sensitive or vegan; instead opt for a high quality dairy-free supplement.
10. Real change is hard work… but it’s worth it.
“Change is good” was the mantra in the late 1990’s yet we’re still struggling with long-term, sustainable changes in health care. On a personal level, I want you to know, above all that, yes, change can be good, but the changes worth making are hard work. The health you desire is proportional to the effort you put in. Altering long-standing unhealthy patterns of eating, sleeping and exercise take time and commitment. But it's the only thing that works in the long term. I’ve seen it time and time again – quick weight loss and maximum intensity workout programs often lead to illness and injury. Instead, invest in working with a health practitioner or a coach who will partner with you to take the slow but steady steps towards optimal health.
Lawrence Rosen, M.D., is an integrative pediatrician and co-author of Treatment Alternatives for Children. He is the founder of the Whole Child Center, one of the country’s first green and integrative pediatric practices, and he serves as Medical Advisor to the Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center. Lawrence’s academic credentials include positions as past Chair of the AAP Section on Integrative Medicine, Clinical Assistant Professor in Pediatrics at UMDNJ, and author of numerous articles and book chapters on integrative pediatrics. He is also the pediatric columnist for Kiwi Magazine and blogs for the Huffington Post.