What is lifestyle medicine?
Lifestyle medicine is an evidence-based therapeutic intervention that primarily focuses on empowering behavioural choices in the domains of whole-food nutrition, movement, restorative sleep, stress reduction, enhancing social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing and minimising exposure to harmful addictions and toxic environmental substances.
Put another way, lifestyle medicine is a multi-modality, whole-systems approach to preventing, treating and reversing chronic lifestyle-related diseases, through the modification of personal choices, behaviours and habits and by affecting social, cultural and environmental change. Lifestyle medicine is the foundation of conventional medicine.
Why is lifestyle medicine vital?
For decades, chronic disease has been the largest cause of death and illness across the Western world. Sadly, it is our lifestyle choices that are mostly affecting us. Diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity, hypertension, sleep apnoea, dementia, depression, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis are leading causes of poor health in both genders. They were virtually non-existent only a few hundred years ago. They are also largely preventable and treatable with lifestyle change and improvement.
Lifestyle medicine addresses the root cause of conditions.
Other less dramatic and life-threatening lifestyle-related conditions are equally preventable and treatable with this kind of approach. Conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome, insomnia, pre-menstrual tension, peri-menopause, painful periods and irritable bowel syndrome to name a few, lend themselves to holistic, non-drug interventions. And because it’s lifestyle, it not only works, but it’s safe, cost effective and a lot of fun!
Making behaviour change can be challenging as old habits can be hard to break. Because of this, there is so much research available that helps us understand the drivers of our behaviour and how we can sustain healthy change. These include honest self-reflection, developing a growth-oriented mindset, understanding our triggers, and what influences our choices and behaviours. Other factors such as confidence and motivation also play a role. As we all know, changing our behaviour is not always simple, with factors such as practicality, making it easier to change, and understanding social and cultural influences all play a role in helping or hindering our decision making processes.
Lifestyle medicine is a holistic approach to making positive behaviour change the central player to our medicine. By understanding our own behaviour, and finding ways to feel empowered, wilful and motivated, we can all do what we truly desire. If we want better health, we have to choose it, we have to work towards it, we have to want it.
The 8 domains of lifestyle medicine are:
- Food and Nutrition
- Physical activity and movement
- Restorative sleep
- Environmental health
- Reduction in addictive substances/behaviours
- Mental wellbeing
- Emotional wellbeing
- Social wellbeing
- Spiritual wellbeing
As well as being an evidence-based health intervention, lifestyle medicine is fast becoming a global movement to help change the fabric of our current health systems. It has the power to transform communities, healthcare, aged care, society, and will even have an impact on environmental issues. It also has great potential to tackle health inequality and social injustice seen in those who may be marginalised by poverty, language barriers and disability.
Looking at the evidence
“Lifestyle as medicine has the potential to prevent up to 80% of chronic disease. No other medicine can match that.” - Dr David Katz
Chronic and lifestyle-related conditions are responsible for around 70% of deaths worldwide, putting pressure on an already strained healthcare system. 85% of all older adults have at least one chronic health condition! These are the conditions that can’t be cured by medication or a round of antibiotics. The other major issue is that many chronic diseases tend to have the same underlying root cause: chronic low-grade systemic inflammation. So, when someone has one chronic illness, they are more likely to develop another. What’s more, our healthcare system is rapidly becoming unsustainable under the strain of this epidemic.
Prevention is often the gold standard in healthcare, and rightly so, but unfortunately due to entrenched bad habits, lower health literacy and other socio-economic factors, it’s challenging to make prevention a priority.
Lifestyle is a primary foundational therapeutic tool that we all have the power of utilising to the best of our ability. We can learn to use the knowledge, evidence and skills to transform a lifetime of illness into a lifetime of health. By focusing on the less dangerous chronic disease states: the ones that are often found in younger people (PCOS, IBS, PMT, tension headaches), we can utilise similar principles to not only prevent the other dangerous chronic health conditions, but to treat these debilitating conditions as well.
We are no longer enslaved to the diagnosis. Lifestyle intervention is an empowering approach that can help treat one condition and at the same time prevent another. This universal approach is holistic and empowering. This is the power of lifestyle medicine, versus targeted medications. The power of working on the whole as compared to working on isolated issues, leads to genuine health enhancement, such that complex interwoven health issues can be incredibly transformed.