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Lifestyle as a Medicine

We live in an instant society, with next day delivery on amazon prime, our favourite food at the tap of Deliveroo, a new pair of jeans at the click of ASOS and even the potential for dates on demand at the right swipe of tinder!

Is it any wonder that we often expect this same instantaneity when it comes to managing our health too? A conditioning perhaps of the instant world we find ourselves living in. A habitual impatience for anything that’s hard or takes time, a craving for quick fixes. Drugs and alcohol, comfort eating or shopping. Or the natural tendency to turn to medication to try and ‘fix’ every one of our health problems, even the ones so much more complex than any pill could ever offer us.  

Willing to try anything to quickly relieve the symptoms or cover things up with a plaster. Instead of being curious in understanding the root causes of our health issues, having the patience and willingness to adopt new habits and see lifestyle as a medicine.

The delusion of external quick fixes for our internal or lifestyle and environmental based health problems, is one of the biggest issues I think we face in Western society today. I read this quote recently, which hits the nail on the head ““You cannot medicate yourself out of a problem you behaved yourself into.” – Stephen R. Covey

However lifestyle changes take time unlike next day deliveries or fast track queues at theme parks.

They also take dedication and determination. Both of which can be hard to find when living in an over stressed society; one that deems the notion of slowing down and taking better care of ourselves, somehow as a weakness. A society driven by valuing success on the outside of our lives, even if it’s at the cost of our health, on the inside!

Our current healthcare system relies heavily on a medical model, when so many of our health conditions are lifestyle based. Influenced by social, psychological, envioronmental and behavioural factors. The things we do, the way that we see ourselves, the people we spend time with, the enviornments we live in and the lifetsyle choices we make (consiouslly or uconciouslly).

Even the idea of ‘problem = requires fixing’, whilst normal in our Western medical model of healthcare, could be seen as out-dated or even potentially harmful. I reflect on this, in particular, when it comes to mental health. I believe this notion of ‘you have a problem that needs fixing’ can in many ways exacerbate people’s difficulties. Viewing themselves as ‘faulty’ or ‘defective’ in some way, further adding to their low self worth and increasing anxiety. As well as increasing the belief that we can take a pill to ‘fix’ everything!

Instead we need to look at the external things that could be contributing to people’s difficulties. As well as educating people about the full human experience, which naturally includes emotional pain and suffering. If we were taught about mental health from a young age, we would perhaps be more accepting of our difficulties, rather than seeing them as “bad” or “wrong”. We would also certainly be far better equipped and less likely to reach crisis point.

A gentleman in a group that I run said to me, “my Doctor just keeps throwing medication at me and I’m just not sure this is the answer; all I really want is to be listened to and understood.”

I would argue that a lot of our health issues are caused or certainly intensified by modern day society. A non-stop 24-hour email pinging, consumerist driven, exhausted nation. Adverts praying on our tiredness and insecurities, making us believe ‘we just need this’ and then we’ll be happy or ‘we just need that’ and then we’ll feel good enough. We live in a world that our brains were not designed for. Not having been provided with any up to date manual for managing the mind; our most precious and valuable resource!  A world where there is more of an emphasis on what school grades children get, rather than teaching them how to take care of their minds.

“It is not a measure of sanity to adapt to an insane world”

– Deepak Chopra

It’s common practice within the medical model to see the ‘problem’ as the various symptoms of our health issues and then to use medication to treat these ‘problems’. But what seems to be overlooked is the ‘why’; the bigger picture and the lifestyle that these symptoms are a part of or result of. Without taking this into consideration, it’s common for our health problems to keep coming back; repetitive cycles of short-term gain but long-term pain. Another cost of treating only the symptoms is we often have to endure unpleasant side effects as a result of medication.  

I often see patients in my work in the NHS, who despite being on antidepressants, are still depressed. Or who despite being on medication to help anxiety, are still very anxious. I have personal experience of this too. This proves that medication is not the magical quick fix answer. It’s important to note that it may well have a role to play at times though but when it comes to our health (mental or physical) I think it’s vital to always consider a holistic approach. Taking into account the individual, their envioronment and lifetsyle.

Cambridge Psychiatry Professor Dr Edward Bullmore in his book ‘The Inflamed Mind: A radical new approach to depression’ says, “medicine is a conservative, highly regulated profession and that it’s not unusual for changes in practice to lag several decades behind conceptual advances in biological science.” Through my own research, books I’ve read and following with great curiosity, the work of many health and wellbeing experts; I’m seeing this ring true. There are things out there proven to help many of our health issues, which simply aren’t in our mainstream healthcare system yet. It’s perhaps also worth considering the potential motives of pharmaceutical companies, preying on our desire for quick fixes, whilst feeding into a system of ‘keeping us sick’. 

I have become increasingly interested in areas such as gut health and inflammation, the Wim Hof method, the power and science of kindness, gratitude and self-compassion (Dr Hamilton and Kristen Neff’s work in particular), the importance of nature and the health costs of our disconnection with nature, as well as the healing and transformative benefits of mindfulness and meditation (of course!).

It is these things that I believe provide hope and inspiration for our nations health crisis, one that came well before and will go on for long after the Covid-19 one!

In certain countries and cultures, there has long been much more of a focus on lifestyle as a medicine. For example in Japan it’s common practice to prescribe ‘forest bathing’ known as Shinrin Yoku, to help treat a variety of modern day health issues, such as stress and anxiety. Going along to your GP and walking away with a prescription of spending 20 minutes a day in a forest.

As well as GP’s frequently being in a rush, we as the general public are also often in a rush! With both our time and wanting an answer. It’s not within our culture to be patient. Nor is it common in the West to listen to our intuition and feel empowered by our mind and body’s natural ability to heal, given the right tools and environment. I think we fall too easily into constantly trusting figures of authority, without listening to our gut feeling! We also seem to have a tendency to succumb to the doctor/patient relationship – wanting somebody else to fix us and to have all of the answers.

I watched an incredible documentary last year called HEAL. The most memorable and ‘aha!’ moment, was how they broke the word ‘disease’ down into ‘dis-ease’. Referring to the fact that when something goes wrong in our mind or body, it’s a sign that we are at dis-ease – something isn’t happy. Explaining that if we listen to these signs and take the time to do something about them, we would start to heal. I was also astounded by the concept of the placebo effect in clinical trials; suggesting just how powerful the human mind can be. Both in making us sick and it’s ability to heal.  

Through books that I’ve read, I have also come to the realisation that there’s a whole other world of hope out there when it comes to managing our health. Each page turned, I’ve been flooded with optimism and inspiration. Just because something isn’t in our mainstream healthcare system (yet!) doesn’t mean it’s not effective or worth exploring. I am learning about so many things for our mental health that have never been mentioned to me in mainstream services or some of which have even been dismissed with an eye roll!

There is so much out there!

We only get one mind and one body and we need both of these to help us experience the very best of what life has to offer. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t take our health for granted. We never know what’s around the corner.

So where do you begin when considering lifestyle as a medicine?

I would say a good place to start is going back to the basics; sleep, nutrition and movement. The way we care for our bodies and physical health has a direct impact on our mental health. However, it’s very common in Western society to overlook the importance of these three fundamentals.  

Sleep – It’s suggested that 1 in 3 of us don’t get enough sleep, with sleep deprivation reaching epidemic levels. It’s often something within a person’s lifestyle that is impacting their ability to sleep so it’s key to explore this. On average an adult should be getting between 7-9 hours sleep per night. Apart from the obvious impact on our mood and functioning, not getting enough sleep puts us at risk of serious physical health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Good sleep has been found to help boost immunity too!

Nutrition – the all-important fuel that we feed both our mind and bodies with. It’s estimated that 36.2% of adults in the UK are overweight and a further 28% are obese. This not only puts us at risk of physical health issues but also impacts mood and mental health.

It’s also estimated that 90% of us aren’t getting enough fibre.

I for one have definitely neglected or even totally disregarded the importance of diet and nutrition at times. However, I am learning more and more about the links between what we eat and how we feel. The relatively new area of gut health and the potential links with mental health is fascinating.  

Did you know that 90% of the bodies serotonin is made in the gut?

It’s important to remember that nutrition is individual too. I used to get stomachaches on a daily basis. When I went to my GP, I was ‘diagnosed’ with mild IBS and told there wasn’t much I could do about it. Fast-forward several years later, I started to cut out a significant amount of dairy from my diet, changing to plant based milk and yogurt. My daily stomachaches completely stopped. For someone else it might be wheat that they need to reduce or cut out.

Be curious. It’s often a case of trial and error when it comes to changes in diet.

Movement – I use the word movement instead of exercise, as someone who I am sure like many, hasn’t always jumped for joy at hearing the latter! Start by just considering how much you move each day. Whether that’s going for a walk, some yoga, gardening, being up and down on your feet looking after kids, or a full on HIIT workout. It all counts as movement! Build up slowly.

In addition to sleep, nutrition and movement, awareness and a healthy dose of self-compassion are also key! It’s often our minds that keep us ‘stuck’ and impact our ability to adopt lifestyle changes. So Whilst it’s important to think about these outer areas of our lives, it’s equally as important to consider our inner lives. Our thoughts, beliefs, values and the quality of our minds.

If we’re only ever trying to change something for the validation of someone else or for a desire to fit into what we think is ‘the norm’, we will usually fall at the first hurdle. However, if we get in touch with our awareness and understand why we do what we do. As well as understand how our thoughts and feelings drive our behaviours, we are far more likely to make positive and lasting lifestyle changes.

Tap into your conscious awareness, beneath the noise of the external world.

Rather than beat yourself up for wherever you are right now with your health and lifestyle, or looking back with regret, thinking ‘what’s the point, it’s too late’, accept that you are where you are. NOW is the only time to focus on. It’s easy to fall into unhealthy habits, as a way of simply trying to cope with the often-unrealistic expectations and environments we are placed under.

Forgive yourself.

Remember, it takes time. Don’t expect to go from eating 10 McDonalds a week to 10 green smoothies (that’s our impatience taking over!) We’re more likely to give in altogether, if we set the bar too high to start with. And when you do start, expect to fall off the wagon at times! Am I trying to reduce the amount of sugar I consume, yes….do I still sometimes eat an entire packet of Jaffa cakes, yes! Does that mean I won’t continue trying to improve my diet, no! Small steps. Go slow. Go steady. Be patient.

TRUST in the process.

There are many ways in which we can all utilise lifestyle as a way of improving or even treating many of our common health difficulties. Often we search for answers to our problems on a larger scale, when actually theres so much we can do ourselves! It’s about building healthy habits, making different choices, awareness, patience, self compassion and a determination to keep going, even after we fall.

Could this be the year as a nation we ‘wake up’ to our health crisis and start seeing lifestyle as a medicine?

“Every human being is the author of his health and disease.”

The Buddha

Bullmore, E., n.d. 2018. The Inflamed mind. London: Short Books.

Chatterjee, R., 2019. Feel better in 5. UK: Penguin Random House.

Macfarlane, L. and Macfarlane, A., 2021. The Gut Stuff. London: Pavilion Books.

Sleep Foundation. 2021. How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? | Sleep Foundation. [online] Available at: <https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need> [Accessed 12 March 2021].

House of Commons Library. 2021. Obesity Statistics. Adult Obesity in England. [online] Available at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn03336/#:~:text=Adult%20obesity%20in%20England,is%20classified%20as%20’overweight’.