Rates of chronic disease and obesity are higher than ever, with problems starting in ever younger age groups. Why is it that despite advancing technology, conventional medicine is failing to provide the solutions? And is there an alternate approach? Let’s get into some low-tech lifestyle medicine.
Modern medicine is great for short term problems for which a brief treatment can lead to cure, such as surgery for a nasty fracture. But modern medicine is often not so effective when it comes to chronic diseases, those conditions which tend to develop as life goes on and that are rarely cured, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, depression and dementia. These are the conditions that dominate health care in the modern era. They are mostly managed using prescription medication. Here are seven reasons why you may want to look towards lifestyle changes in preference to pharmaceuticals when it comes to preventing and managing disease.
Reason Number 1: Effectiveness. Lifestyle measures are often more effective than a drugs based approach. Those on medications for type 2 diabetes continue to have diabetes. Those on antidepressants typically continue to have depression. These drugs at best mitigate some of the symptoms, but rarely give excellent results or provide a cure. Why? Because they completely fail to address the root causes of disease. The root causes are often to be found in modern patterns of living. For many conditions, only addressing these root causes will have a proper impact. Only lifestyle interventions, and not drugs, will reverse and eliminate type 2 diabetes, obesity, depression, and a host of other chronic conditions. Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, often just help you live with disease.
Some people feel that lifestyle measures are less effective than prescribed medications, but this is often because the lifestyle advice they have encountered within health care systems is done poorly, with vague or incorrect advice, and insufficient time.
Proper lifestyle medicine should give specific lifestyle advice tailored to the patient, that will be realistically implementable and make a noticeable impact in both the short and long term.
Of course sometimes medications are needed, but the only two options in approaching disease should be either lifestyle interventions alone, or lifestyle interventions + conventional medicine, but never just drugs. Some conditions may not be able to be reversed with lifestyle measures, but disease severity can almost always be improved.
Reason Number 2: Accommodating complexity. The human body is extremely complicated. For example, did you know that a course of antibiotics could increase the risk of you developing depression and anxiety? This is because of the gut-brain axis, a direct 2-way connection between the gut and the brain, which means that the bacteria living in your bowel can impact your mood and mental health. Since many antibiotics disrupt the balance of bacteria in your gut, almost always in a negative way, antibiotic use can effect mental health via the impact on the gut microbiome.
The drugs based approach cannot account for this level of complexity. Drugs helping in one area will often be causing problems in another, either with obvious side effects, or unknown long term impacts.
Lifestyle interventions are effective because they allow the body to naturally accommodate all this complexity, and so restore proper functioning. They also positively impact multiple areas all at once, and come without side effects.
Reason Number 3: Universal Relevance. Unlike a drugs based approach, lifestyle interventions are just as useful for those without any medical issues. Everyone can benefit from healthy lifestyle interventions, starting from birth.
Many people are metabolically unhealthy despite a normal weight and no health conditions. The drugs based approach has nothing much to offer at this stage, but rather waits for illness to set in. But lifestyle interventions are what help prevent disease in the first place.
In addition, whilst prevention is better than cure, we should expect more and go beyond this, aiming to thrive rather than just survive. With lifestyle interventions, we can boost energy and optimise how we feel right now.
A universally relevant approach to health can also create a shared experience between all ages and all levels of health, so we can support each other to implement positive changes, rather than separating into the ‘well’ and the ‘unwell’.
Reason Number 4: User Experience. In the traditional drugs based approach, the patient is very much the passenger in the treatment ride, reliant on drugs from the doctor, often lifelong. With the focus instead on lifestyle changes, the patient is put in the driver's seat. The root causes can be explained so that the lifestyle measures needed to address them are understood. Once this is done, people do not need to rely so much on doctors. This makes the journey towards better health much more satisfying.
Remember, if you’ve been given advise that was too hard to follow, or that you managed to follow but didn’t feel made any impact in the short term, you may have been given the wrong advice. If you get the right advice, tailored to you, improvements can often be felt within days, and that positive experience will help propel further lifestyle changes.
Reason Number 5: Cost Sustainability. In terms of cost, the drugs based approach is not a sustainable model. No matter how much money is poured into failing health care systems, the strains will continue to grow, because of the failure to address root causes. This is not health care, but disease management. In contrast, many lifestyle interventions are free, and some can even save you money. If, as a society, we properly addressed the root causes of poor health, we would find that health care systems had more than enough money.
Reason Number 6: Environmental Sustainability. The environmental impact caused by modern health care practices is enormous. The pharmaceutical industry is a significant contributor to the release of industrial chemicals, pollutants and other non-biodegradable waste products into the environment. Health care generates a huge amount of plastic waste.
Many ecosystems are now contaminated by both the chemical fertilisers and pesticides used to grow and produce overly processed foods, and the drugs subsequently used to treat the diseases they cause. Damage to the environment that we inhabit in turn contributes to worsening health, creating a vicious cycle.
Drinking tap water today means regularly ingesting trace amounts of multiple common prescription and over the counter medications, along with many other chemical residues, some of which can act as endocrine disruptors. Not a great experiment to be subjecting children to. If we continue to negatively impact the ecosystems we inhabit, living a healthy life will become harder and harder.
Lifestyle changes, especially low-tech ones, can improve both your health and the health of the ecosystem you inhabit. In contrast to current health care approaches, lifestyle interventions mean less industrial chemicals, less pollution, less plastic, less turnover, less waste, and so on.
Reason Number 7: Underlying Mindset. Ultimately, we need to consider what sort of society we want to create for future generations. We need to balance our immediate needs with those of our children and grandchildren, our wider community, and the ecosystems we inhabit.
Failing to combat the root causes of poor health will lead to ever more reliance on giant pharmaceutical companies to provide us drugs. If instead we priorities effective lifestyle changes, we can foster a society focused on personal responsibility, community effort, and both mental and physical resilience.
I hope you found this information helpful. Remember no matter what your starting point, changing your lifestyle can make huge impacts on your health and on how you feel today.
Dr Philip Bosanquet
The Low-Tech Lifestyle Medic