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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Lifestyle Medicine Comes of Age: Reframing Our Health Care System

Nov 02, 2015 10:00PM ● By Mary Gilbertson

Something has gone wrong with our health care system that seems to be unfixable. To try to solve the problem, we need to look at how medicine in this country has evolved. Our medical model was built on the ability to treat acute disease, which worked well when we were eradicating illnesses like smallpox or treating a trauma victim in a car accident. But as we continued to evolve and manufacturers polluted our waters, our air, land and ultimately our food, disease began to take on a new form—that of chronic disease.

We are experiencing a chronic disease epidemic. The time from development of symptoms to full-blown illness can take 10 – 20 years or more. If we can intervene and impact health before illness, we can stop the degenerative effects before they occur. This is preventive health care, and an emphasis on prevention over disease management is what is needed to address our broken health care system.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), chronic disease accounts for 88 percent of all deaths. One billion people worldwide have diabetes and/or are obese. In children aged 6-11, 20 percent are obese. One in four women and one in six men are expected to develop an autoimmune disease over the next ten years. Autism prevalence is expected to double to one in two children by 2025, and depression is increasing by 20 percent per year. We are now looking at the first generation of children who will experience a life expectancy shorter than that of their parents. This has never been seen before and is attributable to health problems related to industrialization. These problems are seen across the globe, not just in the United States. Ninety-eight percent of most degenerative diseases are the result of nutritional deficiencies or chemical exposures, says Sayer Ji, founder of

What Do We Know?

Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University Prevention Research Center and president of American College of Lifestyle Medicine, says we know plenty. According to Dr. Katz, “We have known the fundamentals necessary to prevent 80 percent of all chronic disease and related premature death globally for at least 22 years.” This is in direct correlation to the WHO statistics, which state that at least 80 percent of premature heart disease, stroke and Type II diabetes, and greater than 40 percent of all cancers, could be prevented through lifestyle factors—healthy diet, regular physical activity and tobacco cessation. In addition to creating The Glimmer

Initiative, Katz has formed the True Health Coalition, a global, nonprofit initiative to educate people about the connection between lifestyle factors and disease and to prevent premature death and chronic disease with information we already have. (For more information visit

Why Aren’t We Using What We Know?

If chronic disease is the culprit, and we have a remedy, why aren’t we using what we know? First, there is a 17-year delay between evidence-based research protocols and putting into practice the results. This delay is often based on political agendas and ego. We cannot afford to wait 17 years to begin implementing preventive health practices. Second, our health belief system is constantly being hacked by big business—big agriculture, the dairy industry, the likes of Monsanto, and the government itself—which allows corporate greed to put profits before people. This misinformation and deceit causes confusion in the general public, which drives food consumption and supply and demand. Third, our government and insurance companies infrequently subsidize the cost of preventive care (although there is movement in this direction).

Epigenetics and Disease

It has been said that our genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. In the field of epigenetics, we’ve learned that 10 percent of disease is attributable to our DNA, while 90 percent is environmental exposure. Though we are born with certain genetic variants, it is the environmental impact on those genes that either down-regulates or up-regulates disease. These environmental impacts include food, air, water, personal care products and lifestyle. Thus, when we ingest chemicals, heavy metals, toxins like sugar, flour and vegetable oils and GMOs, our genes are genetically altered, often inferring disease.

Applying Functional Medicine

Functional medicine uses an investigational approach that addresses the root cause of illness. Most often, the root cause involves toxic exposure, oxidative stress leading to cellular damage and inflammation. In functional medicine, the patient becomes an active case participant, and more time is spent on education. A holistic approach is used—which includes lifestyle factors, herbs and supplements—with less emphasis placed on pharmaceuticals.

The Power of Community

In Dan Buettner’s The Blue Zones, we see how the community strengthens the health of the individual, allowing groups to live with longevity and low incidence of chronic disease. Gene expression is displayed in the epigenetics of community life. In Social Genomics, Dr. George Slavich writes about relationships and community. He states that community is a greater driver of health than diet, exercise and smoking. Therefore, if we wish to create a successful program around diet, lifestyle and behavioral changes, we must have community involvement.

Food As Medicine

Every time we pick up a fork, we are either choosing health or choosing disease. Eating a variety of real foods—mostly plant-based, colorful and unprocessed—is key to preventing inflammation. Lean meats, poultry and fish can round out a diet rich in leafy greens, beans and legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Also important are healthy fats, such as avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, flax oil, grass-fed butter and ghee. Dairy has been found to be highly inflammatory in most cases, although goat, sheep and buffalo dairy seems to produce little of the systemic side effects of cow’s milk. The most important liquid one can drink is water—ounces required daily are determined by your body weight divided by two. Adequate hydration is important for every cell in the body, but rarely do we drink enough.

The Financial Burden of Conventional Medical Care

According to Dr. Joseph Mercola ( in a January 2012 cost analysis, 24/7 Wall Street determined that the 10 leading causes of death in the United States, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), cost more than $1.1 trillion. Since we now know that most chronic diseases are preventable with lifestyle changes, doesn’t it make sense to put the bulk of our health care dollars towards prevention, research and functional medicine practices? Think of the amazing ways we can nurture our bodies, our minds, our general well-being and our communities by allocating funds where they are needed most.

Mahatma Gandhi summed it up perfectly when he said, “It is health that is real wealth, and not pieces of gold and silver.”

Mary Gilbertson, MS, BSN, RN, CHHC, is a registered nurse, a nutritionist and a healthy lifestyle educator. She holds certifications in detoxification, stress management, holistic health coaching, and is a certified gluten practitioner and Metabolic Balance coach. She can be reached via See Community Resource Guide listing, page 66.

12 Lifestyle Tips for Everyday Living

1. Eat real foods. Mostly plants. Eat the rainbow. Eat mindfully.

2. Drink half your body weight in ounces of pure, filtered water per day.

3. Utilize stress reduction and positive thinking.

4. Optimize vitamin D status.

5. Optimize your gut health—take a quality probiotic daily.

6. Avoid toxic exposure and pollutants wherever possible.

7. Use water filtration systems, organic foods and non-toxic alternatives for personal care products and household cleaners. (For more ideas, visit and download its free app.)

8. Do daily purposeful movement.

9. Avoid sugar, artificial sweeteners, flour, processed foods and vegetable and seed oils, including industrial polysunsaturated fats like corn, soybean and canola.

10. Get eight hours of quality sleep per night.

11. Cultivate relationships.

12. Seek out community involvement and support.

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