Abundant research confirms that good nutrition is a major factor in health. Good food not only nourishes healthy muscles, bones and internal organs, but helps to prevent and even reverse serious diseases. Today’s newsletter features a book on the healing power of good food with a healthy lifestyle.
Is Most Chronic Disease Reversible?
Dr. Dean Ornish and his wife, Anne, are co-authors of the new book, UnDo It! The “undo” button is their favorite computer key. Clicking it always gives them a fresh start. Lifestyle medicine today uses simple lifestyle changes to reverse (undo) the advance of most chronic diseases.
Dr. Ornish proved more than 40 years ago that severe coronary artery disease is reversible. Through the years, his program has saved many thousands of lives, letting them reclaim a quality of life they thought they had lost forever.
The lifestyle program designed for heart patients also helps reverse many other chronic diseases. Patients with high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic ailments feel better and have better test results after being in the program. Why? Ornish did the research to find out why.
A New Unified Theory of Health
Most physicians view each chronic disease as different from any other. Yet Ornish found that most chronic diseases have common underlying causes and are not so different after all. He digs deep into the biological pathways shared by these diseases to develop a unified theory of health and healing. Adoption of the Ornish program reduces the risk of many chronic diseases, not just one of them.
A simple model illustrates this concept: When high blood pressure, high blood sugar, increased waist circumference, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels occur together, the risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes is significantly increased. Effective treatment with a healthy diet and exercise reduces the risk of all those diseases, not just one of them.
Mainstream medicine is becoming aware of the power of simple lifestyle changes to prevent and reverse the progression of many chronic diseases. Leading medical schools are embracing this principle. Medicare and many insurance companies now cover the Ornish lifestyle medical program, both because it is cost-saving and life-saving. In short, lifestyle medicine is the most dynamic movement in health today!
The Ornish program includes four major emphases: Healthy Diet, Moderate Exercise, Stress Management, and Loving Social Support. When combined, these factors form a protective shield against diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Dean and Anne Ornish outline the program’s eating guidelines that help reverse many different chronic diseases:
• Eat mostly plants, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and small amounts of nuts and seeds.
• Minimize or eliminate animal protein; replace it with plant-based protein.
• Avoid sugar, white flour, white rice, and highly processed foods.
• Consume 3 grams of good omega-3 fats daily. Minimize trans fats, saturated fats, and partially hydrogenated fats.
• Organic choices are optimal.
The research by Ornish and others confirms that whole plant-based foods are more helpful to the human body than any other foods. Such high-quality nutritional foods provide thousands of antioxidants and other protective factors. The more we eat them, the better our health is likely to be. [Nine to ten servings of veggies and fruit a day is better than two or three a day.]
Unfortunately, our culture is awash with lower quality foods that are cheap, convenient, and taste good, but have no fiber and few protective factors that give food real nutritional value. Cheese and ice cream even have a morphine-like molecule that makes them mildly addictive. Switching to higher quality foods is challenging for many people.
Ornish emphasizes the value of making high-quality food consumption a pleasurable experience. Anne Ornish provides many tips to help people make the transition to higher quality foods. The last third of the book has dozens of delicious recipes from the Ornish kitchen.
Exercise is amazingly good for you. Our bodies were designed to be active. Moderate activity produces good results. Aerobic, strength, and stretching types of exercise are advised. Well-documented benefits include longer life, happier living, and more brain power.
Ornish emphasizes the value of choosing activities that make exercise fun, saying that if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t keep it up. Walking is a good aerobic exercise that many people enjoy. Walking with a friend or neighbor often makes it more enjoyable.
Strength or resistance training makes muscles stronger. One doesn’t have to be a gym rat to get good results. Simple exercises with resistance bands at home twice weekly are easy to do. Twenty pages of illustrated exercises show a variety of resistance band exercises.
Stretch exercises keep your body flexible and help reduce stress. Sixteen pages of illustrated stretch exercises are included in the chapter on stress.
Stress hormones prepare the body for danger. That’s useful for any acute crisis. When the crisis passes, all systems can relax. Chronic stress causes persistent tissue inflammation that’s hard on every system in the body.
With chronic stress, the body’s systems remain on red alert for any lurking danger. This prolonged chronic inflammation damages the body deeply. Unfortunately, we’re subject to more chronic stress today than ever before.
The good news is that we can modify stress by managing it better. It is not what happens to us so much, but how we react to it that determines how stressful it is for us. Anne Ornish devotes over 50 pages of the book to a variety of ways to reduce stress in one’s life.
Dean Ornish wrote the book Love and Survival in 1998 after finding that people who are lonely, depressed, and isolated are up to ten times more likely to get sick and die prematurely when compared to those who have strong feelings of love, connection, and community.
This problem is worse today. Up to 40 percent of adults in the United States feel lonely. Emotional stress involved in feeling disconnected affects every biological mechanism in the body. The negative impact on health and well-being is powerful. Loneliness and isolation are deadly, but caring support can help heal the associated emotional injuries.
Support groups have been a basic part of the Ornish program for decades. Planned at first to help people stick to other parts of the program, these groups evolved into something more. As people talked about what was going on in their lives, they bonded and cared about each other’s progress.
When he analyzed all the statistical data from the early years of his lifestyle program, Ornish found that support groups were the most effective part of his program. Many groups continued to meet on their own for years after finishing the Ornish program. (Over 90 percent of people who enroll in the nine-week lifestyle program complete 72 hours of training; 85-90 percent still follow it faithfully one year later. By contrast, only about half of patients given medical prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering drugs are still taking them six months later. Guided lifestyle change is more powerful and effective than the best pills that can be prescribed!)
When all systems and their supporting biological mechanisms are in good balance, we enjoy good health. When these biological workings are out of balance, they can lead to a wide range of chronic diseases. What causes disturbance of this balance?
What Ornish found is that our biological inner workings are very sensitive to what we eat, how much exercise we get, how we respond to stress, and how much love and support we have. Our own erratic behavior in these matters is what most commonly throws our health balance out of kilter.
UnDo It is the product of forty years of research into the causes of chronic disease combined with practical application of theories on how to regain inner health balance. It is an excellent guide to restoring good health.
This is a landmark book. The new unified theory of health it describes will transform medicine over the coming decades. It will save millions of lives. Beyond saving lives, it gives people an excellent key to optimal health over a long lifespan. .
I’m not the only reviewer with a high opinion of Ornishes’ work. Dr. Rita Redberg, editor in chief of JAMA Internal Medicine, says: “If you want to see what medicine will be like ten years from now, read this book today.”
Dr. Richard Carmona, former Surgeon General of the United States, says the Ornishes’ work is deserving of a Nobel Prize.
I agree. This book is a valuable health resource.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
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