By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP
Anyone who regularly follows the medical news from the Associated Press or New York Times will get the impression of fickleness. Research studies sometimes advance medical knowledge, but basic findings also seem to contradict one another. Take a recent study that seemed to show that the recommended low-salt diet for preventing high blood pressure and heart disease in fact increased the risk of both conditions (the Centers for Disease Control issued a warning that the study contradicted a large body of accepted research, making it, if not invalid, at least very confusing).
This is just one example of similar debates over basic areas like depression, autism, cholesterol, and cancer where the shifting sands of medical opinion never seem to settle. In addition, the huge profits of drugs aimed to treat these things add a note of suspicion. How do we know that findings aren’t being manipulated by those who have an economic interest in them?
The net result of contradictory research is unfortunate. It gives the average person yet another reason to shrug off prevention. Yet it’s the area of prevention that has remained solid for decades. In fact, more and more disorders have been added to the preventable list – many cancers are now included – and up-to-date genetics indicates that the functioning of genes is strongly affected by positive lifestyle changes.
The bottom line is that our focus can’t be on magic bullets from the drug companies or long-awaited genetic therapies. As the cost of American medicine continues to climb, the biggest push should be to end the era of noncompliance. We know what leads to well-being, but as a society we don’t comply with common sense and best advice. Yet look at how good the news really is if you make an effort to comply:
- Maintaining your desired weight reduces the deleterious effects of fat on the body, which have been well documented. Being overweight is also associated with chronic inflammation, which increasingly looks like a major culprit in heart disease and cancer.
- It has long been known that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of many lifestyle disorders, but only a small percentage of people regularly exercise. So it’s good news that just moving your body throughout the day, doing as little as walking around every hour, taking the stairs, and stretching, delivers some of the fundamental benefits of exercise. The more you exercise, the greater the benefits, yet the widest health gap is between those who don’t move at all and those who bother to do the minimum.
- Nutrition has suffered from a lack of substantiated studies and a wealth of fads, received opinions, and myths. One hopeful exception was the recent Spanish study that saw a decrease in heart attacks and strokes among subjects who were put on a Mediterranean diet heavy in fish, olive oil, and nuts while generally avoiding red meat, butter, and cheese. Arguments over the best diet will continue to rage, but no evidence has contradicted a simple guideline: Eating a diet of fresh, whole foods that tends strongly toward vegetarianism while eliminating excessive intake of, fat, red meat, salt, and sugar is strongly indicated. Since fast food and junk foods are generally heavy on the salt, fat, and sugar, weaning yourself off them should have high priority.
- The benefits of meditation and stress management have been established for a long time. Now the results of these practices are only becoming more valid. The indication is that simple meditation, for example, causes a change in genetic activity from the first session onward, and the connection of stress with chronic inflammation is getting stronger. In other words, meditation and stress management are biologically sound; a far remove from the attitude that stress can be good for you by increasing your competitive edge and that meditation was a cultural curiosity from the East.
In a nutshell, prevention is about the two-edged sword of adaptability. The human body is incredibly adaptable, allowing for lifestyles that contain extremes of diet, exercise, and stress. If you abuse your body’s adaptability, it will do its best to keep you in balance anyway, but there will be a high price to pay over time. Yet if you change the trend toward positive health habits, the same adaptability becomes your greatest ally. The body’s set point is for well-being, and the more you allow it to regain that set point, the faster it will return to it. Noncompliance remains the thorn in the side of the prevention movement. Even so, the astonishing intelligence of the human body can’t be nullified. It waits for each person to act as intelligently as every cell, tissue, and organ already does.