As a young college student studying the doctor-patient relationship in Ayurvedic medicine, I would quietly sit beside my father’s uncle, Sri Raghavan Thirumulpad, as he saw patients in the humble covered quarters of his home office. An esteemed scholar and practitioner of Ayurveda, India’s traditional science of health, people would come in buses, cueing up starting at 7am, waiting for his close counsel. They would seek his help to heal a number of different chronic ailments from arthritis to digestive disorders to skin diseases, heart problems, and more. Patient after patient my granduncle would hear their stories, and regardless of their concerns, the first questions out of his mouth would be, “Tell me, how is your digestion? What foods do you regularly eat in a day?”
Time and time again, he would reiterate to his patients that no matter how many medicines or surgeries they seek, true healing only occurs when these interventions are balanced by corrective lifestyle practices to address the root causes of why they are suffering to begin with. Treatment is not just getting rid of symptoms like high blood pressure or a bacterial infection. True treatment is correcting the optimal functioning of each patient so they will prosper and stay adaptable, without succumbing to added suffering. Inspired by centuries-old philosophies of Ayurveda, my granduncle would assert, at an individual level, svastha, our health, is created and supported through pathya – healthy lifestyle routines in balance with our environment, wholesome foods, and positive conditions of the mind, including love, equanimity, and integrity.
What has been known and respected by Ayurveda and other global traditional healing systems and communities for generations could not be more relevant today. The way we live our lives in relationship with the world around us IS medicine. With preventable chronic diseases on the rise, drawing upon evidence-based lifestyle practices for health promotion and to support healing is vital to extending the quantity and quality of our lives.
The State of our Health
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the leading cause of death and disability across the globe are Non-Communicable-Diseases (NCDs). These are the types of ailments that cannot be passed from one living organism to another in the way infectious diseases can be. NCDs include common chronic diseases and mental health disorders that often have considerable impacts on quality of life and survival.
In 2012, NCDs accounted for 68% of annual deaths, on the rise from 63% in 2008. Sadly, almost half of these deaths were “premature,” occurring in individuals below the age of 70. NCDs also seem to be making a disproportionately higher impact in low-middle income countries. Over 80% of premature NCD deaths occur in these nations, contributing to increased healthcare costs, loss of productivity, and feeding into the cycle of poverty.
Four main chronic diseases share 82% of the burden of all NCD deaths – cardiovascular diseases (almost half of all NCD deaths), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes. Fortunately, we already know how to reduce the development of many of these conditions by up to 80%
Yes, we know, and have known that just a handful of key modifiable behaviors accounts for almost 80% of preventable deaths in the United States. These include the use of tobacco, unhealthy diets and no physical activity (particularly in relation to being overweight or obese), and excessive alcohol.
The top four global NCDs share these four same “actual causes”– tobacco use, poor diet, physical inactivity, and the harmful use of alcohol. Together, these and other key behaviors can contribute to the development of risk factors for chronic disease such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, raised blood glucose, and overweight/obesity.
Conversely, by not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, staying physically active for at least 30 minutes a day, and eating healthfully by choosing lots of veggies and fruits, consuming whole grains, and limiting meat, we can reduce our risk of developing diabetes or heart disease by 80% and cut the risk of cancer by over a third when compared to individuals who don’t adhere to these same lifestyle measures. And changes don’t have to be drastic; even modest alterations towards a healthful lifestyle can make a tremendous impact on preventing disease. Lifestyle prevents, and in wholesome combinations, it can also help to treat illnesses while reducing the aging process.
The Time is NOW for Lifestyle Medicine
Decades of research are in support of what we have already known for centuries. Honoring ourselves, and those we love, by taking the time to nourish our whole being is time and effort well spent. Global leaders in health agree. Despite what you may read on the latest blog or see on television, there is no confusion about the basic core principles of health and self-care:
The WHO is prioritizing modifying diet, increasing physical activity, and reducing tobacco and excessive alcohol use in a global effort to prevent deaths and improve our lives. Are you ready to make your step towards a life well worth living?
“But it can be so hard for people to change some of these deep rooted behaviors,” I would comment to my granduncle at the days end. With a chuckle and quoting Oscar Wilde, he would say, “Everything in moderation, including, sometimes, moderation.”
Rashmi S. Bismark
I'm a preventive medicine physician specialized in mindfulness, lifestyle, and community health. I'm a yoga teacher, an educator, a researcher, a devoted mom and expatriate wife, living a blessed global nomad life.