The term 'lifestyle medicine' has come under scrutiny, but is it simple misunderstood?

Lifestyle medicine looks at a
Lifestyle medicine looks at a "prevention rather than cure" approach to health care. Picture: Shutterstock.

We know looking after our health is the best way to prevent disease, but things can be confusing when there is information coming from various disciplines like complementary, alternative, and conventional medicine.

Even worse when information is available everywhere on social media, and a lot of the time is non-evidenced based and harmful.

A new term has entered the vernacular with a prominent spokesperson in the medical community recently criticising the practice of lifestyle medicine as not really being medicine.

However, Sydney general practitioner Dr Jill Gamberg is currently undertaking training to become internationally board certified in lifestyle medicine, and wanted to set the record straight.

"Lifestyle medicine is about reducing the risk or severity of certain conditions before they reach the point of needing specialist intervention," Dr Gamberg says.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't treat disease with important things like medication, surgery and other procedures. But wouldn't it be great if we could try and prevent these things from happening in the first place?

"It has to do with restful sleep, good nutrition, stress reduction, regular physical activity, stopping or limiting harmful things like smoking and alcohol, and nurturing healthy relationships.

"It's also about training doctors how to support their patients with lifestyle intervention.

"What does lifestyle intervention mean to the patient? Do most patients walk out of your office with good advice like improving nutrition and physical activity?

"But how do we support them and give them the best advice to implement these important changes?

"As doctors we can refer patients to allied health professionals in nutrition, exercise, and psychology, but it's important that we also take the initiative ourselves to help our patients learn and understand these lifestyle modifications a bit better," she says.

"Should we as doctors be providing patients with more information on what it means to eat well, sleep well, and stress less?

"This applies to all the multidisciplinary partners in a healthcare setting who take care of patients in their health journey like physicians, surgeons, dietitians, exercise physiologists, psychologists - we should all be working together to help people learn how to modify their behaviour in a way such that they can prevent disease, maintain wellness, and maybe even in some cases reverse some of the disease that's already happened.

"Importantly this is not excluding the need for medications and surgical interventions if and when they become necessary."

Starting your health journey begins with following your country's guidelines on exercise, nutrition and alcohol consumption.

"Australia calls for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, but this doesn't need to be done in one go; it can be done in increments - it all adds up towards your total," she says.

While most countries follow similar guidelines, Dr Gamberg is a fan of the Canadian nutritional guidelines released earlier this year due to their ease of understanding.

"Your plate should be made up of half plate of vegetables and fruits; one quarter proteins like legumes, nuts, tofu, low fat non processed meat or yogurt; and one quarter wholegrains like brown rice, quinoa or oats. Choose water as your drink of choice, limit refined sugar, processed foods, salt and saturated fats.

"Whether you follow the Canadian guidelines or the Australian guidelines, it's about being less restrictive with what we eat and not following fads or harmful diets. It is about living a healthier life and making lifelong changes," she says.

Mental health is of particular concern to Dr Gamberg and other clinicians involved in lifestyle medicine, as rates of mental illness within the population skyrocket and government funding is stretched.

"I see so many people come into my clinic with anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, I think anxiety is one of the big problems we will be facing in our future. Trying to address feelings of anxiety and depression before it impairs your ability to work and play and live your life is a good idea."

Dr Gamberg says this can be done in ways such as being mindful about how we are eating, exercising and spending time with our families. She says if our work or relationships are showing signs of stress, we need to talk to someone, be it our friend, GP or psychologist; before it gets the better of us and becomes an ongoing issue.

"Stress in the workplace at the moment is astronomical. People experience a lot of stressors in life whether it be family pressure, financial worries, relationship difficulties, or study-load. Stress can affect your sleep. Broken sleep has been shown to increase anxiety, lower mood, decrease energy, increase irritability and anger - and these things are all worth addressing before they become a major issue in your life and impact your ability to work, play and enjoy your life."

"Stress is one of the five pillars we need to modify in order to be healthier, happier and to prevent disease, with financial stress being one of the top reasons for stress in the world," she says.

Dr Gamberg says we are quite lucky in Australia that we have access to affordable medication through the PBS and concession cards however there has been research shown to indicate that some people stretch out or even skip medication due to financial worries. If people are having issues paying for their medications they should talk to their doctor.

"Lifestyle medicine doesn't mean that if you have high cholesterol or diabetes, that you should stop taking your medicine and just modify your lifestyle factors. It means treating the person as a whole.

Sometimes you need medication to treat your disease, modify your risk, and to be healthier, but then you must also modify your lifestyle factors," Dr Gamberg says.

"Lifestyle medicine looks at the lifestyle factors affecting health and supports patients in life long positive behaviour modification.

"We know that disease is a product of our genetics, but strongly influenced by our environment. We cannot really change our genes, but we can influence them in a positive or negative way. You can modify your environment and this can empower people to be in charge of their health."

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This story 'Lifestyle medicine', is it misunderstood? first appeared on The Canberra Times.