By Dean Ornish, MD Founder and President, Preventive Medicine Research Institute Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco Author of The Spectrum
We tend to think of advances in medicine as a new drug, laser or surgical procedure – something high-tech and expensive. Many people are surprised to learn that the simple choices we make in what we eat and how we live have such a powerful influence on our health and well-being, but they do.
- what we eat;
- how much we move;
- how we respond to stress;
- and how much love and intimacy we have in our lives.
For the past 36 years, my colleagues at the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco have conducted research using high-tech, state-of-the-art scientific measures to prove the power of these simple, low-cost and low-tech interventions.
In addition to preventing many chronic diseases, these comprehensive lifestyle changes can often reverse the progression of these illnesses. They may even begin to reverse aging on a genetic level.
We proved, for the first time, that lifestyle changes alone can reverse even severe heart disease. We also found that these lifestyle changes can reverse type 2 diabetes and may slow, stop or even reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer. Changing your lifestyle may actually change your genes, turning on genes that keep you healthy, and turning off genes that promote heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and diabetes – hundreds of genes in just three months.
People often say, "Oh, it's all in my genes, there's not much I can do about it." Knowing that changing lifestyle changes our genes is often very motivating – not to blame, but to empower. They may even lengthen your telomeres, the ends of your chromosomes that play such an important role in aging. As a person's telomeres get shorter, his or her life gets shorter. Telomeres are like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that keep them from unraveling: They keep your DNA from unraveling.
When I began doing this work, I thought that younger people who had less severe diseases would do better, but I was wrong. One of the most interesting findings in all of our studies was that the more people changed their diet and lifestyle, the better they felt and the more they improved in ways we could measure – at any age.
It's not all or nothing: You have a spectrum of choices. I find this to be extraordinarily empowering. We've learned what enables people to make sustainable changes in their lifestyles.
Because the biological mechanisms that control our health and well-being are so dynamic, when people begin to eat and live healthier, they usually feel so much better. It quickly reframes the reason for change from fear of dying (which is not sustainable) to joy of living (which is).
If you go on a diet, you're like to go off the diet. Diets are all about what you can't have and what you must do. I've learned that even more than feeling healthy, most people want to feel free and in control. So, on my Spectrum program, you decide how much to change, how many aspects of your life to change, and how quickly.
And once you call foods "good" or "bad," it's a small step to thinking, "I'm a bad person because I ate food that's bad for me." Then you have to deal with all that guilt, shame and anger which just get in the way.
Here's how the program works:
I categorized foods from the most healthful (Group 1) to the least healthful (Group 5). The healthiest Group 1 foods include a whole foods, plant-based diet: high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and soy products in their natural, unrefined forms, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour.
With exercise, do what you enjoy. If you like it, you'll do it. The more you move, the more you improve.
Stress-management techniques, such as meditation and yoga, even a few minutes a day, can make your fuse longer. You can do more without feeling as stressed.
Perhaps most important is love and intimacy. People who feel lonely and depressed are many times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a strong sense of family and community.
What matters most is your overall way of living and eating. If you indulge yourself one day, it doesn't mean you cheated or failed, just eat healthier the next. This way, you can't fail.
Let's say you want to lose 10 pounds, or lower your blood pressure 10 points, or lower your cholesterol level 50 points. And let's say you're eating mostly unhealthy Group 5 foods. You might say, "I'll eat more of the foods in Groups 1 to 3 and less from Groups 4 and 5." Let's say you're exercising 10 minutes a day; try 15 minutes.
If you're not meditating or doing yoga, try a few minutes a day, and spend a little more time with your friends and loved ones. Try it for a few weeks. If that degree of change was enough to accomplish your goals, great; you're there. If not, you can make bigger ones.
Radically simple. You get the idea.
As you make bigger changes in your lifestyle, you're likely to notice great improvements in your health and well-being without feeling deprived. As you start to feel better and notice how much healthier you are, you're likely to find yourself in a virtuous cycle in which you may want to do even more.
The more you change your diet and lifestyle, the more you improve and the better you feel. As you feel better, you're likely to want to do even more.
The four women who were featured on the show were chosen because they reported feeling exceptionally high levels of stress in their lives.
These women went through my program offered by Dr. Woodson Merrell and his colleagues at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Amy's Foods provided frozen dinners for them. After 10 weeks, all of them had remarkable improvements.
All reported feeling much less stressed. They had learned to manage it more effectively. Stress comes not just from what we do; more important is how we react to what we do. When you practice the stress management techniques described in my books and on my website, most people find that their emotional fuse gets longer, things don't bother them as much.
Kathey's blood sugar went from 241 to 93 even though she was able to stop taking her four shots of insulin per day during that time (under her doctor's supervision, of course). She is still taking one diabetes pill per day but hopes to be able to wean off that eventually. Also, she showed decreases in her hemoglobin A1C, total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, triglycerides, C-reactive protein, and homocysteine. Her blood pressure decreased from 138/92 to 118/86, even though she has been on two blood pressure medications and did not increase the dosage of either.
Liliana lost 14 pounds and she lost 2 inches in both her waist and hips. Her diastolic blood pressure decreased 14 mm. Her total cholesterol level decreased 50 points and her triglycerides decreased by 159 points. Her C-reactive protein decreased markedly, by 76%, from 1.7 to 0.4. C-reactive protein is a marker for chronic inflammation, which is often an underlying cause of many chronic diseases, including heart disease and many forms of cancer.
Jeri's total cholesterol decreased 41 points, almost 21%, and her triglycerides decreased from 92 to 79. Her C-reactive protein also decreased.
Jocelyn's total cholesterol decreased 47 points, by almost 20% and her LDL ("bad cholesterol") decreased 26%. Her systolic and diastolic blood pressure each decreased by 10 points, and she lost one inch in her hips (34.5 to 33.5"). Her blood sugar decreased 30 points, a 31% reduction.
Three of these four women showed an increase in their telomere length after 10 weeks, and one was essentially unchanged.
If you’re interested in having your telomeres measured, please go to TelomeHealth.com. For more information, including places that are offering Dr. Ornish's program (including the one with Dr. Merrell at the Continuum Center for Health & Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York), you can visit Ornish.com, call 877-888-3091, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.