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Can Love and Support Improve – Or Even Help Reverse – Chronic Conditions?

By Karena Yan

At the StartUp Health Festival, Dr. Dean Ornish of the Prevention Medicine Research Institute explained how love and intimacy – in addition to food, exercise, and stress – may actually be major factors in our health and wellbeing

To many, health and wellness mean eating nutritious foods and exercising. While these are certainly important elements of health, they may not make up the whole picture. At the StartUp Health Festival in San Francisco last week, we heard from Dr. Dean Ornish, President and Founder of Prevention Medicine Research Institute, on lifestyle interventions for the reversal of chronic conditions.

Dr. Ornish is a physician and author of the national bestseller Undo it! How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases. He says four major elements contribute to health:

  • What you eat
  • How much activity you have
  • How you respond to stress
  • How much love and support you have

According to Dr. Ornish, lifestyle changes in these four areas have the potential to prevent or even reverse conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. “The reason why these same lifestyle changes can reverse so many diseases is because they’re the same disease manifesting in different forms,” says Dr. Ornish. “They share the same underlying biological mechanisms, such as chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, which in turn are influenced by what we eat, how much we sleep, and so on.”

For the most part, Dr. Ornish’s methods for staying healthy are commonsense. He recommends eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet that’s low in fat and sugar, engaging in moderate exercise like walking half an hour a day, practicing stress management techniques including mediation and yoga, and having psychosocial support, or love and intimacy.

The last suggestion is often the least intuitive. However, studies have shown that those who are lonely, depressed, and isolated are significantly more likely to get sick and die prematurely from numerous causes, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and stroke. A biopsychosocial stressor, loneliness may promote the weakening of immune cells, which are needed to fight off disease; it may also accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation.

Other StartUp Health Festival speakers echoed Dr. Ornish’s sentiments on loneliness. “People are dying more of diseases of despair, so our life expectancy is decreasing,” says Dr. Zubin Damania, Founder of ZDogg Industries. “Take a 70-year-old person living alone in poor socioeconomic status, growing up lonely, being isolated – of course they’re unwell.”

Our society is also becoming more and more vulnerable to isolation. With the increasingly tribalized and polarized nature of our communities over political and social issues, our social networks are breaking down. While some may argue that having a common enemy may bring people closer together, these hate-fueled relationships are unsustainable. “If you have a community based on fear and anger, then invariably it becomes smaller and smaller – the ultimate isolating experience,” says Dr. Ornish. “When you demonize someone as the other, that’s when suffering and illness begins.” Indeed, hostility and anger have been linked to chronic inflammation, heart failure, and other chronic illnesses.

Thus, by prescribing time with loved ones, Dr. Ornish may be on to something. He suggests creating healthy community with friends and family, learning how to communicate in ways that enhance intimacy, and embracing compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. This comprehensive lifestyle change, when coupled with nutrition, exercise, and stress management, has been shown to significantly improve certain measures of heart disease.

Dr. Ornish plans to take his lifestyle intervention treatments one step further: conducting a study to reverse early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. According to Dr. Ornish, people with early-stage Alzheimer’s still have their memories, they just lose the synaptic connections to them. His hypothesis is that if those people are put in a support group and encouraged to form relationships with each other, maybe that’ll help them form connections to their memories. The concept he is alluding to is neuroplasticity, which describes the brain’s ability to alter connections among groups of brain cells; i.e., to rewire the brain itself. Previous studies have shown that interventions promoting social behavior have demonstrated increased activity in the frontal cortex, which is in charge of several complex behaviors. 

While Dr. Ornish’s Alzheimer’s study is still ongoing and has not proven anything yet, we can at least be confident that spending time with loved ones is positive for our health. As he concluded at the StartUp Health Festival, “The time we spend with friends, families, and loved ones is not a luxury that we do after all the ‘important’ stuff – it may be the most important.” 

Photo courtesy of StartUp Health.

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