Lifestyle Medicine Can Improve Your Quality of Life and Treat Chronic Pain
The story of your health has many factors. Your family history, childhood experiences and past health conditions establish the foundation of what “health” will look like for you. But lifestyle medicine examines the parts of your health story that aren’t yet determined. Basically, it’s all of the things that you can do right now to decrease your risk of certain diseases and increase your life expectancy.
Research is just starting to uncover how much control we have over our long-term health outcomes. Certain health habits can even be used to effectively treat inflammation, fatigue and pain. By approaching chronic health conditions with a comprehensive mindset, you may be able to manage your symptoms as well (or better) than you would be able to by using only prescription medications. The practice of managing your everyday routine with health and wellness outcomes in mind is known as “lifestyle medicine.”
Not only can lifestyle medicine help you live longer, it can also be a game-changer in terms of your mental health. Multiple studies show that figuring out a few key habits to improve your health can make you feel like your life has more purpose. If you feel like you wake up feeling listless or like you are lacking in drive, your health can suffer. Lifestyle medicine may provide the motivation that you feel like you are missing.
Before we say more, it’s important to understand that no “natural” health regimen is a replacement for advice from your doctor. This article is meant to feed your curiosity and give you information about treatment alternatives that you may not have heard of or tried.
In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about lifestyle medicine, including:
- The definition of lifestyle medicine and its benefits
- The six lifestyle medicine basics
- How lifestyle changes can help treat chronic pain
- Tips for easing into a healthier lifestyle
What is lifestyle medicine?
Lifestyle medicine is the study of how the prevention and treatment of diseases can be impacted by daily actions, activities and habits. Brushing your teeth to prevent cavities, maintaining a healthy weight to protect your joints and getting regular cardiovascular exercise to keep your heart healthy are all examples of lifestyle medicine.
Lifestyle medicine aims to address the root causes of various non-communicable diseases, rather than simply treating symptoms. Non-communicable diseases are any health conditions that aren't transmitted person-to-person via a bacteria or a virus. Examples of non-communicable diseases that lifestyle medicine aims to treat include type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, fibromyalgia, heart disease, and chronic respiratory diseases.
The concept of caring for your body is nothing new. You might even already feel like you can’t escape hearing about it. We hear the catchphrases “wellness” and “self-care” every time we go online or watch commercials for products that promise to make us healthy. But marketing terms can be fuzzy, and don’t tend to provide a direct solution for recurring symptoms and diagnosed health conditions.
Lifestyle medicine aims to give answers to real-life questions about your health. Here are just a few examples of what experts and researchers are saying about lifestyle medicine and its significance:
- A 2008 Nurses Health study found 91 percent of type 2 diabetes in women could be prevented if those at risk maintained a healthy BMI (body mass index), worked out for 30 minutes per day, avoided smoking and ate more whole grains and vegetables.
- An opinion published in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity in 2013 claimed that 63 percent of worldwide deaths from non-communicable diseases are rooted in an unhealthy lifestyle that could easily be adjusted. The authors called lifestyle medicine “the future of managing chronic disease.”
- A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that by incorporating changes in diet and physical activity along with elements of positive psychology, study participants experienced a 30 percent improvement in overall mental health and a 20 percent reduction in depressive symptoms.
Lifestyle medicine: The basics
There are a few basic tenets of lifestyle medicine. While a personalized approach is best, these are the concepts that are most foundational to minimizing your risk of non-communicable diseases and improving your overall wellness. These strategies boil down to:
- Getting regular exercise
- Eating a well-balanced diet
- Maintaining optimal sleep hygiene
- Cutting out high-risk behaviors
- Investing in healthy social connections
- Managing your everyday stress
Get regular exercise
Regular exercise significantly reduces your risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and other ailments. Bonus points if you can get some of your exercise outdoors, which can reduce your stress levels. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week (such as walking or gardening), or at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity (such as running or biking).
“For many people who are trying to lose weight to help control their blood sugars or their high blood pressure, it's more than eating less and exercising more. Lifestyle medicine takes into consideration the whole person,” says Dr. Beth Frates, a Lifestyle Medicine physician and award-winning professor at Harvard Medical School, and medical advisory board member at Clearing.
Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
Ideally, your diet will meet all of your nutritional needs and fulfill a craving or two. Eating healthy will help you maintain a healthy weight, which reduces your risk of nearly every non-communicable disease. Start with dark, leafy greens, lots of citrus fruits and a variety of proteins for a nourishing diet. Going easy on salt, sodium and processed foods is also important.
When it comes to treating chronic pain or other health conditions, you might want to focus on reducing inflammation in your body. To do so, consider these your pantry staples:
- Olive oil
- Anti-inflammatory seasoning such as garlic, turmeric and ginger
- Blueberries, cherries and other antioxidant-rich berries
- Lentils and beans
- Fatty, oil-rich fish, such as salmon
Maintain optimal sleep hygiene
It’s estimated that 35 percent of adults get less than the recommended amount of sleep every night. According to the CDC, people who didn’t get enough sleep were more likely to have a wide range of chronic conditions, including arthritis and diabetes.
“Sleep is essential when helping people achieve a healthy weight. With sleep deprivation, hormones are disrupted. For example, ghrelin goes up and leptin goes down. When ghrelin goes up, this increases people's appetite. And when leptin goes down, this also contributes to the desire for more food,” Dr. Frates says.
The CDC recommends that adults get seven hours or more of sleep per night. But it’s not just how many hours of sleep you get, it’s the quality of that sleep that makes a difference. If your sleep gets interrupted by a family member, or if you have insomnia, your circadian rhythm may be thrown off. This can lead to a feeling of constant exhaustion, no matter how many hours you’re in bed.
Cut out high-risk behaviors
What health professionals call “high-risk behaviors” account for a significant amount of illness and death in the United States each year. These behaviors include tobacco use, alcohol addiction and recreational drug use.
Smoking is one of the highest-risk behaviors that you can engage in; it significantly elevates your risk for everything from cancer to stroke. By quitting smoking, you can immediately add 10 years or more to your life.
Approximately 14 million Americans have an alcohol dependency. According to the World Health Organization, there are 3.3 million deaths each year from the harmful consumption of alcohol. More than half of these deaths may be attributed to non-communicable diseases, including cancer, which cutting out alcohol could have helped to prevent. Moderate drinking, defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, is considered to be safer than heavy drinking.
Invest in healthy social connections
A healthy social life looks different for everyone. Some people need to socialize in a big group, while others prefer more one-on-one time with a best friend. What’s important is maintaining a network of quality relationships in which you feel safe being yourself.
But whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, maintaining an active social life can have a measurable impact on your health. People who are defined as “socially isolated” and have coronary artery disease have a higher risk of dying from the condition. Having a lack of healthy social connections has also been linked to delayed cancer recovery and high blood pressure.
Manage everyday stress
Hand-in-hand with sleep hygiene is the importance of managing your daily stress levels, and finding coping mechanisms that work when you do encounter stress. Lifestyle medicine adherents call this “stress resiliency," and being resilient to stress can really pay off when it comes to preventing migraines or pain flares, to keeping your immune system strong and to a host of other benefits.
“Stress plays a role in weight management as well. As increased stress leads to increased cortisol which encourages the body to store fat centrally. Central adiposity puts people at increased risk for heart disease and stroke. Learning how to manage stress is key for health," Dr. Frates says.
Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and a healthy diet, can address inflammation and other pain triggers while also reducing your pain and allowing you to be more active.
How can lifestyle changes help treat chronic pain?
Lifestyle medicine aims to treat the root cause of health conditions, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t work for symptom management, too. Which is good news, if you are one of the 50 million adults in the U.S. who lives with chronic pain. Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and a healthy diet, can address inflammation and other pain triggers while also reducing your pain and allowing you to be more active.
Physical activity for chronic pain
In clinical trials, results consistently demonstrate that participation in physical activity may help people improve their quality of life and ability to do everyday activities. Exercise works to treat pain by releasing endorphins, which are natural pain-killing chemicals in your brain that dull the power of pain signals coming from your body. Regular exercise also activates your immune system, which helps block pain signals while working to repair the injured muscles or tissue that are causing you pain in the first place.
In addition to the pain-blocking benefits of exercise, getting active can also improve your mental health. Working out regularly releases hormones that can improve your well-being. By elevating your heart rate and getting blood flowing, you’re reducing your risk of depression and anxiety, which are strongly linked to chronic pain.
But even mild to moderate exercise can help you to maintain a healthy weight. If your chronic pain is related to arthritis, losing a few pounds can help reduce the strain on your joints.
The level of exercise recommended for you is best determined by your general practitioner. Some medications can affect your ability to exercise, so discuss any exercise routine with a health professional before you jump in.
A healthy diet and nutritional supplements for chronic pain
Chronic pain that is associated with your musculoskeletal system is generally connected with ongoing inflammation in your body. By focusing on foods that reduce levels of inflammation, you may see your pain levels decrease. Addressing any nutritional deficiencies may also help you manage your pain symptoms while helping you maintain a healthy weight.
Also, injuries that affect the bones, joints or muscles may be able to heal more quickly when you’re nourishing your body.
Some real-world results from people with chronic pain who followed an anti-inflammatory diet:
- People with fibromyalgia reported a better pain tolerance after following a diet high in protein and low in inflammatory foods. Eating 90 to 100 grams of protein per day may prevent your muscles from getting atrophied if you have a chronic pain condition.
- Supplementing with Vitamin D has been shown to improve chronic back pain in cases of adults who were over current weight range recommendations.
- Study participants who had chronic pain from knee arthritis experienced significant pain relief compared to exercise or weight loss alone. These participants went on a low-calorie diet for 18 months that included nutritional supplements as well as an exercise plan.
Sleep hygiene for chronic pain
When you live with chronic pain, it can be difficult to get quality sleep every night. People with chronic pain also have higher rates of sleep-associated health conditions like insomnia. And those who have sleep conditions that are left untreated or unresolved may be more likely to develop chronic pain conditions later in life.
According to neurologist and Chief Medical Officer at Clearing, Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, patients often complain about worsening chronic pain symptoms at night. “During this time, lack of distraction and heightened awareness are major factors affecting chronic pain symptoms. The room is usually quiet and dark, and sleep is top of mind. Chronic pain sufferers tend to focus on whatever is preventing them from resting, which in this case is the pain symptom itself,” Dr. Hascalovici says.
Getting good exercise and proper nutrition can help you get better sleep at night. Some natural health remedies, such as melatonin and magnesium, can also work to restore your circadian rhythms. When you’re being proactive about your sleep hygiene, you’re also being proactive about treating your chronic pain.
Tips for a healthier and more integrative lifestyle
Of course, reading an article about changing your lifestyle habits doesn’t mean you’ll instantly be able to solve your problems using lifestyle medicine. (If only it were that easy!) You’ll probably have to borrow some tricks from psychologists if you want to really incorporate the principles of lifestyle medicine to treat chronic pain and prevent other health conditions.
Some tried-and-true methods to start building a healthier lifestyle include:
Enlisting a friend
If you want to become more active, the best way to set up for success is to partner up with a friend. Ask them to go on a walk with you every week, or find a buddy that’s also interested in learning tennis. When you have social motivation to stay active, the chances of actually doing so go up.
This popular and proven technique involves stacking a new habit with something you’re already doing. For example, if you want to start drinking more water, try to pair a glass of the morning with your morning coffee. If you want to start going to the gym more, save your favorite podcast for when you’re on the treadmill.
Finding a support group
If you’re looking to lose weight, cut down on alcohol, or simply make new friends, there’s a support group for that. If you don’t like to meet people in person, you can start by looking at Facebook groups online and other virtual spaces where people have similar goals.
Talking to your doctor
Your doctor may have simple, actionable suggestions for using lifestyle medicine to improve your health. They may also have some strong opinions about what your body can handle and what you should stay away from, based on your health history. Discuss any significant changes to your lifestyle or health routine with your general practitioner before you get started.
How Clearing can help
Whether you’re brand new to lifestyle medicine or already a pro, Clearing has solutions that can help support you in your pain management journey. Targeted to your type of pain, your treatment may include a prescription compound cream, home exercise program, nutraceuticals, health coaching, access to leading pain specialists, and more.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.