‘Alternative’ Medicine Is Mainstream
The evidence is mounting that diet and lifestyle
are the best cures for our worst afflictions.
By DEEPAK CHOPRA , DEAN ORNISH , RUSTUM ROY and ANDREW WEIL
In mid-February, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences
and the Bravewell Collaborative are convening a “Summit on Integrative Medicine
and the Health of the Public.” This is a watershed in the evolution of integrative
medicine, a holistic approach to health care that uses the best of conventional
and alternative therapies such as meditation, yoga, acupuncture and herbal
remedies. Many of these therapies are now scientifically documented
to be not only medically effective but also cost effective.
[Commentary] Martin Kozlowski
President-elect Barack Obama and former Sen. Tom Daschle (the nominee
for Secretary of Health and Human Services) understand that if we want to
make affordable health care available to the 45 million Americans who do
not have health insurance, then we need to address the fundamental causes
of health and illness, and provide incentives for healthy ways of living rather
than reimbursing only drugs and surgery.
Heart disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, breast cancer and obesity account
for 75% of health-care costs, and yet these are largely preventable and even
reversible by changing diet and lifestyle. As Mr. Obama states in his health plan,
unveiled during his campaign: “This nation is facing a true epidemic of chronic
disease. An increasing number of Americans are suffering and dying needlessly
from diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma and HIV/AIDS,
all of which can be delayed in onset if not prevented entirely.”
The latest scientific studies show that our bodies have a remarkable capacity
to begin healing, and much more quickly than we had once realized, if we
address the lifestyle factors that often cause these chronic diseases. These
studies show that integrative medicine can make a powerful difference in our
health and well-being, how quickly these changes may occur, and how dynamic
these mechanisms can be.
Many people tend to think of breakthroughs in medicine as a new drug, laser
or high-tech surgical procedure. They often have a hard time believing that the
simple choices that we make in our lifestyle — what we eat, how we respond to
stress, whether or not we smoke cigarettes, how much exercise we get, and the quality of our relationships and social support — can be as powerful as drugs and surgery. But they often are. And in many instances, they’re even more powerful.
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These studies often used high-tech, state-of-the-art measures to prove the
power of simple, low-tech, and low-cost interventions. Integrative medicine
approaches such as plant-based diets, yoga, meditation and psychosocial support
may stop or even reverse the progression of coronary heart disease, diabetes,
hypertension, prostate cancer, obesity, hypercholesterolemia and other chronic
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
found that these approaches may even change gene expression in hundreds of
genes in only a few months. Genes associated with cancer, heart disease and
inflammation were downregulated or “turned off” whereas protective genes
were upregulated or “turned on.” A study published in The Lancet Oncology
reported that these changes increase telomerase, the enzyme that lengthens
telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that control how long we live. Even
drugs have not been shown to do this.
Our “health-care system” is primarily a disease-care system. Last year,
$2.1 trillion was spent in the U.S. on medical care, or 16.5% of the gross
national product. Of these trillions, 95 cents of every dollar was spent to treat
disease after it had already occurred. At least 75% of these costs were spent
on treating chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, that are
preventable or even reversible.
The choices are especially clear in cardiology. In 2006, for example, according
to data provided by the American Heart Association, 1.3 million coronary
angioplasty procedures were performed at an average cost of $48,399 each, or
more than $60 billion; and 448,000 coronary bypass operations were performed
at a cost of $99,743 each, or more than $44 billion. In other words, Americans
spent more than $100 billion in 2006 for these two procedures alone.
Despite these costs, a randomized controlled trial published in April 2007 in
The New England Journal of Medicine found that angioplasties and stents do not
prolong life or even prevent heart attacks in stable patients (i.e., 95% of those
who receive them). Coronary bypass surgery prolongs life in less than 3% of
patients who receive it. So, Medicare and other insurers and individuals pay
billions for surgical procedures like angioplasty and bypass surgery that are
usually dangerous, invasive, expensive and largely ineffective. Yet they pay very
little — if any money at all — for integrative medicine approaches that have been
proven to reverse and prevent most chronic diseases that account for at least 75%
of health-care costs. The INTERHEART study, published in September 2004 in
The Lancet, followed 30,000 men and women on six continents and found that
changing lifestyle could prevent at least 90% of all heart disease.
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That bears repeating: The disease that accounts for more premature deaths
and costs Americans more than any other illness is almost completely preventable
simply by changing diet and lifestyle. And the same lifestyle changes that can
prevent or even reverse heart disease also help prevent or reverse many other
chronic diseases as well. Chronic pain is one of the major sources of worker’s
compensation claims costs, yet studies show that it is often susceptible to
acupuncture and Qi Gong. Herbs usually have far fewer side effects than
Joy, pleasure and freedom are sustainable, deprivation and austerity are not.
When you eat a healthier diet, quit smoking, exercise, meditate and have more
love in your life, then your brain receives more blood and oxygen, so you think
more clearly, have more energy, need less sleep. Your brain may grow so many
new neurons that it could get measurably bigger in only a few months. Your face
gets more blood flow, so your skin glows more and wrinkles less. Your heart gets
more blood flow, so you have more stamina and can even begin to reverse heart
disease. Your sexual organs receive more blood flow, so you may become more
potent — similar to the way that circulation-increasing drugs like Viagra work.
For many people, these are choices worth making — not just to live longer, but
also to live better.
It’s time to move past the debate of alternative medicine versus traditional
medicine, and to focus on what works, what doesn’t, for whom, and under
which circumstances. It will take serious government funding to find out, but
these findings may help reduce costs and increase health.
Integrative medicine approaches bring together those in red states and blue
states, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, because these
are human issues. They are both medically effective and, important in our
current economic climate, cost effective. These approaches emphasize both
personal responsibility and the opportunity to make affordable, quality health
care available to those who most need it. Mr. Obama should make them an
integral part of his health plan as soon as possible.
Dr. Chopra, the author of more than 50 books on the mind, body and spirit, is
guest faculty at Beth Israel Hospital/Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ornish is clinical
professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Mr. Roy is
professor emeritus of materials science at Pennsylvania State University.
Dr. Weil is director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.