“Any intelligent person can study medical literature and understand when and when not to use various treatments. What is so difficult, even for a skilled physician, is to apply this knowledge in individual cases.”

— Maimonides (1135-1204)

“Integrative medicine, which sees health as an emergent property of the person as a complex living system, represents a higher-order system of care that emphasizes wellness and healing of the entire person (bio-psycho-socio-spiritual dimensions) as a primary goal.”

— Tracy W. Gaudet, MD

Prevention and Wellness

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Maintaining health and wellness and preventing disease are major priorities for integrative medicine.

Currently, the majority of our health care dollars are spent after a person is in crisis, when it costs the most to intervene and when the possibilities for full recovery are the slimmest. In 2008, $2.1 trillion dollars were spent on medical care to treat diseases after they had already occurred. But a recent study found that of the 7 million deaths from cancer worldwide in 2001, an estimated 35% were attributable to nine modifiable risks factors, all of which are controllable and most of which are under an individual’s own sovereignty.

Based on this and other scientific evidence, integrative medicine recommends lifestyle modifications—changes in diet and nutrition, physical activity and exercise, adopting stress management methods, and strengthening one’s social networks—to lower an individual’s risk of specific diseases and improve overall health.

The Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, under the leadership of Dean Ornish, MD, offers a comprehensive approach to lifestyle modification for people who are at high risk for or diagnosed with conditions such as coronary artery disease and prostate cancer. The program’s core components are a low-fat, whole foods diet; moderate aerobic exercise; stress management; and group support. This program, which has been approved by Medicare, is used in hospitals and clinics around the country.

The Duke Center for Integrative Medicine offers Healing for Life Retreats, which create customized health plans for patients and offer access to health and fitness services. The retreats’ experiential workshops and seminars focus on such topics as nutrition as medicine, stress management, aging, and gender-specific health issues.

The Early Detection Center at The Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine combines state-of-the-art nuclear medicine technology with lifestyle change programs to help prevent illness. They create “healing prescriptions” for their patients using a high tech–high touch approach. “With the new generation of high tech diagnostic imaging, we can detect early signs of illness and intervene with treatments and lifestyle changes when they can be most effective,” says cardiologist Erminia M. Guarneri, MD, the Scripps Center’s founder and medical director. “This is integrative medicine at its best.”

Because the food we eat plays such an important role in maintaining health, nutrition has been a key focus for research—not only what to eat but also how to grow and buy the right food and how to prepare it in a healthful way.

“As a rule of thumb, try to include foods in your diet that have less than three grams of fat per serving. Stock foods in your refrigerator that you want to have on your diet. If it’s not right in front of you, you’re less likely to eat it. Cleaning out your refrigerator can be a nice metaphor for cleaning out your body and organizing your life in the way that you want it to be,” advises Dean Ornish, MD. “Even simple choices can make a powerful difference. For example, two tablespoons of most salad dressings have as much fat as two scoops of premium ice cream. When in a restaurant, ask for the dressing on the side; just dip the tips of your fork in it with each bite, and you’ll get a fraction of the fat that you would otherwise.”

Forward-thinking hospitals have now begun to promote healthy food. Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest nonprofit health plan, opened its first farmer’s market on the grounds of the Oakland Medical Center in Oakland, California in May 2003. Today, a total of 26 Kaiser-Permanente facilities have established on-campus farmer’s markets, which enable the facilities to offer better food choices to both employees and patients and promote awareness about good nutrition.

These and other integrative approaches to maintaining a healthy lifestyle may prevent serious illness and challenging medical treatments. In his book, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health, Andrew Weil, MD wrote, “Many of the common complaints that people have these days respond much better to simple adjustments in lifestyle than to taking medicine.”