Programs helping people with chronic disease do have something in common though.

I gave a talk last week to a group of lovely women who wanted to know more about what I’ve learned from interviewing dozens of scientists about the connection between our mind, body and health, and what changes I’ve made in my life in order to get well and stay well after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Afterwards, I invited them to ask questions and there were two things that struck me about what happened next.

The first (and this is something that always strikes me when I talk at events) is that no one is safe from the chronic disease epidemic. Every woman in the audience had been touched by it. If they themselves didn’t have a chronic condition such as cancer, diabetes, chronic migraines, aches and pains, fatigue, or depression, then someone they loved did. This is not surprising. The reality is, we’re living in the age of chronic disease. According to the World Organisation there’s more than a one in two chance you’ll end up dying with a chronic illness, and one in four people have two or more chronic health conditions.

The second thing that struck me was the nature of the questions that they had. Half of the questions my audiences asked were focused on what specific foods I do and do not eat. They wanted to know what my thoughts were on things such as dairy, gluten, sugar, meat, and specific vitamins and supplements.

As a health journalist, I’m used to getting questions about diet. And for good reason. There’s little doubt that diet is one of the most important influencers of our health. Insufficient fruit and vegetable intake is among the top ten risk factors contributing to mortality worldwide. Indeed, I consider the whole-food, plant-focused diet that I eat to be a major part of the reason I’m symptom free and don’t require medication for my illness. But having said that, I don’t think that any one ingredient in my diet was the cause of my illness, or that changing any one ingredient in my diet is the cure.

Since I released my film The Connection, I’ve heard countless tales of people who like me, have spent thousands of dollars on alternative health consultations, overhauled their diet by cutting out a macro- or micro- ingredient such as sugar, or carbs, or non-organic produce, then blown through their savings only to feel like a high-maintenance killjoy when dining out with friends.

I want to make it clear that I’m not arguing that many people don’t improve their health significantly after they’ve worked out a specific trigger for their illness, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the dozens of interviews I’ve done with scientists on the front line of trying to solve the chronic health epidemic it’s that in most cases, when it comes to complex chronic conditions such as autoimmune disease, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, there is no one thing that lies at the root cause. When modern medicine fails us, we want to blame it on gluten, or dairy, or a vitamin deficiency, or some other single component of life because its often the most straight forward explanation. In many ways, I wish that my recovery was as simple as just focusing on my diet, then I could have ignored the fact that other areas in my life (stress, emotions, sleep, exercise etc) were way out of whack.

When I consider the work of the experts that I’ve met, who are showing in published academic papers that their programs can significantly help people with chronic disease, such as Dean Ornish’s program from heart disease, George Jelinek’s program for Multiple Sclerosis and Herbert Benson’s mind-body programs, there are a number of things that they all have in common:

  • People are supervised by conventional medical doctors.
  • People shift their diet to include more whole foods and fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • People are taught to integrate movement and exercise into their every day lives.
  • They’re taught how make meditation and mindfulness a habit not a chore.
  • They’re taught about emotional balance and to change the way they view stress.
  • They’re also part of a supportive community.

In other words, their foundation is taking a whole health, whole life approach to getting better.

When I look at my own health crisis, I now know that I got sick because of a perfect storm. I had a genetic predisposition to runaway inflammation, poor diet, poor sleep, chronic stress and I was taking on the emotional problems of others as if they were my own. It wasn’t until I stopped looking for the ONE thing that was causing my illness and started looking at ALL the areas in my life that needed attention, that my health really started turning around.

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