Chronic disease is the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S., accounting for 86 percent of all healthcare dollars spent, but Dr. Aisha Thomas, a board-certified internal medicine and infectious disease physician who also is trained and certified in Lifestyle Medicine, says many of the chronic conditions people suffer from can be prevented “by practicing the six pillars of lifestyle medicine, which include a whole food, plant-based diet; physical activity; restorative sleep; stress management; avoidance of risky substances; and positive social connections.
“Lifestyle changes can help alleviate and often reverse conditions by treating the underlying cause of disease rather than its symptoms,” she adds. “Lifestyle medicine specialists like me have mastered the science of preventing, treating and reversing chronic disease through whole-person, prescriptive lifestyle changes.”
The World Health Organization backs up that assessment, reporting that 80 percent of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes and 40 percent of cancer could be prevented by evidence-based improvements in diet and lifestyle.
“Typically, physicians prescribe medicines to treat the symptoms of the diseases, month after month, day in and day out, but they aren’t curing anything,” Dr. Thomas says. “I’ve been practicing in Sebastian since 2013 but it was during the pandemic that I decided to focus more on lifestyle medicine.
“We quickly identified that it was lifestyle and wellness factors that made the patient’s COVID-19 symptoms more complicated. Patients with diabetes, obesity and things like that were the patients at highest risk for bad outcomes. It made me see that lifestyle changes were critical to keep patients on the path to good health.
“Even though you have a genetic code for something like hypertension, you can keep it shut off by lifestyle changes. We have the ability to get a genetic baseline on your metabolism and how you process fats and minerals. We can tailor a diet for you to follow that will keep those [harmful] genes shut off. Studies show that the best diet for general health and longevity is actually whole, plant-based food. So many people eat so much processed food without knowing they are doing themselves a disservice.”
Dr. Thomas asserts that the six pillars of lifestyle medicine are really quite simple to follow once you establish a smart goal for each pillar. She suggests making your goals manageable and attainable. Stick to those goals and you will live a longer life.
Nutrition: Eat a whole food, plant-based diet. This can be achieved by eating the colors of the rainbow that you find in fresh fruits and vegetables. By purposely eating six colors a day in fresh fruit and vegetables you will benefit from their antioxidant properties that help reverse cardiovascular disease by reducing inflammation in your blood vessels.
Physical activity: Movement is a golden key to better health and everyone should strive to do a moderate activity like walking 30 minutes each day. You should walk quickly enough to where you can talk but you can’t sing. A nice brisk walk benefits your cardiovascular system and helps keep you limber and fit by maintaining your balance and flexibility. It also helps by increasing antioxidants and blood vessel dilation.
Restorative sleep: The average person needs at least seven hours of sleep, preferably getting at least one hour in before midnight. That’s when your hormones are regenerated. Obviously, some people work at night and it’s challenging for them because it does mess with their circadian rhythm. Try to avoid a nightcap for at least three hours before retiring because it will inhibit sleep. Avoid watching TV right before going to bed or while in bed because the blue light from the TV stimulates centers in the brain. Also, getting exposure to sunlight early in the morning helps you to sleep at night.
Stress management: Find healthy ways to relax, such as exercise and listening to music. Try to be creative and find hobbies and make an effort to connect with other people and participate in group activities. Figure out what things work for you to reduce stress based on how you feel. Dr. Thomas suggests keeping a journal about your lifestyle changes and activities to gain perspective and find your happy place, whether it is a walk on the beach, meditation, a fast game of pickleball, or getting a massage to give yourself peace and calm.
Avoid risky substances: Alcohol, illegal drugs and even prescribed drugs can be risky if used the incorrectly or recklessly. Risky means something that can be harmful. Even though medical marijuana is now legal, some people overdo it. and tens of millions of Americans continue to smoke tobacco, despite its known harmful effects. Likewise, even more people load up on high quantities of sugar, salt, bad fats and ultra-processed foods that often are full of non-nutritive chemicals (plus more sugar and fat).
Positive social connections: We are social creatures and isolation can cause psychological harm. When you don’t have social interaction, depression is more likely to set in. Once you start connecting with other people, you are likely to feel better. Join some activities at the local library, civic center or university. Join a spiritual group. Volunteer in your community or at an animal shelter where you’ll experience unconditional affection from the animals you care for.
Volunteering gives you sense of altruism and self-worth. Studies show that when you help someone else it releases beneficial chemicals that give you a sense of wellbeing and belonging.
Dr. Thomas is in practice with Dr. Sydney Nichols, a board-certified pediatrician specializing in lifestyle medicine for children.
“One in three children in the United States are obese,” Dr. Nichols says. “Some as young as 10 already have plaque that leads to coronary artery disease. Their lifestyle habits, what they eat, how they exercise all begin in childhood. Diabetes and hypertension is being diagnosed earlier and earlier, as are some cancers such as colon cancer. I’ve seen a 9-year-old child with diabetes type 2 … these children are eating highly processed red meats, fats and sugars, and not enough fiber in the diet from fruits and vegetables.
“We try to impact the child’s life early so they can think about living a healthy lifestyle with a plant-based diet, manage stress, get adequate sleep and exercise and maintain meaningful relationships. These all affect the child’s mental and physical health.”
“When you leave our office, you do not leave with a prescription for a medicine or pill,” Dr. Thomas says. “Instead, you are leaving with a personalized lifestyle goal that will help you live a healthy life. The way you live your life will be different and you will be living without costly meds that often have more side effects than benefits. You will become your own physician. We simply guide you and help you on the path to good health.”
Dr. Aisha Thomas received her medical degree from Spartan Health Sciences University, completed her residency at Wayne State University, and a fellowship at Medical University of South Carolina College of medicine. Dr. Nichols received his medical degree from St. George University in Grenada and was trained in pediatrics at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The doctors’ offices are located in Sebastian. Call 772-783-2124 for an appointment.