Preventing and Managing Chronic Diseases: What Matters?

Stroke prevention page image 260 × 180

By Mimi Guarneri, MD, Scripps Health

With more than 80 million Americans living with some form of heart disease, 5.3 million with Alzheimer’s and 46 million with arthritis, it is easy to believe that such chronic diseases are an inevitable part of aging. The truth is, we can prevent the onset and slow down the progression of most chronic diseases that people suffer with today by taking the right steps to care for ourselves. This holistic approach includes not just our physical bodies, but our mind and spirit as well.

Let food be your medicine.

We can get most of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy and fight off disease through the foods that we eat every day, but we need to make smart choices. Minimize your intake of simple carbohydrates such as:

  • Cakes
  • Cookies
  • Chips
  • Sugary cereals
  • White bread
  • Rice.

Simple carbohydrates also include liquids such as fruit juice, alcoholic drinks and soda (even diet soda can cause weight gain). Low in nutritional value and high in calories, simple carbohydrates make it easy to gain excess weight, which can lead to obesity and heart disease. Moreover, they can raise your blood sugar levels, making you more prone to develop diabetes.

One easy rule to follow is to avoid white foods, such as white bread, rice and pasta, as well as foods made with white sugar and flour. Build meals around lean proteins and whole foods high in fiber, such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains such as brown rice and whole wheat bread. Don’t be fooled by brown breads and pastas that appear to be whole grain; some of them are colored to look healthier. Check the labels and make sure that “whole wheat” or another whole grain is the first ingredient.

Minimize inflammation in your body.

Inflammation is a factor in many chronic conditions including coronary artery disease, autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, obesity and cancer. An anti-inflammatory diet that emphasizes increasing foods that reduce inflammation and minimizing foods that promote it can have a significant influence on the prevention of disease. Foods that promote inflammation include trans fats and saturated fats, such as junk food, high-fat meat and full-fat dairy products, and foods rich in arachidonic acid (red meat and egg yolks).

Conversely, “good” fats, such as Omega-3 essential fatty acids found in cold-water oily fish, walnuts and ground flax seeds, have powerful anti-inflammatory properties, as do antioxidants, soy isoflavones, plant sterols, probiotics and fiber. Follow a “Mediterranean diet” that includes lean proteins like fish, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and heart-healthy olive oil, all of which can help reduce inflammation. Include anti-inflammatory spices, such as ginger, turmeric, garlic, cloves and rosemary.

Take the right supplements.

Evidence-based supplements which are backed by medical research, such as fish oil, can reinforce the body’s systems and further help ward off disease. Ask your physician about taking supplements, and look for products that follow United States Pharmacopeia (USP) standards and NPA (Natural Products Association) Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) guidelines.

Address the psychological causes of disease.

How we live and perceive our life has a profound effect on our health. Stress, hostility, anger and depression can all hurt us not just emotionally, but physically. For example, an outburst of anger increases the risk of a heart attack in the next two hours by 230 percent.

Chronic stress can cause:

  • Raised blood pressure
  • Arrhythmia
  • Headaches
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Heart attack
  • High cholesterol
  • Muscle spasm
  • Stroke

Stress hormones, such as cortisol, will worsen diabetes and cause mid-line weight gain. Hans Selye stated that “aging is nothing more than the sum total of all the stressors that we place on your life.” Frequently we cannot change situations in our life, but we can change our response and perception. The path to transforming stress may vary from person to person. Some may prefer to chant, pray, repeat mantras or meditate. We should practice one or all of these on a daily basis. I believe we also need to practice monitoring our thoughts throughout the day and observe how we respond to others in order to shift our perception.

Nurture your whole being.

A healthy mind and spirit are as important as a healthy body. Spend time each day in nature: walk, bike, hike or swim. Take a break from the demands of technology and spend one day per week without using a cell phone, computer, television, or any electronic device. Spend the day with loved ones or in quiet contemplation. Instead of watching news or talk shows that focus on negative reports which promote fear and anxiety, read uplifting books or watch movies that renew your sense of hope. Each night before going to sleep, write down five things for which you are grateful. Any time you feel stressed or overwhelmed, stop what you are doing and take a few moments to focus on your breathing. Deep, focused breaths –inhaling and exhaling for five counts each – are an excellent tool to calm body and mind.

Mimi Guarneri, MD, is a world-renowned cardiologist at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. Join Dr. Guarneri for a special lecture celebrating national heart month on Tuesday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Schaetzel Center on the Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla campus. Learn about the importance of genetic and diagnostic testing that can help determine a woman’s risk for heart disease, explore the role of hormones, nutrition and mind-body medicine, and enter a drawing for a chance to win a free heart scan. There is no cost to attend; please register by calling 1-800-SCRIPPS.