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  • Patricia Pearce, ND

Managing "Lifestyle Diseases" With Drugs: A Flawed System of Medicine

When I describe what I mean by "diseases of lifestyle" (like type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease) to my clients, I like to use the analogy of a car. Imagine that at 16 years old, everyone gets a brand-new car, for free! The only catch is that this is your ONLY car and you have to keep this car for as long as you live. Therefore, it's your responsibility to care for and maintain it so it serve you for decades to come. For some people, this task is easy and even fun, because they love cars! Working on and maintaining it will be a pleasure. Some people will have plenty of money to put into their car and pay for repairs. A few might, through the luck of the draw, get a car that seems to run well and function with fairly little maintenance. However, many people, despite a sincere desire to care for their beloved car, simply do not have the time, the energy, or the desire to put in all the work required to make the car last. But that's okay, because that's what a mechanic is for!

Now pretend you are one of the lucky recipients of a free car. Although you like your car and you've done your best to keep up with its maintenance, over the years things start to go wrong. You realize your car isn't running as well as it used to, it doesn't always start right away, and it occasionally breaks down. Despite the expense you decide to bring your car into a mechanic. After several diagnostic tests, the mechanic tells you that some pipes are getting clogged (you don't know what that means) and the battery looked corroded. No problem, he tells you. Once a day, wipe off the battery with "No Corrode," and tip 3 drops of "Clog Begone," into your gas tank.

"This will make my car run better?" you ask. "Of course," he says, "The drops will prevent further build-up in the pipes, and hopefully we can stretch the life of the battery if you wipe some of the corrosion away. One day, maybe we will change the battery. But it's expensive."

You respond, "But what about regular maintenance? I've decided to take better care of my car. What can I do to get it to run like new again?" The mechanic frowns and tells you,

"Well, you can always try eating right and exercising."

(Of course we aren't talking about a car anymore, but I think by this point the analogy has sunk in.).

Is this analogy over-simplified? Absolutely. Is the "mechanic," or primary care physician in the story wrong? Or irresponsible? Absolutely not. Every day, family doctors see patients with lifestyle-based diseases. Our society is one that revolves around quick, convenient food found in boxes that is loaded with sugar and unhealthy fats, an almost entirely sedentary lifestyle, and a fast-paced, stress-packed work environment. These habits make lifestyle disease like obesity and high blood pressure almost inevitable. By the time an individual realizes how terrible they feel, and that they have to do something about it, the damage has accumulated for years.

Just like in the analogy, once it gets bad enough, people realize they have to seek help. Their family doctor, who due to an insurance-based practice model only has 15-20 minutes to see them, is on damage control duty. What can he or she do except prescribe drugs with the best evidence for success and quickly recommend that the patient "eat right and try exercising?" The poor doctor simply doesn't have the time to elaborate on what lifestyle changes mean in a practical sense and the poor patient is clueless as to where to even begin.

So what happens? The patient takes the medication, goes back to doing what they have always done, and everyone crosses their fingers and prays that the disease won't progress, symptoms won't worsen, and the side-effects of the medication aren't intolerable. What an absolute travesty this is, when undertaking the correct diet, an effective exercise program, nutritional supplementation, and other lifestyle-based interventions could mean the difference between vital health and a medicine cabinet full of prescriptions that may or may not be effective. This leads to frustrated doctors whose patients aren't improving and frustrated patients who wish someone would just tell them what to DO.

THAT is where Naturopathic medicine steps in.

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