The dissonance between how human bodies evolved to live and how modern life is pushing us to live has created a plague of lifestyle-related chronic illnesses. Diabetes, hypertension, immune disorders, obesity and a whole range of diseases of lifestyle are diminishing both the length and the quality of so many lives.
Due to their chronic nature, medical interventions tend to be aimed more at managing these diseases and treating their symptoms after they have been diagnosed.
But what if, instead of trying to hold back the deluge when it is in full flood mode, you begin interventions upstream where there may still be time to redirect the course of the disease? What if, instead of trying to extinguish an inferno of inflammation with medications alone, you take away the triggers fueling the fire and perhaps add in a few flame retardants to avoid rekindling?
In chronic diseases, wellness medicine is particularly suited to work hand in hand with traditional medicine to improve outcomes and the quality of patients' lives. It also empowers patients to fight back in what is often a frustrating battle to improve their health.
"Lifestyle diseases are the scourge of the modern world," Farah Sultan, MD, founder of Vitalogy Wellness Center, said. "Desk jobs keep us sedentary, where we can't use our muscles or burn calories. Time pressures have us grabbing fast food or packaged foods heavily processed with too much salt, sugar, carbohydrates, and additives. Add to that the stresses of trying to earn a living, raise a family and just get through the frustrations of everyday life, and you have a perfect environment for chronic illnesses to thrive."
Sultan, an internist in Homewood, focuses much of her practice on wellness. She works to help healthy patients avoid preventable diseases and to help those with chronic diseases and other serious conditions improve their health.
"We see so many patients whose symptoms haven't resolved with medications alone, or who have had side effects or can't take medications because of other conditions," Sultan said. "Some want to enhance their response to treatment, or to have us work with their physicians to coordinate supportive care. For example, we have vitamin therapies for patients who have had gastric surgery or who want to build their immune system during chemotherapy.
"For patients with chronic illnesses, we offer an intensive 90-day program to accelerate their progress. After testing and assessment, we begin by improving the quality of their nutrition. The emphasis is on real food--fresh produce, lean protein and healthy fats while avoiding the excessive sugars, salt, transfats and additives in heavily processed foods.
"Exercise is also medicine. Even those who can't manage exercise classes can usually start gently with chair yoga and build their strength step by step till they can do more. Another important part of self-care is stress reduction. We can help patients learn to use stress reduction techniques like meditation and yoga to reduce the physical effects of stress and bring their mind and body into balance."
The fourth element of the program is personalized to each patient based on their diagnosis, lab values, and in some cases, genetic testing.
"When nutritional values aren't where they should be, or when evidence-based research suggests that vitamins, herbal compounds or other supplements can help alleviate symptoms or help to optimize the patient's health, we fine-tune an individually designed program of supplementation," Sultan said.
"For example, many of my patients have very low levels of vitamin D. In those cases, I sometimes do genetic testing that can indicate whether the patient has a receptor defect that requires extra supplementation.
"Vitamin D is essential to a healthy immune system, metabolism, muscles and bones, and it is a precursor to hormones. Patients who are taking statins to reduce cholesterol are also likely to need a good quality coenzyme Q-10. It helps to prevent muscle cramps and replaces the body's supply of the enzyme that statins tend to diminish. For people who can't take statins due to other health issues, there are botanicals and nutrients that can help reduce cholesterol. Omega 3s, turmeric, and resveratrol are a few of the supplements that show good research results in improving health," Sultan said.
Feeling better, staying healthier and looking better are also part of wellness at Sultan's Vitalogy clinic.
"Chronological age and body age aren't necessarily the same," Sultan said. "Telomeres at the end of our chromosomes are like the ends of shoe laces that keep them from fraying. They protect chromosome stability and the integrity of genes, as well as the number of times cells can divide and how long they can live.
"As we get older, telomeres get shorter. Damage can shorten them prematurely. We do telomere testing to determine body age and potential risks to health. If indicated, we can supplement with astragalus root, a telomerase activator that may be helpful," Sultan said.
When patients are feeling better and are getting into shape, they may also want to look better. The clinic also offers a range of facial and skin care services.
For those who have "get healthy" on their resolution list for 2017, Sultan has this advice.
"Don't make it hard. Start with baby steps and simple things you can easily do like keeping water near you so it's easy to drink more; looking for ways to walk more like parking farther away. At the grocery store, do most of your shopping on the outer aisles, where you find real foods--fresh produce, meats and dairy. Stay away from the middle aisle and the shelves of processed packaged foods full of all the things you want to avoid. Go to the farmer's market and get reacquainted with real food. Get it fresh from the people who grew it," Sultan said.
"Most of all, realize that health isn't a resolution to be dusted off every January and forgotten before spring. You need to make a year-round commitment to your health and keep on track. You are the person with the power to make this life the best life possible. Be kind to your body."