LOS ALTOS, CA, April 4, 2013 – In his testimony before the Senate Health Committee in 2009, Dr. Dean Ornish, founder and president of the California-based Preventative Medicine Research Institute (PMRI) and professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, made it clear that the road to better health is not paved with new drugs and high-tech surgery but by maintaining healthy habits.
“Last year, $2.1 trillion were spent in this country on medical care, or 16.5% of the gross national product, and 95 cents of every dollar were spent to treat disease after it had already occurred,” he said. “Heart disease, diabetes, prostate and breast cancer, and obesity account for 75% of these health care costs, and yet these are largely preventable and even reversible by changing diet and lifestyle.
“What we eat, how we respond to stress, whether or not we smoke cigarettes, how much exercise we get, and the quality of our relationships and social support can be as powerful as drugs and surgery…. Often, even better.”
A little more than a year after he gave this testimony – and after a total of 16 years of effort – Medicare gave its seal of approval to what’s now officially known as the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease, a regimen that takes into account nutrition, fitness, stress management, and our connection with others as part of an integrated approach to improved minds and bodies.
Although Dr. Ornish stresses the fact that no one aspect of his system – known colloquially as The Ornish Spectrum – is sufficient by itself, he places special emphasis on the need for love and support.
“There isn’t any other factor in medicine – not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery – that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes than loneliness and isolation” he writes on his web site.
“Love and intimacy — our ability to connect with ourselves and others, is at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well, what causes sadness and what brings happiness, what makes us suffer and what leads to healing.”
During a recent conversation, I asked Dr. Ornish how he happened to come to this conclusion.
“I wrote a book about this in 1998 called ‘Love and Survival’ in which I reviewed the evidence at the time,” he said. “There were hundreds of studies, thousands of studies now, showing that people who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated are three to ten times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love and connection.
“It’s very hard to get people to change their lifestyle unless you deal with these deeper issues. I’ve been impressed that the need for love and intimacy is as primal a human need as is the need for air and water and sleep.”
He went on to say that it’s not just our relationships with one another that can have a significant impact on our health but also our relationship with the divine.
“Anything that can create that experience of connection to something beyond oneself is healing.”
Our conversation then turned to those qualities of thought that can help or hinder our ability to cultivate these healthy connections and, by association, healthy lives. Number one on that list is compassion.
During his first study on heart disease in 1977, Dr. Ornish found himself intervening in an argument between two men, which resulted in both individuals suffering severe chest pains.
“I said, ‘For your own health and well-being, I want you to be more compassionate with each other, not because it’s going to give you some external reward in the future [but because] that’s what’s going to free you from your suffering right here and right now.’
“When you’re compassionate, when you’re forgiving, it doesn’t condone or excuse what the other person’s done, but it frees you from the suffering that goes along with that.”
And what about the flip side of the coin? Dr. Ornish uses the term “spiritual heart disease” to describe that frame of mind that tends to distance us from one another and, I might add, the aforementioned divine.
“The most toxic emotions are anger, fear, anxiety, and cynicism,” he said, “not Type A behavior or multitasking or leading a productive life.”
“Chronic hostility and anger and cynicism are among the most toxic emotions to the heart.”
Of course, it’s one thing to tell someone they should be more compassionate and less hostile, but quite another to compel this behavior, even when they’re faced with a life-threatening disease.
What does Dr. Ornish recommend?
“I’ve learned that anything that tries to motivate people to change based on fear is not sustainable. Fear is not a sustainable motivator, but joy is.”
According to Dr. Ornish, this sense of joy and sustainable health comes from discovering that what you’re being asked to give up – whether it’s an unhealthy habit or an unhealthy quality of thought – pales in comparison to the immediate benefits received.
Towards the end of our conversation, I couldn’t help but connect the dots between what I was hearing and my own religious upbringing. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been doing my best to put into practice not only what I’ve read in the Bible but what I have felt intuitively. It’s also what Dr. Ornish has been encouraging in others for the past 36 years: to nurture a sense of what I think of as divinely inspired compassion – both for ourselves and others – and to let go of those elements of thought that are anything but conducive to our health.
It’s a prescription that’s been around for millennia and continues to work wonders.
“We don’t have to wait for a new breakthrough,” said Dr. Ornish, “we just need to put into practice what we already know.”
Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner, whose articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.
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