Dr. Dean Ornish, Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), is perhaps best known for his pioneering work in how to use food and simple lifestyle strategies to improve health.
And for 40 years, Dr. Ornish has directed clinical research showing you can reverse not only Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, but also coronary heart disease, even severe cases, through lifestyle changes that can be boiled down to “Eat well, move more, stress less and love more.”
A Key element of Dr. Ornish’s studies demonstrates that these same lifestyle changes can slow, stop or reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer, and probably breast cancer too.
“We found that these same lifestyle changes actually change your genes, turning on the good genes and turning off the bad genes, specifically the genes that promote heart disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer,” he says.
“We did a study with Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD., who received the Nobel Prize for her pioneering work with telomeres. We found that these lifestyle changes could actually increase the enzyme telomerase in just three months that repairs and lengthens telomeres. Over a five-year period, we found that these lifestyle changes could actually lengthen telomeres.
When The Lancet sent out a press release announcing this study, they called it ‘reversing aging at a cellular level.’ We have just begun the first randomized trial to see if this program can reverse the progression of men and women who have early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
The more diseases we study and the more mechanisms we look at, the more reasons we have to explain why these changes are so powerful and how quickly people can often get better in ways we can measure.”
Since the early 90’s, Dr. Ornish, through the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, a nonprofit organization, has been training hospitals, clinics and physician groups around the US. Despite the program’s early success, many sites ended up closing down due to lack of insurance reimbursement.
What really motivates people to make sustainable changes is not fear of dying; it is the Joy of Living he says, and his program acknowledges and leverages this knowledge.
“When they change their lifestyle, most people feel so much better so quickly in ways that really matter to them. For example, people with heart disease often have angina or chest pain … [W]ithin, usually, a few days or a few weeks, they’re essentially pain-free. They … say things like, ‘Well, I like eating junk food, but not that much. Because what I gain is so much more than what I give up.’
That’s really the key. It’s that we’re always making choices … These are choices worth making. You feel so much better so quickly that it really reframes the reason for making these changes — from fear of dying or fear of a bad thing happening, to joy, pleasure, love and feeling good. The bigger changes in lifestyle are a big part of that.
The support groups we have are not really the classical support group of exchanging recipes and shopping tips and types of running shoes, but rather creating a safe environment where people can connect in a deep and authentic love for each other.
You know, 50 years ago, people had an extended family they saw regularly. They had a job that felt secure. They had a church or synagogue they went to regularly, a club they belonged to, a neighborhood with two or three generations of people. Today most people don’t have any of those.”
20 years ago, Dr. Ornish wrote the book “Love and Survival: 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health,” which reviewed evidence from what are now tens of thousands of studies showing that people who are lonely, depressed and isolated are 3 to 10X more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love and connection in community.
“I do not know anything in medicine that has that big of an impact,” Dr. Ornish says.
Through his studies, Dr. Ornish has also learned that most harmful behaviors and habits are adaptive ways to deal with emotional pain.
“I’ve had patients say things like, ‘I have got 20 friends in this pack of cigarettes. They are always there for me, and nobody else is. You want to take away my 20 friends. What are you going to give me?'” Dr. Ornish says.
So, while information is important, it’s not usually enough to motivate people to make permanent changes.
Dr. Ornish declares that, “Love is 1 of those 4-letter words that you’re not really supposed to talk about as a scientist or as a doctor.” Instead, terms like psycho-social support or bonding are used, but regardless of the terms, Dr. Ornish’s program is a love-based one.
“40 years ago, when I was a freshman in college at Rice University in Houston, I got suicidally depressed,” he says. “That was my doorway into learning about this. Creating an environment that feels nurturing and loving, like the support group, is the part of our work that some people make the most fun of …
That’s why in my new book, “love more” is the 4th component of, ‘Eat well, move more, stress less, love more,’ because love is really what enables people to make these other changes. It has healing benefits in its own right. Even the word ‘healing’ comes from the root ‘to make whole.’ Yoga comes from the Sanskrit meaning ‘to yoke, unite,’ ‘union.’ These are really old ideas that have been rediscovered …
More money is spent on antidepressants, as well as cholesterol-lowering drugs, than pretty much anything else. We need to address this. Because what I learned when I was so depressed when I was in college is that if you tell someone who’s lonely and depressed that they’re going to live longer if they just change their diet, or move more, or eat well or stress less … it does not work for them.
They say, ‘I’m just trying to survive. I’m just trying to get through the day. I don’t know if I want to live longer’ … I think just the act of knowing that we’re mortal, and understanding what really brings happiness … choosing not to do something that you otherwise could do imbues those choices with meaning. And if they’re meaningful, then they’re sustainable.”
Dr. Ornish also discusses the benefits of meditation, which is part of the program. Among those benefits is finding your center so that you can empower yourself without adding stress. “My whole approach is really about addressing the underlying cause of why people get sick,” he says, and a major part of the problem is that we are doing something to disturb our innate peace and well-being.
The answer then is simply to stop doing that which causes the disturbance.
Meditation can give you the direct experience of this part of you that is undisturbed and not stressed, and provide the mental clarity to actually notice what it is that you are doing that is causing you to feel uneasy or “dis-eased.”
“I would encourage anyone reading this, when you meditate, at the end of a meditation, when you are feeling more peaceful, just ask yourself a simple question: ‘What am I not paying attention to that would be helpful? … Then just listen. You will be amazed at what comes up,” Dr. Ornish says.
“If you want to learn how to meditate, we can do it right now. It takes all of 30 secs. Close your eyes, assuming you’re not in a car or some place that you need to be looking, and take a deep breath. Bring your awareness to one of these mantra sounds. Let’s use the word ‘one,’ because it’s secular and it will not offend anyone.
[Just intone] ‘One’ … When you run out of air, do it again. Over and over again. What invariably will happen is your mind will start to wander. You’ will start to think about 1,000 things you should be doing or forgot to do or whatever.
That is normal, as everybody’s mind wanders.
If you become aware that you’re thinking about something else, just bring it back to the sound. Then your mind really begins to quiet down in a very deep way …you will eliminate the ‘monkey thoughts’.
Consistency is more important than the duration … Just a few minutes at the beginning of the day or the end of the day can really make a huge difference. If you can do more, even better.”
In his book, book, Dr. Ornish asuggests making breakfast and lunch the main meals of your day, and then eating a much smaller dinner or nothing at all, so that you are intermittently fasting for at least 12 to 14 hours every day.
From my review of the literature, is the shortened eating window is a more effective activator of autophagy and removal of cellular debris that will contribute to deadly chronic inflammation.
“First of all, you sleep better because your body’s not trying to work, process and digest your food while you’re trying to rest and sleep. Also, there is a lot of evidence that [intermittent fasting] gives the body a chance to detoxify and clean itself out.
It is one of the reasons why when you eat a healthier diet, not just what you eat but how you eat and when you eat, will make a difference as well. The challenge with that is … that most of us in our culture tend to connect with our family or loved ones over dinner.
When you push back that window to 3 hours before bed time, that could be a challenge. But, it is just an opportunity for exploring some novel approaches, I guess.”
If you are interested in Dr. Ornish’s program, you can get all the information you need from his book, “Undo It! How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases.”
If you would like further guidance, you can find a listing of all the sites that have been trained and certified to teach the program on Ornish.com, along with support groups you can attend free of charge.
At present, there are facilities offering the program in 18 states.
Eat healthy, Be healthy, Live lively