Diane McIntosh and Bryn Hyndman talk about the growing trend of integrating lifestyle medicine into traditional medicine.

Eating well, exercising, connecting with friends—these are the new doctor’s orders. Lifestyle medicine, which is essentially a prescription for the good habits, behaviours and choices we make as individuals, is a field of medicine that’s gaining traction, says Dr. Bryn Hyndman, a family doctor and former naturopathic in Vancouver, B.C. who recently chatted with Dr. Diane McIntosh about its increasing popularity.

“How we live has a tremendous impact on our day-to-day lives and how we feel,” Dr. Hyndman says. “There are all these factors in our life that really impact our risk of chronic disease.”

Alongside medications and surgical procedures, lifestyle medicine involves prescribing simple changes that people can make to their daily habits in order to prevent disease and optimize health. These interventions are meant to work alongside traditional medicine – patients are still prescribed medications when appropriate, but they are also counselled regarding lifestyle modifications that promote optimal wellness.

Lifestyle medicine isn’t a new-age concept unsupported by science, says Hyndman. There is actually scientific data, with many studies supporting such practices as forest bathing to support  mental health, the role of the Mediterranean diet in preventing depression, or the impact of social contact on preventing mental illness.

And best of all, these interventions come with no side effects, can be easily adopted by patients and can have a powerful impact on mental health. “We need support for lifestyle medicine,” says Hyndman.

Pillars of lifestyle medicine: a simple prescription

Mental and physical health are tightly correlated, and tackling health with just a prescription pad or a surgical procedure is like practicing with one arm tied behind your back.

Lifestyle medicine complements medications and procedures in addressing the “whole health” of the individual. Exercise, diet, social well-being and quality sleep are all key factors in whole health, and each is supported with ample research evidence underpinning its value.

  1. Exercise: Exercise has been shown to reduce stress, improve cardiovascular health and stave off cognitive decline, while also helping people cope with pain and boosting mood with its antidepressant properties. Higher stress levels in adulthood are significantly associated with developing mild cognitive impairment and dementia later in life. Stress is also linked to the development of various chronic disorders, including depression. As a result, lifestyle medicine promotes the value of decreasing stress levels through activities such as meditation, mindfulness, and exercise.
  2. Diet: Lifestyle medicine promotes dietary choices that have scientific data supporting their value in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, lowering blood pressure, and improving mood disorders. Examples include eating more greens and a Mediterranean diet. Additionally, evidence underscores the importance of avoiding or limiting substances such as alcohol, nicotine and THC in cannabis, as they can lead to significant mental and physical health issues.
    Social well-being: Having strong social connections, whether with one close friend or a larger social group, can be beneficial in staving off mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. Recent studies have also shown that strong social networks can help prevent cognitive disorders such as dementia. (See another article we did on health impacts of loneliness).
  3. Quality sleep: Getting a good night’s sleep is critical in preventing chronic health problems, such as obesity, depression, high blood pressure and memory issues. Sleep can be a cure, but it can also be elusive. Getting to the bottom of sleep problems can be transformative for an individual’s quality of life – and health.

If there’s so much evidence, why is lifestyle medicine overlooked?

The challenge at the moment is with integrating lifestyle medicine into traditional medical care to optimize patient outcomes, says Hyndman. She says that silos and time constraints within the healthcare system often prevent clinicians from looking at the whole picture – leading to an overreliance on other treatments without also considering lifestyle elements that could significantly impact health outcomes. While medications often play a critical role in the recovery from a mental illness, healthy lifestyle interventions can go a long way to help an individual get better faster and to stay well.

Hyndman says that in her practice she undertakes an assessment of a patient’s lifestyle to determine what conditions require drug treatment and which could be helped through diet and exercise. Then she develops a treatment plan that incorporates elements of traditional medicine and elements of lifestyle medicine.

“These habits should be integrated into every medical interaction with your family doctor, nurse practitioner and with your psychiatrist,” she says, adding, “Lifestyle medicine isn’t the be-all and end-all, but let’s just become more aware of how we’re living.”

This blog post is part of a series looking at the state of our mental healthcare system and ways we can create sustainable change to improve quality and outcomes for anyone impacted by mental illness.

Time to reflect

If you’re like me and enjoy, or even savour, alone time, this is part of the gift that comes with a reflections tradition.

I consider the questions below in my happy places, while skiing or walking on valley trails – and I reflect.

Carry these questions with you and consider them often, especially if you are a reflective thinker as I am.

When I finally sit down to write, a flood of impressions fill my journal pages.

You can make this exercise as short, or as long, as you like. It’s for you and no one else.

What first struck me when I did this exercise was having 23 answers just for question number one!

Without this exercise, I wouldn’t have been conscious of how many upsides and wins happened for me in a year!

Ask yourself

  1. What was the biggest victory/accomplishments of the year?
  2. What was the lesson/learning I got from these achievements?
  3. What was the greatest defeat/disappointments of the year?
  4. What was the lesson/learning I got from these failures?
  5. What am I letting go, relationships, situations, things, beliefs, and behaviors
  6. What am I replacing these with? What relationships, beliefs, and behaviors?

It’s reflection not perfection

When we start a new exercise or habit: it’s better done short than not done at all! This is not a massive task – it’s a fun project to deepen your self knowledge and to create a personal roadmap for the year ahead.

Make it your style. Keep it short and sweet if that’s what you have in you right now. Knowing your style can help you master new productive healthy habits and make them work for you.

Reflections of my own

As I reflect on 2023, I increased my focus on my family and organisation – in my work and in my home.

I simplified and streamlined. I decluttered, reviewed almost every piece of paper and belonging in my office and also my home.

This liberated energy and enhanced my clarity, because what remains in my belongings reflects what I value: holistic well-being, family, and lifelong learning.

I am celebrating this because I am now more organised, I have more peace – I know how to access what I need, and I know what I have.

Consequently, I have more time and less chaos! Meanwhile, I can say “no” to more things, stuff, and commitments that don’t align with my values.

Lessons learned

A disappointment in the last year is that I invested time and money in a new business, in what I thought was my passion project. But four months into it I lost all enthusiasm and dropped it.

Here’s my silver lining: when something feels like more effort and work versus inspiration and boundless creativity, it is not a passion project.

I exited my failed venture and had an “a-ha” moment: embrace what energizes you! For me, that’s filming health content on my YouTube channel (@DrBrynMD).

What are some trials and tribulations that stood out for you last year? Now that some time has passed, can you examine them through a new lens and see what gifts and learnings might reveal themselves?

With my patients and myself, I focus on growth within one, some, or all, of the five pillars of health: food, sleep, movement, purpose, and connection.

Now, it’s time to focus on you — to strive for energized, playful, bold; to use this reflections tradition as a challenge!

Give yourself the time to invest in yourself; to look back and recognise all that you’ve done, where and how you’ve grown, and what’s important to you this year.

Remember, this challenge is not a massive task, and the upsides are worth the time you’ll spend on yourself. —LP