A research pioneer and advocate in the field of integrative medicine for four decades, Dr. Dean Ornish has been leading the charge for lifestyle intervention to reverse chronic disease. He shares highlights of his work and talks about his new book “Un-Do It” with Parvati Magazine this month.
Low-tech Interventions Can Reverse Heart Disease
Parvati Magazine: Since your debut book, “Stress, Diet & Your Heart” 35 years ago, what has changed in mainstream understanding about heart health? What has surprised you?
Dean Ornish: When I started doing research over 30 or 40 years ago, it was not really possible to reverse the progression of heart disease. We were able to show through a series of studies that, in fact, it can be reversed. That idea, which was considered radical at the time, has now become mainstream. After 16 years of review, in 2010, Medicaid created a new benefit category to cover my intensive cardiac rehabilitation for reversing heart disease.
In my new book, “Un-Do It”, I present a new unified theory: that although we might think of heart disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, etc. as different chronic diseases, they really are different manifestations of the same disease. They share the same underlying biological mechanisms: chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, changes in the microbiome, telomeres and gene expression. Each of these biological mechanisms are directly influenced by what we eat, how we respond to stress, how much we exercise and how much love and support we have. So often, people think it has to be a new drug, or very high-tech and expensive intervention. Rather, I think our unique contribution has been to use very high-tech, state-of-the-art scientific measures to prove how powerful low-tech, low-cost interventions can be.
One thing that surprised me was that I thought that younger patients with less severe disease would have better outcomes. I was wrong: it wasn’t about how old or how sick a patient was, but the degree of change in lifestyle and behaviour. This is a very empowering message for people to know that it’s never too late.
Parvati Magazine: Despite supportive data, what are the greatest barriers that people face in implementing change?
Dean Ornish: The greatest barrier is this misperception that lifestyle changes can’t be that powerful. Several patients whom I wrote about in “Un-Do It” prove this perception to be untrue, particularly one who was severely ailing and on the waitlist for a heart transplant when she went through my program at UCLA. Within nine weeks, she improved so much she didn’t need a heart transplant anymore.
Another barrier is in the belief that I have to choose between eating what I want and perhaps living a shorter life with sickness, versus a boring, ascetic life so that I can live longer. Nothing could be further from the truth: when you live in the way that we talked about, you have more energy, need less sleep, brain neurons grow in your hippocampus and boost memory, your brain gets better blood flow and can get measurably bigger. Because these mechanisms are so dynamic, most people feel much better very quickly. Wellness is sustainable because it is joyful.
Parvati Magazine: As a doctor and researcher, how do you see the physical heart, a muscle giving us life, as connected with the heart of love?
Dean Ornish: We have learned that it’s not enough to give people information to change behaviour. We need to address a deeper issue, down to social, emotional, spiritual questions. Some patients have said that being diagnosed with cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them, because that’s what it took to seriously change their behaviours to transform their life and rediscover inner sources of peace and joy and well-being.
Parvati Magazine: You collaborated with your wife Anne for “Un-Do It”. How has your professional partnership evolved over the years?
Dean Ornish: We’re the yin and the yang. We have been working together for over 20 years, husband and wife for 13 years and she developed a whole management system for all the hospital and clinics we train. We have two different voices in the book and we complement one another. It’s been a real joy to be able to share so much of our lives together. As we continue to grow together we have that much more to offer other people as well.
Dr. Dean Ornish is the president and founder of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is a recognizedthought leader, a beloved author and has served as physician consultant to former US President Clinton.