These days we have access to thousands of valuable pharmaceutical compounds packaged in tablets, powders, creams, injections and various other potions. However, are we neglecting some of the most ancient and powerful pillars of health in favour of popping pills? Doctors For Nutrition's Hannah O'Malley (BPharm) digs in. Article first published in Nourish Magazine, October 2019.
It’s no secret that nutrition has been used as medicine for millennia. From Hippocrates in the third century BCE to Esselstyn today, medical physicians have promoted the power of food, and plants in particular. Yet these days we are far more likely to walk away from a doctor’s clinic or pharmacy with a bag full of pills than a prescription for fresh produce. However, the tide is turning and more clinicians are recognising the powerful role of lifestyle medicine when it comes to preventing, treating and even reversing disease. Nutrition, of course, does not replace drugs in every circumstance, but its role as a key part of the health equation is overlooked far too often.
More clinicians are recognising the powerful role of lifestyle medicine when it comes to preventing, treating and even reversing disease.
As a pharmacist, I see dozens of patients every day with conditions that could be helped through simple yet powerful plant-based food choices. I’m pleased to say the pharmacy I work at is beginning to place more emphasis on lifestyle, now offering free healthy recipe cards to patients and even selling cans of lentils and jackfruit alongside medications. While a pharmacist is generally the health professional people see most often, if a condition is severe or persistent, then seeking advice from a doctor is certainly recommended. It’s also best to talk to your doctor before any significant lifestyle changes if you have health conditions or are on medications.
Let’s explore some common problems people consult pharmacists about and consider lifestyle prescriptions to help avoid and manage these so you can spend more time feeling your best.
Tiredness, insomnia and lack of energy are common complaints for pharmacists to hear. Many people are seeking supplements to gain an energy boost, but to determine what will be most effective it is important to look at the cause of fatigue rather than just the symptoms being experienced. Overwhelming exhaustion can be attributed to anaemia, inability to get adequate sleep, nutritional deficiencies, low thyroid levels, sleep apnoea, depression, stress and other factors. A range of pharmaceuticals may be prescribed depending on the individual case, including supplements, zopiclone, levothyroxine and antidepressants.
A whole food plant-based diet including a range of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes will maximise nutrition and help to prevent deficiencies. It’s important to make sure you eat a large enough quantity of food as whole plant foods are generally lower in caloric density. This eating pattern also excludes processed foods, which is beneficial as these may exacerbate fatigue due to the erratic blood glucose levels they can cause. You can give yourself the best chance of a good night’s sleep by minimising caffeine, avoiding alcohol and limiting pre-sleep screen time. Taking steps to remove avoidable stresses and build a supportive network of friends, family and community are also key factors that shouldn’t be underestimated.
As your largest and most visible organ, skin plays a huge role in your wellbeing. It is also prone to irritating and sometimes painful health conditions, which can seriously impact your confidence. Acne vulgaris is the most common skin disease in Western countries, affecting the vast majority of adolescents and many adults. Hormones, genetics, stress, diet and other factors play a role in the development of this condition. Usually, pharmaceutical therapies include antibacterial creams, antibiotics or tablets that regulate cell growth, such as isotretinoin.
It is reported that frequent dairy consumption may be a leading factor in the link between diet and acne, and rates of the condition are far lower in areas where dairy is not typically consumed. Many people find that a low-fat eating pattern helps reduce the number and severity of acne spots. Therefore, avoiding processed oils (including olive and coconut oil), choosing plant-based milk alternatives, and using nutritional yeast instead of dairy cheese are steps worth considering and could help pave the way to clearer skin.
We struggle to do ‘number twos’ when our bowel movements become too hard or dry. Constipation can be uncomfortable and even painful, and may lead to more complicated issues like haemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, obstruction or perforation. Common pharmaceutical therapies include fibre supplements, osmotic laxatives (that draw more water into the bowel), and stimulating laxatives.
Fibre in its natural form is essential for keeping us regular, so eating lots of vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains will reduce the risk of constipation. A study using the 2011–2012 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey reported that over 80 per cent of Australian adults did not meet the suggested dietary target of fibre, which also contributes to reducing the risk of chronic disease.
Staying well hydrated is also crucial and most people should aim to drink at least six to eight glasses of water per day, and more if exercising. Being active for at least 30 minutes per day is also important for healthy bowel function.
As we age, the protective cartilage on the ends of our bones wears away. For some people, this may lead to painful, inflamed areas where the bones rub against each other. Arthritis can lead to chronic pain, which is often managed by medication and sometimes results in surgeries to replace the joints. Common pharmaceuticals used for osteoarthritis include paracetamol, ibuprofen, diclofenac and naproxen.
Losing excess weight can ease the load through weight bearing joints such as hips and knees, often giving significant relief of pain, and a whole food plant-based diet is a proven way to achieve this. Turmeric may also offer relief for those suffering with osteoarthritis. A meta-analysis of studies using turmeric extract found reductions in pain score with effects comparable to certain anti-inflammatory medications, but without gastric side effects. Note that all herbal supplements should be used with caution and it’s important to notify your healthcare provider of any supplements you’re taking, including turmeric and curcumin.
Statistics show nearly two in every three Australians are overweight or obese, and it’s a similar story in New Zealand. It can be hard to resist the unhealthy foods that are advertised and discounted almost everywhere we look. And on the whole, we are consuming more processed foods and animal products than ever. Dieting is common, particularly among females, and meal replacement shakes or bars are popular items in some pharmacies. The medication Orlistat was also invented to support weight loss by reducing absorption of fat, but people commonly report side effects of nausea and faecal incontinence – not fun! These shakes, bars and medications are not an optimal (or long term) solution for healthy weight management.
A great recipe for weight management is to eat fewer processed foods (including refined oils and spreads) and prioritise more whole plant foods which are naturally lower in calories. The New Zealand BROAD Study encouraged people to adopt a low fat, whole food plant-based diet. Over six months, the average weight loss for participants was almost 12kg! Another study involving over 60,000 people found that the less animal products eaten (and more plants consumed), the lower the average Body Mass Index (BMI) of participants. Those eating a vegan diet were the only group that had an average BMI within the healthy range.
So, as you can see, plenty of plants each day can help keep the pharmaceuticals at bay! Unsurprisingly, the same dietary pattern that is likely to help prevent and manage many of Western society’s major chronic diseases, is the same one that helps with more minor health conditions too. Processed foods and animal-based foods may lead to a certain level of chronic inflammation in the body compared to whole plant foods, and this can underlie many chronic diseases.
Try to centre your meals on vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes (with some nuts, seeds and seaweed in the mix). And if you follow a plant-based diet, make sure you take a vitamin B12 supplement. While eating this way may initially sound challenging, any small steps towards more whole plant foods are a positive move! You’ll discover there are thousands of recipes to explore and new ingredients to try that are scrumptious and filling! You can find more information at nutritionfacts.org for specific health issues.
Medicines have a vital role to play, but we need to bring the emphasis back to healthy nutrition and lifestyle so you can take more control of your health.
Each person’s situation is different and you should consult your health practitioner before making major changes to your diet or lifestyle, particularly if you have a significant medical condition or take prescription medications. We all still get sick sometimes and may well benefit from medicines. When you do experience symptoms of a minor ailment, or something more serious, make sure you discuss it with your pharmacist or doctor to get the right advice. Medicines have a vital role to play, but we need to bring the emphasis back to healthy nutrition and lifestyle so you can take more control of your health.
More about the author
Hannah O' Malley (BPharm) is Doctors For Nutrition's NZ Events & Outreach Advisor.
Read her full bio here.