The sixth season of Game of Thrones is upon us, which means millions of TV viewers are binge watching. Add chips and soda and you’ve got a real party. And also a health disaster.
Medical science has known one simple formula for years – diet and exercise can work miracles when done properly and in concert. But many doctors still prefer to prescribe drugs to treat the symptoms of chronic illnesses.
I experienced this dysfunction six years ago when I woke up unable to feel temperatures on the right side of my body and unable to lift my left arm. Eight months later, after many tests and much uncertainty I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disabling disease of the central nervous system for which there is currently no cure.
I immediately started on the recommended regimen of a disease-modifying drug in the form of daily self-administered injections to slow the progression and severity of subsequent attacks. And then I learned that nutrition and lifestyle can be important factors in the treatment of MS. My neurologist dismissed these findings as “You can certainly change your diet, but that won’t help with your MS.” Nonetheless, I started working with a nutritionist.
Fast forward six years: I have drastically changed my diet to follow evidence-based recommendations specific to MS: I now eat a plant-based, whole food diet (including fish), have completely eliminated all saturated and altered fats, avoid processed foods and have added certain supplements to my daily regimen. I am also exercising more than before my diagnosis and feel great. What’s more, I am currently not taking any medications (a monetary savings of about $5,000 per month) and haven’t had any attacks in five years. It has been tremendously empowering to participate in my disease management in ways that I can control.
It could be that I am just lucky, and my MS decided to give me a break. But I am certainly not willing to risk to test that hypothesis. There are many patients like me who find they can control their diseases via changes in nutrition and lifestyle. Why wouldn’t doctors educate their patients on the potentially huge benefits of supplementing a drug regimen with alternative approaches?
One obvious reason is lack of patient compliance. A patient might find strict dietary guidelines hard to follow, and so it is much easier to simply write them a prescription. What’s more, nutrition guidelines constantly change, so what foods should be recommended? While the prescriptions may differ from patient to patient, nearly four decades of rigorous studies document the effects of lifestyle and nutrition on disease prevention and the effects are plain to see.
Managing a chronic disease with your own actions -- that go further than pill-popping -- is empowering. So as you go through those ten new episodes, keep in mind that you are in charge of how you treat your body. And just as “Winter is Coming,” so too is a health epidemic across the realm, unless the multitudes stop this game of sitting on their television thrones and spring into action.
Petra B. Taylor is a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College and a 2016 Public Voices Fellow of The Oped Project