“You’ve got to be kidding!” said my friend Jeannie about my plan to climb the Eiger over the Mittellegi ridge. Or maybe she thought that I was mad. After all, I have suffered from severe Spondyloarthritis and moderately severe Inflammatory Bowel Disease for decades.
However, the medication I take has a huge positive effect on my quality of life and makes such a mad plan thinkable. But there is a big difference between feeling ok, with bearable pain and being able to manage to get through the day, and feeling really, really fit and strong and confident. And that is the change in the last two years since I became aware of the power of “lifestyle medicine”.
Changes in my lifestyle have transformed my life and made it possible for me – a 60 year old woman with chronic illness – to climb the Eiger. I want to share my experience. Maybe my learnings will be useful for others. But please remember, I’m not a doctor and this is not medical advice. Everybody is different. Try things out, get professional support if you can, and observe carefully what works for you!
If you get to the end of this blog there is a slide show of the Eiger tour!
What is lifestyle medicine?
According the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, it uses evidence-based practice to help people adopt and sustain healthy behaviour that affects health and quality of life. Some Lifestyle health factors are now well-established: don’t smoke; keep your weight under control; exercise regularly. But the benefits of taking these lifestyle changes even further don’t seem to be recommended by most doctors. Perhaps they aren’t proven enough, or not well-known, or not believed in. For whatever reasons, these are all things that I have found out more or less for myself.
Lifestyle medicine focuses on sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction.
Worries, overwork or medication have all affected my ability to get a good nights’ sleep in recent years. Many people know what a problem insomnia can be, and how lack of regular sleep can affect well-being, and how great it is to get a good night’s sleep. One source of support has been from Dr. Guy Meadows and his approach called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). At the Sleep School he teaches how to overcome insomnia by observation and acceptance. It often works for me. Trying to control my fears and anxieties in this way matches my approach to Stress Reduction through meditation and mindfulness (see below).
However, the most important factor affecting my sleep is nutrition, which I will explain in more detail.
I’ve been watching carefully what I eat for some time, and have reported my experience in a previous blog called Am I really what I eat? I am still following the recommendations that I received from dieticians, and eat a Mediterranean diet with lots of fruit and vegetables. Now I can’t imagine eating any other way. It’s delicious!
But what about eating less or less often? My first thoughts and impressions about Fasting were A new F-word: FASTING – Love or Hate? Since starting interval fasting in August 2019, I believe that it has had a huge effect on my well-being!
There has been a lot written about diet as a factor in controlling inflammatory diseases, but what I have discovered in the last 6 months or so, is that it is just as important when I eat, as what I eat. Interval fasting has made a real difference to my sensitive gut, and I believe that reducing intestinal irritation, or even inflammation in my gut affects my whole well-being and may even have contributed to reducing inflammation in my back and joints. For over 6 months now, I generally eat my last meal by 6pm in the evening, and fast for 16 hours, meaning that I have a herb tea in the morning and then a delicious breakfast with coffee, fruit, whole grain muesli and yogurt sometime after 10am.
Dr Satchidananda Panda of the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences in California explores the circadian rhythm, and how this cycle of functions, which repeat themselves over 24 hours, affects our performance, mood and overall health. The best-known example is the sleep cycle. Dr. Panda believes that the benefit of sleep for the brain in the circadian rhythm is just the tip of the iceberg. Other organs have a circadian rhythm and also need time to rest and recuperate, such as the digestive system. The circadian clock may even mediate the immune system. He has tested the benefits of fasting extensively over the last 20 years and believes that every cell in our body has its own circadian clock. Every hormone, neurotransmitter, gene in our body has times when it functions best, and times when it needs to rest, repair, and reset. The circadian clock is not just linked to sleeping, but also to eating and exercising. So, it’s important not just to sleep at the right time, but also to eat at the right time.
His first results were with mice who were given a set “Western” diet. One group could only eat within a limited time window of 8 hours. The other could eat exactly the same amount of food, but without any time restrictions. After a few weeks, the mice who fasted 16 hours a day were much slimmer, more energetic and generally healthier than the mice who could eat or snack all day. In the last 5 years he has extended his research to thousands of human volunteers, who monitor their eating habits. The results indicate that similar results can improve the well-being of people. Apart from weight loss, improved mood, better sleeping, trial participants report other benefits such as reduced joint pain and inflammation. Dr. Panda explains his work in the BBC podcast Don’t tell me the score.
This seems entirely plausible to me, because the effect of interval fasting in the last months on my digestion and thus on my general well-being has been nothing less than dramatic. Through fasting I give my digestive system a period of down time when it doesn’t have to digest new food and can rest and repair. I can feel how my gut is more relaxed, how much better I can sleep, and how energised I am. For somebody who has suffered from a leaky gut and chronic inflammation for decades, this is a real gift for me.
If you understand the science (which sadly I am not trained in), then this work is summarized here: Mattson MP, Allison DB, Fontana L, Harvie M, Longo VD, Malaisse WJ, Mosley M, Notterpek L, Ravussin E, Scheer FA, Seyfried TN, Varady KA, Panda S. Meal frequency and timing in health and disease. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Nov 25;111(47):16647-53. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1413965111. Epub 2014 Nov 17. PMID: 25404320; PMCID: PMC4250148.
To keep my spirits up during Lockdown I made a plan “5 tips to manage your day” which included daily exercise. I used an online fitness programme with a huge of variety of options from stretching and yoga through Pilates to PIIT (professional intensive interval training!). It was amazing how doing this every morning for several months made me fitter than I could ever have imagined, despite never going far from my own house, let alone to the mountains.
The key to stress reduction for me is a few minutes of mindfulness or meditation before starting the day. Collecting my thoughts and intentions by keeping a journal also helps. If you are interested in this topic, I reflected on Stress Reduction in a previous blog, the Lockdown.
Putting it all together to climb the Eiger!
These practices all help disease management and improve my well-being. It’s a gradual process. It has taken months for lifestyle changes to translate into improved well-being. Discoveries have been a process of trial and error. No clinician has advised me to adopt these practices. I have had to sort through the available material and decide myself what is quackery and what is responsible advice. If I’m not sure about a theory, I check if the author of recommendations has been willing to expose his or her ideas to scrutiny by publishing them. If there are no recent publications on PubMed, then I’m sceptical about whether the work is serious, and discard it.
There needs to be much more research to provide evidence-based, mainstream recommendations for the benefit of all patients. The Spondylitis Association of America recently published an excellent webinar on lifestyle healthcare, but otherwise it’s hard to find trustworthy information. I believe that if healthcare research were more centred on patients well-being, rather than being driven by commercial considerations or personal aspirations, these areas would be given much higher priority.