Heart disease is serious, and it may seem like once you’re diagnosed with it, or you suffer a heart attack, you’ll never be “healthy” again. Heart disease is responsible for one in four deaths each year — and it’s the leading cause of death in both men and women when it goes untreated.
However, with some changes and the right support, you can actually undo heart disease.
By changing your lifestyle, such as eating a healthier diet, getting more exercise, lowering your stress levels and getting the right support from loved ones, you can essentially undo some of the aspects of heart disease. You might prevent yourself from having a heart attack, getting heart failure or suffering symptoms of coronary artery disease. Reversing heart disease is not easy but can save your life.
Heart disease is a general term that’s used to describe coronary artery disease, heart attack, atrial fibrillation (AFib) and heart failure, among other conditions.
Ornish Lifestyle Medicine is a program that uses a healthy lifestyle to treat heart disease. It addresses the root causes of heart disease rather than its symptoms, which can reverse the negative effects of the disease.
The program consists of 18 four-hour group sessions on nutrition, fitness, stress management and support over a nine-week period.
The point is not just to tell you to eat healthier and exercise more; it’s to give you tools so you can learn how to change your lifestyle. These group sessions help our patients learn about maintaining a healthy diet and exercising safely, getting emotional support and managing stress. What we’ve found is that people stay motivated because they work with other patients and a care team.
The team is made up of a medical director, program director, nurse case manager and experts in stress management, behavioral health, fitness and nutrition.
You may have heard of one component of Ornish Lifestyle Medicine—the Ornish Diet.
The Ornish Diet is one rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy, nonfat dairy and egg whites, along with some healthy fats. The diet emphasizes eating foods in their most natural form and avoiding processed foods, such as crackers, chips and pretzels, and sweets.
There isn’t a limit to the number of calories you can eat on the diet, unless you’re trying to lose weight. Instead, the diet encourages you to control portions. Eating several small meals throughout the day allows you to enjoy a variety of foods and keep your energy (and your blood sugar) up.
The Ornish Diet does encourage you to limit your sugar, alcohol, sodium and fat — all things that we know can contribute to health issues. You can still eat them occasionally in moderation, but the idea is to make a full lifestyle change.
During the program, patients follow the diet and learn how to manage chronic stress, create coping mechanisms, exercise moderately every day, and give and receive love and support.
We’re empowering these patients to treat themselves better and change their lives, and we know that it works. By taking part in a small group program, many patients begin to reverse the effects of heart disease and sustain these lifestyle changes for years after participating.
It’s certainly not easy, nor something that you can do once and forget, but before these programs we believed that reversal of heart disease was impossible. Today, we have to admit it can be done, with the intensive rehabilitation programs now available.
Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]