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Can Social Networks Cure Disease? Part II

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Click here to read Part I of the story.

Part II of my TEDMED 2012 conference...

One day I found Pastor Rick Warren from Saddleback Church in Southern California in my office wanting to get religion about health. After his appointment we went to dinner and over a bowl of cabbage and beet soup, I asked him to tell me about his church -- being a Jewish doctor from NY, I didn't know much about evangelical churches.

He told me his church had 30,000 members and they met every week in 5,000 small groups to study, support and grow together.

It wasn't a mega-church, it was thousands of mini-churches. And the lightbulb went off in my head -- here was a chance to test out this idea of peer support for creating health.

I said, why don't we put together a healthy living curriculum and deliver it through these small groups? Rick said yes because he had recently baptized 800 church members and after about the 500th one, he said to himself, "Wow, we are a fat church, and I am fat, and we need to do something."

We didn't need highly-trained health experts -- except in designing the program...

So a little more than a year ago, with Rick and Dr. Oz and Dr. Amen -- a Christian, a Jewish doctor and Muslim doctor, which sounds like the beginning of a bad joke -- we launched The Daniel Plan, a social experiment to see if community support was more effective than medication or conventional medical care for treating and reversing disease and creating health.

The Daniel Plan (after Daniel, the prophet from the Bible who resisted the king's temptation of bad foods) is a wellness program delivered through small groups in the church.

We thought a few hundred people would sign up. In the first week, 15,000 people signed up and over the last year they have lost an estimated 250,000 pounds -- or the equivalent of 10 tractor-trailer trucks loaded with soda. Thousands of people and many churches around the world signed up.

In fact, I met recently with church leaders in Atlanta and Bernice King, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s daughter, who said that she thinks disease is a form of violence -- and health is a basic human right. She said that health is a form of non-violence to yourself and that she wanted to make this part of the King Center's curriculum on nonviolence.

And our social experiment worked.

We got biology to change by using the principles of functional medicine -- the science of systems medicine, of network medicine, the science of creating health, through lifestyle-based interventions that optimized our biological networks.

But we got behavior to change by using community and the power of positive peer pressure and social networks.

Not only did they lose a quarter of a million pounds, but they also used less medication, and many stayed out of the hospital or didn't need to go to the doctor as much. And the program was free. And people reported more energy, better sleep, better blood pressure, better mood, and even better skin and a better sex drive.

One man told me last year he was in the hospital four times and on nine medications, and this year he stayed out of the hospital and is only on one medication. People lost 125 pounds, 90 pounds, 80 pounds, got off insulin for diabetes and high blood pressure medication -- it was like a gastric bypass without the pain of surgery, vomiting and malnutrition.

And those who did the plan together lost twice as much weight as those who did it alone.

E.O. Wilson says in his new book, The Social Conquest of the Earth that it is our drive to join a group that makes us human. It is the longing to belong -- and the power of peer pressure can be a force for both good and evil. It can drive war and violence, but it can also be a force for healing.

Here was the big insight for me: The community was not just a delivery system for health education. The community was part of the cure and the group was the medicine.

So what did we do? We created an interactive curriculum delivered through multiple media -- online education, videos, articles, recipes, webinars -- all done in small groups and community events. We did this at Saddleback by changing the culture: Pastor Steve, who was born again, again went from serving ribs and donuts for breakfast to being a health champion, grabbing donuts out of the mouths of the men in his small group.

Over a thousand people showed up and volunteered to be health champions for their groups. We changed what was served at Bible breakfasts, the menus in the refinery and even what people served in their homes and their small groups. People learned to create health together -- to shop, cook, eat, exercise and play together.

We didn't treat disease. We didn't create a weight-loss program.

We taught people self-care, and combining that with caring for each other, they created a small miracle -- something heath care or health care reform has not been able to achieve.

In the most unlikely place, a large church, we demonstrated that a community-based solution is more effective in treating and reversing chronic disease than our modern health care system. People helped each other create health.

I think this is the seed of a bigger possibility. In every home, community, school, workplace and faith-based organization, there are health champions waiting to be asked to show up and to help each other to take back our health.

We have a vision to scale this to a billion people and turn health care upside down.

And this is possible not just in rich countries. Peers for Progress created pilot programs in the poorest of countries to treat diabetes in Cameroon, Uganda, Thailand and South Africa based on peer support. The peer support group models were more effective than conventional medical care for improving the health of diabetics, and health care costs decreased tenfold.

So after the meal of the skinny Haitian chicken and the beet and cabbage soup, I thought, what if we could tackle this problem not one by one by one in the doctor office and clinics, but by the tens of millions in people homes, and churches, and schools, and workplaces?

What if we could take the 36 percent of Americans who are eligible for work but NOT working, and create a Health Corp like President Kennedy's Peace Corp, or a call to action that would be the equivalent of getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade?

And create millions of community health workers, engage our world's latent health champions because they are out there in every community, in every organization of peers? People helping people: That, with a little training, has been proven to produce better results than doctors or our health care system for the worst problems of our era.

Maybe, I thought, this isn't a medical problem like an infection or broken bone -- maybe chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity are social diseases and we need a social cure.

Maybe it is the power of each one of us supporting each other that will help us all take back our health.

Acute disease can be left to the hospitals, but creating health and healing of chronic disease seems to happen best in the community -- with people helping people where each one of us lives, where we eat, cook, learn, work, play and pray.

That is where health happens.

When I was at Paul Farmer's mountain clinic in Haiti, there was a plaque in French that said, "The happiest man is the one who makes others happy."

An old African proverb says that if you want to travel swiftly travel alone, but if you want to travel far, travel together.

Let's all do this together!!

To help facilitate your journey to health, click here to join my online community.

Now I'd like to hear from you...

What do you think we can do to take back our health?

If you already are part of a community, would you share your experiences?

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman, M.D. is a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in the field of Functional Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on YouTube, become a fan on Facebook, and subscribe to his newsletter.

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