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Creating a Supportive Environment: Why it Is Essential to Health and Not Just a Luxury

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As I am preparing to open up my new integrative medicine clinic center in the San Jose, Calif. area, I have been very mindful as to the types of subspecialties I wanted within my center that are otherwise not as frequently available to patients in other clinics.

When I reflected on the various patient needs seen in my patient population, I realized that therapy, dietary counseling, and biofeedback would be great modalities to have in the clinic because they are not otherwise readily available in other physician-based clinics.

You might be wondering why I am discussing this when I usually discuss medical studies, but I assure you that I have a point to make in regard to what I think is important in someone's regular health care to optimize everyday health.

When I settled on the concept of getting these supportive healing specialties into my clinic, it is with the understanding that from what I see in my clinic, patients frequently have needs for support in these areas... but yet, they frequently go without, which can lead to detrimental long-term health effects.

What I have seen time and time again in patients is that our stress levels, environmental factors, and our dietary regimen have a tremendous impact on our overall wellbeing and health. But all too often, these aspects of a patient's life come last when it comes to medical intervention, attention, and treatment.

This is unfortunate because we see in studies that daily stress has a longstanding impact on our health and mood. And without adequate guidance and support, we also know that our body's physiology and cellular functioning changes with these chronic stressors because our body tries to adapt to our environment, and with repeated exposure to stressors, our health becomes negatively affected.

So the point that I am making is that it is important to remember the following:

How we are able to adapt to stress and how our body is able to heal is partly determined by how much social support we think we have.

In the study by DeLongis and her colleagues, they found that married couples over the course of six months showed more health problems such as flu, sore throat, headaches, and backaches when they experienced more daily stress. [1] An interesting finding they discovered was that the negative effects of stress on mood on one day may lead to a following day of better-than-usual mood if the participants had strong social support. However, those with minimal social support were more likely to have problematic mood and health issues on and following the stressful days.

This study and many others suggest that those with weak psychosocial support and resources are more vulnerable to illness and mood disturbance when stress levels increase, even if they generally have little stress in their lives. Studies such as this one show us that social support and guidance in areas that stress us (which frequently can involve that of our health, diet, weight, relationships, work, and environment), can create an almost force shield-like effect to help us deal with our stressors without decompensating afterward. So, knowing this, why is it that there is sometimes so little support provided by our health practitioners for these "ancillary" services that apparently have a significant positive impact on our health?

Therefore, when we look at just how important support is to our health and mental well-being, it seemed only natural for me to want to incorporate therapists, registered dietitians, and biofeedback specialists into my integrative medicine center because these specialties are much needed for overall health goals... but yet they are frequently overlooked in general physician-based clinics.

If you feel that this blog's topic speaks to you but your practitioner may not be initiating referrals for a stronger support network, you can be more proactive and ask him or her for various types of support groups, therapists, meditation guides, dietitians, tai chi groups, exercise or activity groups, and local churches or synagogues or temples, just to name a few options.

If you are someone who is reading this article and you know of someone who is in need of more support and guidance, perhaps you can research local providers and centers to join together with your loved one so that the support net is there for your loved one to get through this stressful period and come out in a brighter and healthier place.

When I look at the extent to which environmental and social factors affect my patients and their overall ability to heal and do well, it is always baffling to me how little attention is paid to that in everyday life by healthcare practitioners. In all fairness, some of the clinics and centers are unable to incorporate such supportive practitioners into their practice due to financial limitations of the current medicine model. However, I do think that there is enough evidence in studies to warrant most health care practitioners to help patients investigate support measures for any given patient's life, so that this area of health care is not forgotten about and disregarded.

From what we know from studies, the takeaway point I want you to remember is that what happens in your mind, heart, and environment is strongly linked to how healthy your body can be or not be... the nutrients you feed your body and the environmental factors you choose to surround yourself with all have a significant impact on your overall health and aging.

So, if living a long and healthy life is one of your goals, just remember to put more attention toward your environment, the people and relationships you have in your life, relaxation, daily activities that make you feel supported and happy, and your diet. In the long run, these factors will help to define your body's resilience in staying healthy and so should never be looked at as extraneous luxuries... they are essential to your overall health.

References:

1. DeLongis, A. et al. The Impact of Daily Stress on Health and Mood: Psychological and Social Resources as Mediators. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1988. Vol. 54. No. 3.486-495

2. Juster RP, et al. Allostatic load biomarkers of chronic stress and impact on health and cognition. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. (2009), doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.10.002

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