Notes from a Naturopathic Physician: The Impact of Simple Lifestyle Choices on Your Health

Now I can keep my promise

An African American woman in her mid-fifties, Sue was always dressed beautifully—regally, like she was on her way to a cocktail party or the opera. Although slightly overweight, she seemed to be in good health. Seemed. She began smoking cigarettes at 11-years-old and has smoked regularly ever since. Three months before I first met her, she was diagnosed with a severe case of coronary artery disease after developing chest pain the previous year.

Most people recognize the association between smoking and lung cancer, but many don’t realize that smoking greatly increases the risk of other chronic diseases as well. Sue was surprised to learn that smokers are three times more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers. Her doctor informed her that she was at high risk for having a heart attack and recommended a strict pharmaceutical protocol and surgery. Although she began taking the medications, she refused surgery and instead came to the Clinic seeking naturopathic care, where we met.

Motivation catalyst: Keeping a promise

empty-chairAfter we discussed her medical history, she started talking about her 13-year-old granddaughter—a gifted singer preparing for her first solo concert, set to take place the following year. Sue had promised her granddaughter that she would be at the concert, but she was anxious: where would her health be in a year’s time? After meeting for several hours, we created a comprehensive treatment plan centered on basic lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, and of course, quitting smoking. She told me she was committed to making changes, and over the next year, she showed me the strength of her resolve. After just one year, she was off her medications, her symptoms had abated, and her risk for heart disease had decreased considerably. She came into the clinic more emotional than I had ever seen her and said, “Thank you. Now I can keep my promise to my granddaughter.”

Setting big and small goals, and changing routines

Sue’s promise to her granddaughter, and the startling realization that she may not be able to keep it, catalyzed her sincere commitment to the lifestyle changes she had long known were necessary, yet had always seemed out of reach. Once committed to her goal – being healthy for her granddaughter’s performance, Sue told me she began to feel better physically. Even more importantly, she also felt more hopeful, which made reaching the other goals much easier.

Her dietary changes focused on increasing nuts, fruits, vegetables, and essential fatty acids (such as flax and cold water fish), while decreasing saturated fat (found mainly in meat, dairy, and processed foods) and trans fat. We set a goal of 30 minutes per day of low-to-moderate intensity exercise, as studies have shown that regular exercise can not only reduce symptoms of heart disease, but can also improve the prognosis. To help her quit smoking, we focused on behavior changes like altering her routine (associated with the habit of smoking), avoiding common triggers for smoking (coffee and alcohol), and developing a stress management schedule. Mobile phone apps designed to create a customized quitting plan provided extra tools, as did a text messaging program that helps smokers stay motivated to quit.

Many mobile phone apps offer customized smoking programs that are tailored to the individual. They instruct the user when to smoke and gradually decrease the number of cigarettes smoked per day. This makes the process easier and more realistic. Text messaging programs offer motivational reinforcement for people who lack a support network to help them quit. This decreases the likelihood of relapse during the quitting process.

Naturopath notes & free online resources

cdc-logo-150x148 CDC – Smoking & Tobacco Use
The link between smoking and risk for chronic disease. Do you know your risk?
medtronic Medtronic – Treatment Options for Coronary Artery Disease
Pharmaceutical and surgery treatment options for coronary artery disease. This page provides information about conventional options for treating coronary artery disease. Of course, lifestyle changes are often recommended first or adjunctively.
aha_logo_only American Heart Association – Resources for Quitting Smoking

Collection of resources that aide in smoking cessation
stop-smoking-apps 6 Online Tools to Help You Quit Smoking for Good
An article that provides web tools and mobile apps that aide in smoking cessation by's Joann Pan

Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease-but it's one that you can control.

Written by Dan Warren, Adjunct Faculty, Center for Sustainable Health; Physician, Southwest Naturopathic Medical Center