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Medically Unexplained Symptoms III: Is Your Lifestyle Sustaining or Draining Your Health?

Lifestyle refers to the enduring patterns of behavior, thought, attitudes, and feelings that characterize how a person lives. Lifestyle elements can represent core elements of how a person defines; circumstantial, often unexamined patterns that reflect a person’s environment, upbringing, class, or clique; and seemingly random habits that become ingrained.

Lifestyle affects what we eat, how we sleep, how we deal with stress, how we work, how we move, who we spend time with, what we desire, and what we avoid. Although it may seem obvious that lifestyle would have a huge impact on health, people are often unaware or unwilling to look at how their own lifestyle impacts their health. And because lifestyle is a cumulation of ingrained habits, it is also often very hard to change even when the impact becomes obvious.

Symptoms can be signs of an underlying illness but also can be signals that your lifestyle is harming you. If we look at fatigue, a common medically unexplained symptom, many lifestyle factors may contribute including chronic sleep deprivation, an unhealthy dieta sedentary lifestyle (including excessive screen time), social isolation, alcohol and tobacco use, and chronic stress (also see MUS II blog). Similar relationships can be found for a wide variety of common medically unexplained symptoms including various types of chronic pain and gastrointestinal symptoms. I bring up the idea that symptoms can be warning signs because lifestyle factors are also leading causes of many major chronic illnesses (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, cancer) and contribute to about half of all preventable deaths.

The idea that lifestyle can impact health and cause symptoms is not new and was central in many ancient medical traditions. However, modern life poses new and different lifestyle challenges to health and modern medicine often emphasizes technological and pharmacologic solutions to problems that may have a lifestyle cause. The field of lifestyle medicine was developed to highlight the impact of lifestyle as a means of preventing and treating chronic illness. Its core principles are worth considering for persons experiencing medically unexplained symptoms (and really for anyone wanting to live a longer and healthier life).

  1. Healthy Eating based around a whole food and plant-predominant diet

  2. Regular and consistent Physical Activity

  3. Getting adequate and Restorative Sleep

  4. Enjoying and maintaining Positive Social Connections

  5. Minimize Risky Substances, particularly tobacco and alcohol. 

  6. Stress Management including reducing negative stress and improving coping

One could also consider adding a 7th Pillar of Altruism to this list as there is strong evidence of the health benefits of altruism, not to mention the added benefits of shifting our attention and energy from self-centered concerns to helping others, and of course the immense benefits to the world of more people engaged in acts of altruism.

The key to all of this is consistency, namely to form habits that will serve as a foundation for a new and healthier lifestyle. Occasionally a small change will produce fast results, but most are gradual and subtle, taking weeks for noticeable changes and months for larger changes. This in turn will require a thoughtful approach to behavior change and habit formation, a topic for another blog, but also see James Clear’s website for some great habit advice.


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