Preventive medicine is a buzz-phrase that many medical professionals love to throw around. However, in the conventional medical system the term prevention is often used to apply to what should be known as screening. Tests such as PAP smears, mammograms and colonoscopies do not prevent cancer, they simply attempt to screen a large portion of the population to detect the presence of these cancers at an early stage, when treatment can be most affective. They are recommended for silent diseases that only produce symptoms once they are advanced, but they are screening exams, they do not, in and of themselves, prevent cancer. If one of these tests comes back positive, it means that the patient’s body is already along the course of disease and needs treatment.
Real prevention involves establishing optimal health to prevent the onset of disease. Part of that means visiting your doctor or naturopathic doctor to have regular screening physicals and tests performed to weed out early stages of disease, but doing these tests does not prevent you from getting the disease in the first place.
I wish prevention was more of a practice and mindset here in North America. At the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic, patients often come into the clinic who are exhibiting symptoms of advanced disease that is managed by slew of medications. More often than not their health has deteriorated such that helping them back on the road to wellness is a long and complicated process. I always wonder whether, if they have come in a few years earlier when things had only begun to drift off balance, they would experience much better results.
On the other side of things, patients often come into the clinic with the goal of “general health maintenance”, i.e.: they do not present with a specific health complaint. However, after taking a careful history I almost always note that they present with menstrual and hormonal irregularities, stress, digestive issues such as bloating and pain, headaches, muscle tension, suboptimal sleep, impaired immunity, among other things that we don’t typically associate with “disease” and therefore often learn to live with. In reality, they are further along the road to illness than they thought.
In both of these types of situations (and everyone else in between), preventive medicine could be the answer. True prevention involves:
1) Learning to maintain a healthy lifestyle and experience optimal health: This involves managing stress, eating a healthy diet that is tailored to your unique physiology, exercising regularly, finding social, occupational, spiritual, mental and emotional fulfilment, practising self-care, making time for hobbies, family, fun, achieving balance, experiencing good energy, a positive outlook and emotional stability, among other things. The definition of good health is different for everyone and, likewise, everyone’s health goals are unique. For some it might be to place in the Boston Marathon. For others it might be to stay strong enough to engage actively with their grandchildren. We all have our reasons for striving to be healthy.
2) Anticipating the health concerns of the season and dealing with them before they arise: Preventing seasonal affective disorder, colds and flus, summer rashes, seasonal allergies and other season-specific health concerns is something we can do pro-actively each year. Having the tools to deal with these concerns and knowing how to prevent them before they arise is far more effective than dealing with them once they’ve occurred. This also includes preparing your body and suitcase for travel and other recreational activities, engaging in seasonal detoxes and anticipating certain seasonal vitamin needs (e.g.: vitamin D supplementation in the winter).
3) Working with your family history: Your genetics may leave your susceptible to certain health concerns. There is a familial link to heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, neurological disorders and certain autoimmune diseases, to name a few. Knowing what may lie in the future for you allows you to take proactive steps to minimize your risk of encountering these diseases.
4) Treating the “small” stuff before it becomes bigger stuff: Relieving muscle tension, tending to energy levels, sleep and immunity, preventing stress, engaging in counselling, treating digestive and hormonal concerns and other “minor” symptoms goes a long way in preventing the more serious concerns that might arise in the future if these slight imbalances are left unattended. I believe that there is a disease-health continuum; the longer you ignore your symptoms, no matter how insignificant you may find them, the farther you get away from optimal health and the more work it will take to bring you back again.
5) Learning from your past medical history: We all have our individual ways of drifting off balance depending on our health history. A slight change in your laboratory values or an increase in your blood pressure might leave you susceptible to more serious diseases, such as renal failure, further down the line. You may have a history of hypertension, diabetes, cancer or bone fractures. Knowing your personal health history can help your naturopathic doctor anticipate future health concerns and help you take measures now to prevent them in the future.
6) Education about vaccinations: Vaccination one of the ways that conventional medicine practices prevention. Your naturopathic doctor can help you make an informed decision about certain vaccinations such as the flu shot, the HPV or chicken pox vaccine that you may be considering but aren’t sure if it’s for you or your family.
Practice real prevention and get your own naturopathic doctor!