Around Christmas 2017, I developed an ulcer in my esophagus that seemed to come out of nowhere. Following an endoscopy, I asked the gastroenterologist what had caused it — and what I might do to prevent another one. “Just take these,” he said brusquely, handing me a prescription for a proton pump inhibitor. Then he was off to the next patient.
I wanted to understand and address the underlying problem, not just paper over the symptoms. Turns out that part would be up to me.
I finally got the insight and tools I needed to heal once I started working with a nutritional therapist. She suggested some simple nutrition and lifestyle adjustments to support my digestive health and helped me tap into a deeper understanding of my body. I felt empowered to take my health into my own hands, without relying on a prescription.
I know I’m not alone in my frustration with the limitations of conventional American medicine. “We have a fabulous healthcare system for saving your life, but it performs poorly in facilitating healing,” explains integrative physician Wayne Jonas, MD, author of How Healing Works.
Fortunately, we’re far from helpless. Many of the most prevalent chronic conditions afflicting Americans — including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression — can be treated with nutrition, movement, sleep, social support, and complementary practices, such as yoga, acupuncture, and massage.
Not only are these approaches safer and less expensive than drugs and surgery, but most of them don’t even require a visit to the doctor’s office. That’s a mercy, because the costs associated with those visits are high — and getting higher.
“We have a very expensive system of medicine,” says Kara Parker, MD, a functional-medicine physician in Minneapolis. “But it’s often chasing problems that are preventable and treatable upstream with lifestyle measures.
“Health is created in the home and at the grocery store in the course of day-to-day living. We’re blessed to have a medical system that backs us up, but our health is primarily in our own hands.”
With that in mind, these are some of the best strategies — free, low-cost, or investment-worthy — for taking charge of your health.
Invest in a Health-Club Membership
“Strength confers resilience, longevity, and protection against disease,” explains Lipman. Weightlifting and body-weight regimens can reduce risk factors for a variety of chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease. But starting a workout routine from an unconditioned state or without learning proper technique can backfire, causing injury.
Many health clubs have qualified personal trainers who can help design a strength-training program for your level and goals, and most clubs are well stocked with the equipment you need. All the better if you join a club with a sauna; taking saunas has been shown to offer neurocognitive and cardiovascular benefits.
Consider Lab Tests
For the majority of common ailments, diet and lifestyle modifications can put you on the road back to health. But when you have a stubborn set of symptoms and the interventions you’ve tried aren’t working, it may be worth the investment to ask a functional-medicine doctor to run a few lab tests. They can peek under the hood to see if there are any clues to be found in your levels of thyroid hormones, iron, or vitamin D, or if there are other deficiencies or imbalances.
“Testing can be a useful secondary measure if a person is struggling,” notes Jonas. “I always start with the things we know contribute to the vast majority of health and healing, but if I find someone needs an assist in getting there, or there are lingering challenges, then some selective testing might help get them over the hump.”
Stool testing, for example, can be helpful for stubborn GI problems; these tests can detect parasites and other microbial imbalances that may be the culprit. Likewise, comprehensive thyroid testing can reveal hormonal imbalances that contribute to unexplained fatigue, weight gain, and hair loss.
Let’s face it: Fun often isn’t free. The best things in life — love, relationships, leisure, adventure — may not have a price tag, but the things that nurture them often do. Whether it’s family vacations or dinners out with friends, investing time and money in activities that support relationships and our own sense of fun and enjoyment is rarely a bad idea.
Relationships are key to better health, and experiences inspire greater satisfaction than material things. So the next time the check appears after a night out with friends, raise a communal toast to the positive investment you just made in your health.
Seek Out a Health or Nutrition Coach
We often look to our healthcare providers to give us the tools we need to stay well, but medical professionals aren’t always the best sources of actionable insight. “As doctors, we’re trained to tell you what to do but not how,” explains Jonas, noting that advising someone to lose 100 pounds isn’t necessarily helpful.
Health coaches, on the other hand, are often trained in behavior-change science. Whether your goal is adjusting your diet, moving more, or improving your mental well-being, a coach can help you develop skills and achieve successes that you can build on. (Find a science-based health coach at www.wellcoaches.com and a functional-medicine-trained coach at www.ifm.org.)
Nutrition coaches, meanwhile, can pinpoint specific dietary issues and help create a food plan designed to support your particular needs.
Get a Pet
Research has shown that dog owners tend to live longer and experience lower rates of cardiovascular disease than those without a dog. Canines can enhance our microbiomes, improve our immunity, encourage us to exercise, and support our mental health.
But it’s not just dogs that offer benefits for human well-being. Parker likes to watch her pet snake move over her skin. “A pet can be a great way to add stillness and meditation to your life,” she notes. “If you spend five minutes petting any animal, you’ll enhance your parasympathetic balance.” The benefits of the companionship a pet offers can be especially profound for those who live alone.
Live your Purpose
A Harvard study found that the top predictor of a long and healthy life was not whether study subjects smoked or ate a lot of vegetables. It was whether they were regularly engaged in activities they found meaningful. The most powerful health benefits of all came from doing positive things for others.
“Start by figuring out what matters to you in life,” Jonas advises. “Why do you get up in the morning? Why are you here?”
Meanwhile, a purpose-filled life doesn’t always lead to the biggest paycheck — and sometimes a hard-driving career is the thing that’s harming your health the most.
Committing to health may require abandoning a career that’s no longer aligned with your personal mission, or a work schedule that doesn’t allow you to partake in meaningful activities, such as spending time with family, making music or art, or practicing self-care.
If you can afford to take a pay cut but feel afraid to do it, consider reframing the move as a worthwhile investment in your health and
After all, you can’t buy back your time in a healthy body, but you can invest in it now.
This article originally appeared in Experience Life, Life Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine.