You hear a lot about preventive medicine these days, but the truth is that most of what we do at the doctor’s office doesn’t really stop us from developing illnesses. “A mammogram doesn’t prevent breast cancer, a chest x-ray doesn’t prevent lung cancer and a stress test doesn’t prevent a heart attack,” says Mark Liponis, M.D., corporate medical director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. While these tests are crucial—they can detect diseases in your body before you notice symptoms—they won’t keep you from getting sick in the first place.
Dr. Liponis knows this first hand. When he was 36 years old, his doctor diagnosed him with kidney cancer based on the results of a urine test. His kidney had to be removed, and further testing revealed that the cancerous cells had been developing for an estimated eight to 10 years; some diseases can actually take several decades to develop before symptoms start to show up.
This experience helped reframe the young doctor’s idea of what “prevention” really means. Your risk of disease doesn’t start with the results of your check-up. Nor is it only affected by making the obvious good health choices—hitting the treadmill, choosing veggies instead of fries. It’s shaped by tending to the underpinnings of disease. Dr. Liponis has defined five key areas to zero in on. “By addressing the forces that begin the cascade of disease, what I call ultraprevention, you get your best shot at avoiding illness, rather than simply detecting or diagnosing it,” Dr. Liponis says.
Following wellness strategies that keep these issues in mind will help put you on your own path to ultraprevention:
This may not seem like it applies to you, but 80 percent of Americans are undernourished when it comes to at least one vitamin, mineral or other micronutrient necessary for healthy functioning and disease resistance. We’re getting a lot of calories, but not enough nutrients, from our food—a form of malnutrition Dr. Liponis calls overconsumptive undernutrition. Some of the most common nutrients we’re missing are essential fatty acids (like heart-healthy omega-3s); the minerals magnesium, zinc, calcium and selenium; folic acid and other B vitamins; and antioxidants. Even if you’re taking in an appropriate amount through your diet or supplements, your body may not be able to benefit from your efforts if the systems for breaking down food or absorbing nutrients into your bloodstream are off track.
What’s the Harm? People who don’t eat a nutrient-dense diet, or who have problems with digestion and absorption, can have important nutrient deficiencies. Not getting enough calcium puts you at risk for osteoporosis, for example; lacking vitamin D can impair immunity and increase inflammation; and low magnesium can be a factor in asthma, digestive disorders and high blood pressure.
How to Prevent It: “Most micronutrient imbalances stem from a diet that lacks enough whole foods, or that is too high in refined and processed foods,” Dr. Liponis says. A lack of variety in your diet can also contribute to micronutrient deficiencies; the best way to insure you’re getting enough is by aiming to eat seven to 10 servings of brightly colored vegetables and fruits every day. You can also watch for symptoms of a malfunctioning gastrointestinal (GI) system, like frequent diarrhea, abdominal pain, bleeding or constipation. Your doctor can examine your stool to determine if fats, carbohydrates or proteins are present—a sign that either the digestion or absorption process has gone awry. If a problem is confirmed, your physician can help you track down the cause and remedy it. Should celiac disease be keeping you from absorbing nutrients, for example, going off gluten will help. There are also supplements you can take to treat problems like weak stomach acids and an imbalance of healthy gut bacteria.
Harmful molecules called free radicals are produced when your body burns food for fuel; we also produce them in response to inflammation. So it’s a good thing we have antioxidants—compounds produced by the body and present in certain foods that can neutralize these dangerous substances. But if you have too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants to mop them up, your body will undergo what’s known as oxidative stress.
What’s the Harm? Simply put, oxidative stress damages cells. Cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and eye diseases such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration have all been linked to it.
How to Prevent It: Get more protective antioxidants. There are two ways you can do this: Fill half your plate with brightly hued fruits and veggies; the pigments that make produce colorful are rich in these free-radical enemies. Then, you guessed it, exercise. Working out burns calories, which itself creates free radicals, but your body compensates by producing extra antioxidants in the process. Shoot for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous workouts (like jogging or swimming) every week. Weight training is important, but to get the best boost, most of your exercise should be cardio, Dr. Liponis says.
Metabolism is the process by which your body converts food into energy, and your mitochondria are your cells’ “power plants” in this important chain of events. Factors like your fitness level, oxidative stress and toxins in your system can all affect how many mitochondria you have and whether they’re too sluggish or damaged to do their job well. Insulin, which moves glucose from your bloodstream to your cells for energy, also plays an important role in metabolism. If you become less sensitive to this hormone, as occurs with diabetes and “pre-diabetes,” your cells can become starved for fuel. Your brain responds by telling you you’re hungry…again…even though your blood is loaded with energy-providing glucose.
What’s the Harm? An impaired metabolism often results in weight gain. With mitochondrial dysfunction, your metabolism won’t be efficient and your energy level—and health—will begin to suffer. Over time, insulin resistance can lead to clogging of the arteries and heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers and dementia.
How to Prevent It: Help your metabolism so your body is efficiently burning all of the calories you eat without storing up fat and causing damage to your mitochondria. One of the best ways to do this is interval training. Push yourself hard for a few minutes until you are out of breath before bringing the intensity back down, and then repeat. Because your heart and lungs are tapped out during high-intensity moments, your cells are forced to produce more mitochondria to extract more oxygen from your blood. Over time, interval training can improve your overall physical fitness, your VO2 max (the amount of oxygen your body uses to burn fuel, which is an indication of how fast your metabolism is)—and your longevity.
Your immune system’s response to invaders and injuries is known as inflammation. It’s a sort of stress response of your immune system. The inflammatory response is designed to protect you from harmful infections, and it helps your body heal when you get hurt. But to do so, it employs an arsenal of weapons that can actually turn on you. This can happen for a multitude of reasons, such as chronic stress, inadequate sleep, smoking, lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet—even poor oral health can contribute to inflammation in your body.
What’s the Harm? An immune system that’s set to overdrive causes chronic inflammation in the body, which damages cells, tissues and organs. Inflammation is associated with chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
How to Prevent It: Have your C-reactive protein (CRP)—a protein that is produced by white blood cells when there’s chronic inflammation in your body—checked. A CRP blood test can give you a precise measure of your immune system. “It’s a better predictor of health than your cholesterol, blood pressure, family history and genes,” Dr. Liponis says. You can work to bring down an elevated CRP level—or prevent one in the first place—by eating a diet rich in fiber and omega-3 fats from fish, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, almonds and walnuts, or taking fish oil supplements with a doctor’s ok. Our article, Inflammation: The Silent Risk Factor, discusses more techniques for calming an out-of-control immune system, such as reducing stress and losing belly weight.
Detoxification is your body’s process of breaking down and eliminating anything that shouldn’t be in it. This includes substances your body produces (but doesn’t necessarily want sticking around), like free radicals, waste products of metabolism and certain hormones, as well as foreign ones you take into your body, such as medications, food additives and environmental toxins like pesticides. Ideally, these all leave the body (a process called excretion) through your urine, feces, sweat, breath and dead skin and hair. Every organ plays some role in detoxification, but the liver is the body’s detox center.
What’s the Harm? If you don’t eliminate toxins, they may affect how your liver or kidneys function, or they could even lead to bladder cancer. Poor detoxification is also associated with fatigue (and chronic fatigue syndrome), pain, chronic hormonal problems, fibroids, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
How to Prevent It: Keep things moving. To cleanse the body of waste products, it’s important to drink plenty of water—enough to keep your urine clear or pale yellow—and eat a sufficient amount of fiber to keep you regular. Certain foods are known for their detox properties, so it’s wise to work them into your diet too. These include garlic, onions, broccoli and other cruciferous veggies, turmeric, blueberries, green tea, yogurt, flaxseeds, soy and red grapes. And don’t skip out on exercising and hitting the sauna or steam room—sweating removes toxins from the body through your pores.