For These Conditions, Lifestyle Changes Are Just What the Doctor Orders

7 min read  |  October 17, 2018  | 
Disponible en Español |

Side effects include better health.

You’re a healthy person, overall. But how many medications are in your medicine cabinet?

Taking medications for your arthritis, back pain, and that recurring migraine, among others, can lead to real problems. You can’t always predict how they will interact. Instead, many doctors suggest that you explore non-medication ways to handle some health issues.

In the age of wonder drugs, we tend to discount the effectiveness of simply taking care of ourselves, says Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, an internal medicine doctor with the University of Miami Health System. “Lifestyle changes like exercise and weight loss can have a profound effect on several conditions without the side effects of drug therapy.”


Prediabetes is a condition where your blood sugar is higher than normal, but not high enough for you to be considered diabetic. According to the American Diabetes Association, prediabetes is diagnosed when:

  • A Hemoglobin A1C reading between 5.7-6.4 percent
  • A fasting blood glucose between 100 -125 mg/dl
  • An oral glucose tolerance test 2 hour blood glucose reading between 140 mg/dl-199 mg/dl

A diagnosis of prediabetes usually indicates insulin resistance, which means your body doesn’t use insulin properly. Insulin regulates your body’s usage and storage of sugar and fat. The best treatment may be lifestyle modification, which includes:

  • Losing at least seven percent of your excess weight: Weight loss will help reduce inflammation, which is a symptom of insulin resistance.
  • Becoming more active: Your muscles use up some of your excess blood sugar, which helps you lose weight and use the insulin your body produces more effectively.
  • Eat more vegetables: Vegetables should take up half your plate. They have lots of fibers to help manage the levels of glucose in your system. Plus, they’re high in vitamins and minerals that help your body work better.
  • All carbs are not created equal: Simple and refined carbohydrates are fast-acting carbohydrates that cause an immediate rise in blood sugar, things like fruits, juices, maple syrups, milk, yogurt, and honey. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, foods like whole grains and beans, take longer for our body to break down and are absorbed into the system more slowly. This helps keep blood sugar stable.

These changes can even help people who already have diabetes control it without medication, says Dr. Carrasquillo.

High blood pressure

Also called hypertension, high blood pressure is another condition that can be greatly improved by making changes to your life.

  • Increasing physical activity: Exercising regularly increases your cardiovascular health and helps you lose weight; both of which helps lower your blood pressure. Walking for just 30 minutes a day can make a difference, but more and more vigorous exercise can lower it further.
  • Changing your diet: There are several changes you can make that can improve hypertension. These include eating a low-fat diet to lose weight, eating less sodium and limiting your caffeine and alcohol consumption.
  • Getting enough quality sleep: Are you only getting around five hours of sleep a night? Try getting at least an hour more. Sleep helps your body regulate stress hormones; when you don’t get enough of it that could be contributing to your high blood pressure.
  • Reducing stress: Easier said than done … I know.  But, stress can dramatically affect blood pressure. Add a few of these techniques to your routine – deep breathing, meditation, yoga, setting clear work/home boundaries, and managing your time better.


Heartburn, also called acid reflux, occurs when the muscles of your lower esophagus don’t work right. This causes food and acids from the stomach to flow back — or reflux — into your esophagus. Things like food and certain medications can aggravate it. To make symptoms easier:

  • Don’t go to bed with a full stomach. Eat meals at least 2 to 3 hours before lying down. This will give food time to digest and get out of your stomach.
  • Don’t overeat. Eat smaller portions at mealtimes, or try to eat four to five small meals instead of three big ones.
  • Eat slowly. Take time to eat. Put your fork down between bites.
  • Avoid heartburn triggers: There are foods you know can bring on your heartburn symptoms: onions, chocolate, coffee, citrus juice, tomatoes, and high-fat or spicy foods.

Back and joint pain

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2013-2015, an estimated 54.4 million U.S adults annually were diagnosed by a doctor with some form of chronic joint pain due to arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus or fibromyalgia. While joint pain may become more prevalent with age, it does not have to be inevitable. There are lifestyle changes you can make to reduce symptoms and improve function.

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity is one of the most common diseases that affect bone and joint health. Not only will shedding excess weight relieve some of the pressure put on your joints, but it can also slow down joint degeneration.
  • Exercise: The benefits of exercise extend beyond weight loss. Regular exercise increases strength and flexibility, reduces pain and helps combat fatigue and other symptoms of arthritis.
  • Maintain a healthy diet: You can reduce chronic joint pain by adding more foods and supplements known to reduce inflammation in the body, like omega-3 fatty acids found in foods like fish, chia seeds soybeans and walnuts. At the same time, limit processed foods, trans-fats, and added sugars, which increase inflammation. Fresh fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants that counteract joint damage and help slow the effects of aging.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking slows down the body’s natural healing mechanisms and reduces blood flow, aggravating arthritis symptoms through triggering inflammatory processes that affect every cell in the body.
  • Manage your stress: Stress releases chemicals that can affect your body’s immune system, and can cause inflammation, resulting in a flare-up of your arthritic pain. Reduce stress with things like meditation, yoga, or other relaxation techniques. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studies have found that the practice of mindfulness meditation is helpful for some people with joint pain. When stress is reduced inflammation, swelling and pain also decrease.

Mild depression

Depression is a mood disorder that causes us to have profound feelings of sadness, isolation, hopelessness, or emptiness. It can be overwhelming and prevent us from enjoying things we once had interest in. Treating depression effectively means doing more than taking medications and going to therapy. Changing our lifestyle to ensure a healthy mind and body helps us cope with the challenges of depression.

  • Healthy eating: A good diet is good for your body and your mood overall. Cut out junk food and incorporate foods rich in good fatty acids like Omega-3s and 6s found in fish, nuts, and olive oil; amino acids that form the neurotransmitters that play a role in mental health, foods such as meat and dairy products; complex carbohydrates that can help stimulate production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin and help your body absorb amino acids more effectively, which helps you synthesize proteins.
  • Exercising: Regular exercise can help our mood by:
    • Releasing feel-good endorphins, natural brain chemicals that enhance our sense of well-being
    • Taking our mind off worries so we can break the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression
    • Gaining confidence, through meeting exercise goals or getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
    • Getting more social interaction, by meeting or socializing with others also out exercising.

Helping our bodies function better can ease symptoms and eliminate the need for yet another pill.  However, Dr. Carrasquillo cautions against making these changes in lieu of seeing a physician.

“Making healthy lifestyle choices is always a good idea but if you experience symptoms associated with these conditions, you should see a doctor so that you can get a proper diagnosis,” he says.  “They can also help you come up with the best treatment plan and monitor you to make sure your health is improving.”

By Mary Jo Blackwood and Natasha Bright, UMiami Health News contributors

Tags: back pain, Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, healthy lifestyle, heartburn, high blood pressure, lifestyle changes, Prediabetes

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