What if you could optimize your health and lower your risk of developing many chronic health conditions?

According to Dr. Saray Stancic, by changing your lifestyle, you also can improve your health and even prevent or delay disease. And Stancic speaks from experience: Twenty-four years ago, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and told that without medication, she would probably be in a wheelchair by the age of 40. Today, 24 years after her diagnosis, Stancic runs Stancic Health and Wellness, a thriving lifestyle medicine practice in Ramsey, New Jersey, and she no longer takes medication for her MS. She remains symptom-free and credits her good health to overhauling her lifestyle.

Finding the root cause of disease

While working as a third-year medical resident, Stancic awoke one morning in 1995 to find she had no feeling in her legs. She was rushed to the emergency room where doctors performed a series of tests and discovered through an MRI that she had multiple lesions on her brain and spinal cord.

Although her doctor prescribed medication, Stancic found it hard to tolerate the side effects, including chills, flu-like symptoms and insomnia. To counter the effects, her doctor prescribed more pills.

“I was a medication-dependent sick young woman, and yet my disease was continuing to progress,” Stancic says.

Convinced there had to be a better way, Stancic began reading about lifestyle medicine. The lessons she learned not only forced her to re-evaluate the way she was practicing medicine, but they also led her to produce the documentary film “Code Blue: Redefining the Practice of Medicine” that highlights the practice of lifestyle medicine to prevent, treat and manage chronic illnesses.

Unlike traditional medicine, lifestyle medicine treats the underlying cause of the disease rather than just the symptoms. Rather than just prescribing medications, lifestyle medicine addresses behaviors such as healthier food choices, getting adequate sleep and increasing physical activity.

Making smarter food choices

As a busy medical student and resident, Stancic remembers eating a lot of fast food. She never considered how refined carbs, processed meats, and artificial trans fats and sugar and high fructose corn syrup can all cause inflammation.

“There’s profound evidence that many chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease are fueled by chronic inflammation and poor dietary habits,” Stancic says. “The standard American diet is composed of highly processed foods, so I work with patients to make better nutritional decisions and incorporate more plant-based foods into their meals.”

Another upside to eating more plant-based foods: Unlike prescription medications, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables don’t come with numerous side effects or high upfront costs.

Stancic recalls one patient who had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. She began by looking at factors that led to his diagnosis and learned he had a stressful job, long commute and primarily ate fast food that resulted in a 50-pound weight gain.

“I talk to patients about increasing whole plant-based foods on their plate and leaving less room for animal sources and processed foods,” Stancic says. “We also look at how to fit in exercise when their schedule is jampacked, such as taking several 10-minute walks during the day or waking up early to fit in a morning workout.”

Stancic also shows patients how to make healthier substitutions when cooking their favorite meals.

“My husband loves rich Italian dishes, but to make them healthier, I substitute cannellini beans for sausage,” she says.

Realizing disease isn’t inevitable

It’s easy to think that because you have a family history of heart disease or diabetes, a future with chronic health conditions is inevitable. Not true, says Stancic who notes the World Health Organization found that 40 percent of cancer cases and 80 percent of heart disease, stroke and diabetes can be prevented by adopting a healthier lifestyle that includes regular exercise, weight loss and healthier food choices.

So why aren’t lifestyle changes emphasized by more doctors? Stancic says 86 percent of doctors report they received inadequate nutrition education while in medical school. She’s thrilled to see this gradually changing with an increase in culinary medical classes being offered across the country and organizations such as the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists offering nutrition education and certification.

Despite taking a holistic approach to patient health, Stancic isn’t anti-medication, nor does she advocate that her patients ditch their prescriptions. In fact, she believes “there’s a time and place for medications,” but she bases her practice on three fundamentals: “how we eat, how we move and managing our stress.” Some of her patients reduce their dependence on medications, while others have found lifestyle changes work to keep diseases at bay.

“I eat a healthy diet, exercise every day, make sure that I get eight hours of sleep and practice mindfulness meditation to reduce stress,” Stancic says. “I feel better and have so much gratitude in my life.”

Photo credit: Victor Torres, Stocksy; Dr. Saray Stancic