As we all know, our health care system is in crisis. The media constantly bombard us with this message. However, while I agree with this assessment, I have a different opinion than the media on the nature of and solution to this crisis.

Much of the arguing centers on the Affordable Care Act. Politicians from both sides seem to be locked in a vigorous debate about whether this piece of legislation, now law, is helpful or harmful to the American people, and what we must do about it right now. Careers hang in the balance. A lot of money is at stake. But where, I ask, is the discussion that really matters as we talk about health care? Where is the discussion of health?

Many people are chronically ill, overweight, in pain, fatigued, suffering from brain fog, or simply not as robustly healthy as they could and should be. Why is this? As the politicians bicker about access to health insurance, medications, surgeries, doctors, and nurses, as they argue about what care should be administered and by whom, nobody is looking at the big picture. Does health insurance create health? Do medications prescribed for chronic diseases create health? Do surgeries for chronic pain create health? Does having more doctors and nurses create more health and vitality in our society? I would argue that if patients have a chronic health problem, the answer to all of these questions is generally no.

Certainly we need insurance, sometimes we need medications and surgery, and we definitely need doctors and nurses. In times of an acute medical crisis like infection or trauma, modern medical care is, in fact, very effective. But for chronic diseases like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, dementia, autoimmunity, mood disorders, and cancers—the diseases that are driving the cost of health care steeply upwards each year, bankrupting families as well as state and federal budgets—modern medical care mostly focuses on suppressing symptoms while ultimately failing to restore health.

This problem of health care and health is not a simple one. If we create more health and vitality for ourselves and our society, we will need less medical intervention for the epidemic of chronic diseases that drive up health care costs, both for individuals and society as a whole. If we take measures to restore patient health, underlying chronic diseases typically stop progressing. In fact, they usually reverse. The body is designed to repair itself, if only we can get out of the way. Wouldn’t that be a better way to live?

What I propose is a different sort of solution to the health care crisis—one that makes all the political bickering much less important. I propose a change of focus. The goal should be creating more health and vitality, both for the individual and for society.

I am a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where I see many patients with complex chronic autoimmune conditions in a clinic that was created specifically for treating these types of diseases. These diseases come with a high price tag: when they first come to me, my patients are often on 20 or more medications, including pain pills, blood pressure pills, diabetes meds, and potent immune-suppressing drugs, that cost many thousands of dollars each month. In addition, my patients often struggle with chronic disabling pain, brain fog, and fatigue. My patients often blame their illness on their genes and think there is nothing they can do to help themselves besides take more pills. But is that really true?

If I asked to you write down what percentage of risk of developing high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune problems, mental health problems, or cancer is due to DNA, and what percentage is due to lifestyle choices (including diet, smoking status, and physical activity level), what would you say? According to Dr. Walter Willet, a professor of public health at Harvard University, a full 70 to 90% of risk of developing high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer is due to just three things, all of which are completely within patients’ control and have nothing to do with doctors, insurance, or medication. Those three things are: diet quality, physical activity level, and smoking status. That leaves just 10 to 30% of the risk to DNA.

So, here’s a prescription we should be giving our patients: Quit eating sugar and white flour and start eating berries and vegetables, preferably 6 to 9 cups every day. Stop smoking. Stop sitting so much and move your body daily. These simple lifestyle changes can massively improve health, starting today. If we all moved in this direction, our cells would start conducting the chemistry of life properly again, repairing our bodies and our health. We could shift our inflamed, disease-prone bodies back toward becoming healthy, disease-resistant bodies.

My suggestions are not theoretical. I have seen it over and over in my clinics: When my patients drop the sugar and white flour and instead eat 6 to 9 cups of vegetables a day and begin moving their bodies, their blood pressures and blood sugars normalize, pain fades away, brain fog dissipates, and mood improves. I see people who look and feel 10 years younger than they did when they first came to see me. Autoimmune symptoms fade, and many of my patients are eventually able to stop taking immune-suppressing drugs and start thriving without medication. In short, when people adopt a diet and lifestyle designed specifically for optimal function of their bodies and brains, I see their health steadily improve—and their health care costs steadily decline.

This is the real solution to the real health care crisis in this country: changing our individual (and collective) behavior so that our health (and our country’s health) steadily improves and health care costs steadily decline. I am teaching my medical students, resident physicians, patients, and anybody else who will listen. Washington may not be listening, but I hope you are.


About Terry Wahls, MD

Dr. Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, where she teaches internal medicine residents, sees patients in a traumatic brain injury clinic, and conducts clinical trials. She is also a patient with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which confined her to a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. Dr. Wahls restored her health using diet and lifestyle changes and now pedals her bike to work each day. She is the author of The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine and The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions. She teaches the public and medical community about the healing power of intensive nutrition. You can find more information about her work at her website and follow her on twitter @TerryWahls and on Facebook at Terry Wahls MD.