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Are You Chained to Your Pillbox?

What to do to curb your need for drugs that treat high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and osteoarthritis.

Diabetes continued...

In an Italian study that randomized half of people newly diagnosed with diabetes to a low-fat diet and the other half to Mediterranean diet principles, 30% of the low-fat diet participants did not need to go on diabetes medications, while 66% of Mediterranean dieters were able to avoid medication.

“About 25% fewer patients had to be on medications pursuing the Mediterranean diet,” Harlan says. “But either way, you can reduce your chance of going on medications, or improve your chance of going off them, by at least 30% with dietary changes. That’s huge.”

Exercise also lowers insulin resistance and improves triglyceride levels -- key components of controlling or preventing diabetes.

High Cholesterol

Studies have found that some people can reduce LDL ("bad" cholesterol) by 10% to 15%, increase HDL ("good" cholesterol) by 20%, and lower triglycerides by as much as 30% by pursuing an exercise program. There is some debate about whether moderate or vigorous exercise is better, but some exercise is definitely better than no exercise!

“But even if you can’t reduce [your weight] enough and you still have to take medication, studies show that statins combined with a healthy diet will reduce cholesterol that much more. It’s synergistic to do both.”

Your diet matters, too. If your LDL cholesterol level is too high, ask your doctor for pointers on what changes to make in your eating habits. More fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are a good start.

Quitting smoking can also help your cholesterol levels. So if you smoke, that's another reason to work on quitting.

Osteoarthritis

You can’t reverse the damage that’s already been done by osteoarthritis by losing weight and exercising. But you can  reduce the risk of further damage to your joints, improve your ability to function, and ease your discomfort -- all of which may make it easier for you to go off or reduce medications for arthritis pain.

“The single-most important treatment for arthritis -- at least lower extremity arthritis, such as in the ankles, knees, and hips -- is exercise,” Harlan says. “Time and time again, research tells us that whether you’re obese or overweight or not, healthy or not, and no matter how bad your cartilage is, exercise helps mobility and pain levels.”

Will these lifestyle changes work for you? It’s all individual. Harlan notes that some people may have a genetic predisposition to certain conditions that no amount of healthy eating and exercise can entirely erase. “I have patients who are skinny and trim but still have blood pressure of 190 over 100,” he says. “That’s not something you can change with lifestyle alone.”

But if your blood pressure, cholesterol, and other health issues have crept up with your weight and doughnut intake, pursuing a more healthy lifestyle can set you on the path to cutting the cord between you and your pillbox.

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Reviewed on May 10, 2011

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