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Published in CenterView on December 16, 2013
Dr. Renee Wilkins, assistant professor in the School of Health Related Professions, demonstrates a stress-reducing technique: yoga.
Dr. Renee Wilkins, assistant professor in the School of Health Related Professions, demonstrates a stress-reducing technique: yoga.

Integrative medicine specialist recommends holistic approach to New Year

By Matt Westerfield

The time has come to begin thinking about what goals to set for 2014, and no doubt everyone is familiar with the disappointment of a fizzled-out New Year’s resolution.


Whether plans are to lose weight, adopt better spending habits or pack salads for lunch, chances are those goals have in the past fallen by the wayside by Valentine’s Day.

“The problem with the New Year’s resolution is that it has such a finality to it that people are set up to fail.”

That’s according to Dr. Gailen Marshall, professor of medicine and director of the Division of Allergy and Immunology, who specializes in the field of integrative medicine. Also known as complementary and alternative medicine, integrative medicine is a relatively recent development in health care that addresses the body, the mind, the spirit and the emotions all at once.

“A human being has a body and a mind, they have a spirit and they have an emotional response,” Marshall said, “so by the combined effort of ministering to the body, the mind, the spirit and the emotions, that is a total approach for the whole patient.”

In a nutshell, the conventional approach to health care is to treat a particular condition, whereas the principle of integrative medicine is to treat both the condition and address the patient’s overall wellness. And there are four interrelated areas that Marshall recommends people focus on in order to strike a healthy balance in the new year.

1. Stress

“In today’s world, we are under levels of stress that our parents and grandparents never dreamed of,” Marshall said, citing society’s emphasis on technology and multitasking and the demands of work and family. Luckily, there are a couple of easy techniques to help manage stress.

One is to carve out time for relaxation.

“It’s amazing that we have to schedule time for relaxation, but you do,” Marshall said. But making that time could be something as simple as getting up 15 minutes earlier to sit and relax for a bit.
A second stress-reliever is some form of meditation, which doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in a contorted position and chanting.

“Meditation is a time for reflection,” Marshall said. “Some people actually use that as a time of prayer.”

The Hindu discipline of yoga and the Chinese practice of Qigong both are effective methods that combine stretching, relaxation and deep breathing, which studies have shown are beneficial to one’s health.

2. Diet

When it comes to eating right, Marshall says the fundamental principle is to listen to the body.

“Think about how we eat now: Many people eat in front of the television, they eat in the car, they eat at parties — we put food with everything,” he said. “So you end up eating and eating and you’re ignoring your body saying ‘that’s enough.’”

Instead, try a steady pace, eat smaller meals and remember that by eating more and exercising less, individuals are going to gain weight.

Research shows the Mediterranean diet is one tremendously healthy approach and is as simple as getting most calories from fruits, vegetables and nuts. It contains less meat, and when dieters are feeling carnivorous, they lean toward fish and chicken.

3. Exercise

Regular exercise becomes more important as people age to stave off muscle atrophy, but people also tend to become more sedentary the older they get.

“We ride the elevator, we sit on the couch, we drive the car and we get deconditioned,” Marshall said. “We get out of the habit of exercising and try to get it all done on the weekend, then we injure ourselves, which is a further hindrance.”

The secret to making it a habit is to find something enjoyable to do, like bike riding. At the same time, don’t forget that exercising the mind is equally important, he added. Activities like reading, doing puzzles or brainteasers have been shown to inhibit the development of cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

4. Sleep

“It is estimated that two out of three Americans carry a chronic sleep deficit,” Marshall said. That’s because they don’t sleep long enough or they have anxiety and stress. Weight and diet also disrupt sleep.

Marshall also warns about the quality of sleep.

“Just because you’re unconscious doesn’t mean you’re getting rested,” he said. Studies show that REM sleep, or the dreaming state of sleep, is the most restorative stage of sleep.

In short, Marshall recommends setting short-term goals rather than permanent goals, which are less achievable.

“Goals need to be better defined, limited and with the realization that failures don’t have to derail your plan,” he said. “Don’t punish yourself when you fail.

“The most successful people overcome failure with success.”