Emerson Ecologics – Family Relationships and your Health
By Jaclyn Chasse, N.D.
Another modality in medicine, and one that is particularly important in naturopathic medicine, is the human modality itself. I refer to this as the application of “people and organizations” to the patient. Giving the patient people, or groups of people, contains within itself a healing power. This may seem obvious to us, but we seldom prescribe people as a medicine or modality. People are each others’ medicine in the ideal world.
~William A. Mitchell, ND (1947 – 2007)
How often do you emphasize strong family relationships in your clinical practice? Could this practice lead to a happier, healthier life for your patients? More and more evidence is showing us it can.
A meta analysis of 148 studies published in PLoS Medicine in July 2010 concluded that individuals’ experiences within social relationships significantly predict mortality. The study considered “social relationships” to include an individuals’ degree of integration into social networks, their reported level of actual social support received and their beliefs and perceptions of support available to them. The influence of social relationships, including family relationships, on mortality was comparable to well-established risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceeded the impact of other risk factors, including obesity and physical inactivity. There are hundreds of studies showing the correlation between social relationships and disease states including depression, atherosclerosis, hypertension, cancer, renal disease, schizophrenia and many more. Research conducted by Dan Buettner, an anthropological researcher famous for his research on centenarians, also emphasized the importance of strong family relationships. He noted that among populations with the highest ratio of people living well over 100, family structure was emphasized and individuals played an essential role in the functioning of their families even into their elderly years.
For a naturopathic physician, the idea that relationships influence health is obvious and these research outcomes may not be surprising; however, many doctors find that addressing this determinant of health is more difficult than addressing concrete concepts such as nutrition or physical activity. Naturopathic physicians are very well-equipped to provide guidance to patients around how to enhance their family relationships and improve this aspect of their health. When reviewing your patients’ health histories, consider asking more detailed questions about their family. Do they feel supported? Are their family relationships fulfilling? If they are single or not connected to their family of origin, discuss their circle of friends, as friendships appear to have an equal impact on health outcomes.
Model and teach healthy communication; clear and effective communication is the cornerstone of healthy relationships. Model or teach communication tools in your office or refer out to a counselor who can provide this for your patients.
Suggest opportunities for enriching relationships; encourage families to connect with one another by cooking and eating healthy meals together, volunteering time to an organization they can support, or working as a family toward a common goal, such as saving for a vacation. Encourage them to participate together in stress relieving activities, such as at-home yoga or a game night. Prescribe a “T.V. Free” week for families or even a date night for disengaged couples.
Start with yourself; as a naturopathic physician, you have the opportunity to model these behaviors for your patients and to “walk the talk”. Most importantly, building stronger interpersonal relationships in your own life can increase your level of health.
Naturopathic doctors are taught to take a multifaceted approach to patient care, addressing everything from genetics to nutritional status. Family relationships often get overlooked, possibly because they were thought to have less impact on a patient’s health or perhaps because they are more difficult to treat. However, the growing body of evidence suggests that longevity is greatly connected to connectedness. So remember to utilize the prescription of people as medicine, and start with the family!