Working in the health and fitness industry, I thought I knew quite a bit about how to stay healthy. But in May last year, after 5 years of huge stress in my personal life, I was exhausted from chronic lack of sleep and overwork, and in danger of completely burning out. I had hit the wall, and I knew I had to make changes.
I could so easily have gone to see my doctor and would probably have been offered sleeping pills or anti-depressants, and, for a woman of my age, HRT.
Wanting to avoid all of those, I began of course with Google. I researched my symptoms and tried to piece together what I could do to help myself. I became absorbed by the stories and experiences of others, and by the detail of gut bacteria, body clocks and the interplay of our various hormones. I learned about the insidious effects of lack of sleep, what really happens when stress is out of control, and that the implications for our long term prospects of not attending to our underlying health are genuinely scary. I looked for advice from friends and colleagues. I found a couple of helpful books but nothing which really nailed it, so made my best effort to bring it all together myself. More than anything, I stepped back and questioned my priorities (not an easy task with mind and body at a low ebb) but with a strong feeling that my health had to be right at the top, I made changes to my diet, exercise, work schedule and social life. Some of those changes were straightforward and immediately effective (reducing caffeine), some more challenging (new routines and habits), others simply experimental and done at the time with a degree of scepticism and distant hope rather than real belief (supplements).
Gradually things improved and within a few months I was sleeping 7-8 hours most nights. That changed everything. My life is back on track, with further adjustments being made as I continue to discover what really works for me.
Since then, a new book has been published and to say that I wish it had been at my fingertips at the time I was most challenged would be an understatement. The 4 Pillar Plan¹ addresses the four key aspects of lifestyle which contribute to overall health: what we eat, how we move, our sleep and how we relax. The author, Dr Rangan Chatterjee, is a practising GP from Cheshire who has taken a personal interest in functional medicine, which addresses underlying causes of imbalance and disease rather than simply treating symptoms. He now has something of a cult following, if Facebook is anything to go by, with regular appearances on BBC Breakfast and a brilliant TV series to his name, Doctor In The House, in which he reduced and even reversed a number of chronic conditions such as diabetes, depression and debilitating “cluster” headaches.
So what makes this book different? For starters, although it looks chunky, it’s beautifully presented and an easy and quick read, simultaneously research-led and approachable (the author refers to “simplifying over-complicated health”). It takes a genuinely rounded view, preferring a simple strategy of a few changes in each “pillar” to extreme changes in one such as radical alterations to diet or exercise, and makes the point that we are all different. It gives a truly accessible approach in which doctors and their patients can come together to address health and immunity, avoiding drugs where possible. In contrast to other health books, I found it heartening rather than confusing, with genuinely inspiring stories of real patients making small changes with enormous benefits – a retired bus driver whose sleep radically improved with a daily walk in morning light, to reset his body clock, is just one such tale. The book is peppered with other inspiring examples, across all four “pillars”.
87% 5 star reviews on Amazon UK² indicates the accessibility of the book. But more importantly, the author is walking a difficult line brilliantly. He is doing what has eluded many so far – he remains in the mainstream medical community and is building a following there whilst successfully challenging its traditional approach of treating the symptoms of chronic conditions rather than the cause. As a practising NHS doctor, he understands the pressures of the 10-minute appointment time, so delivers the responsibility for individual health to the patient as much as to the doctor, by supporting the patient with straightforward and sustainable solutions. He knows that medics will not entertain any treatment which they do not believe to have been proved by research – he’s clearly a fan of functional medicine, a whole movement in itself, but studiously minimizes words such as “holistic” and avoids recommending alternative practitioners or supplements (unless proven to be effective). He recommends a strategy for underlying health which is as drug-free as possible, whilst acknowledging that the drug companies, the only real losers here, do have a role to play, particularly in the treatment and relief of acute situations such as accidents and infections. My feeling is that the key to his success lies in bringing together all the various parties effectively.
A big feather in the author’s cap is that the Royal College of GPs has officially accredited his training course for doctors, Lifestyle Medicine Education, so that it counts towards their mandatory training hours. This alone increases the likelihood of doctors having the skills and willingness to embrace change, but of course the adoption of Dr Chatterjee’s approach ultimately relies on the willingness of patients to take responsibility for their own health. Surely both can only benefit, doctors with shorter queues in their surgeries and patients with better underlying health. Type II diabetes costs the NHS £1.5m per hour, or 10% of its budget³, and it’s just one of a whole host of chronic conditions which are a huge drain on resources. What if we could simply reduce demand? Save Ourselves?
¹ Chatterjee, R. (2018) ‘The 4 Pillar Plan’, Penguin Random House UK