Here’s how a revolution in health care is growing in Hampton Roads

A new type of medical practice is blooming in Hampton Roads.

Sharon Henley is the director of the Sentara Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program.

She is one of the doctors behind the concept “nutrition as medicine,” which has the focus of the Ornish Center since the program started in 2016. At the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Center, patients are educated about how to balance all aspects of their health instead of simply taking pills and hoping for the best.

“We had always been told your genes are your fate,” Henley said. “But that’s not true. We now know that you can turn off bad genes and turn on new genes.”

The center’s process is designed after a program from Dean Ornish, whose research proved that lifestyle changes can stop or even reverse disease, Henley said.

“It’s about doing more for our patients than just writing prescriptions,” Henley said.

At the center, patients come in for four hours a day, two days a week for nine weeks.

During the first hour, patients perform exercises while doctors use a cardiac monitor. In the second hour, patients learn about stress management with a session of yoga. 

During the third hour, patients are given lunch and they learn how to cook and manage a plant-based diet. Finally, in the last hour patients work with a counselor in a group support program where they can learn how to connect with each other and seek support.

Henley said in the years the program has been operating, doctors have seen patients’ rates of depression drop more than 50 percent and their exercise capacity rise more than 40 percent.

One of the biggest advantages in the program is that people who take medications for heart disease or diabetes find themselves able to reduce or stop their medications by the third week.

“What we have found is that the cure and the prevention are the same thing,” she said. “What we’re learning is that we’re eating all the wrong things, it’s too much fat and cholesterol. On top of that, we don’t know how to manage our stress and quiet our minds.”

Henley said the stress-management portion of the program is extremely important because stress can cause an inflammatory response that is damaging to a person’s arteries. 

Coupling the stress-management with the right diet isn’t necessarily a new discovery, but using it as a for of medicine to treat disease is a new approach that is quickly spreading.

While the center in Virginia Beach is the only one in the state, Sentara Healthcare started hosting an annual conference on the subject of nutrition as medicine last year in order to help educate the public and physicians.

“Physicians in med school get zero training in nutrition,” she said. “They’re trained in drugs and surgery so when it comes to nutrition they’ll just say ‘limit salt and eat healthy.’ But we want to get the message to the public that what you put in your mouth impacts your health.”

Another hurdle is making the lifestyle and program affordable. Currently, people who come to the program are in a dire situation when it comes to their lifestyle. But with work at the center, most are able to turn their situation around. As a result, Medicare and other insurance companies are starting to recognize the value of the program, Henley said.

What’s also important is making sure people don’t need to come to the program in the first place. During the Nutrition as Medicine conference, there is information shared about how to live on a budget, such as the handout on eating healthy on $6 a day.

Henley said the goal of the program and the conference is to continue spreading the information to as many people as possible.

“This is not zip code specific,” she said. “It’s happening all over the country.”

Sentara’s Nutrition as Medicine conference will be on Nov. 9 at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. Tickets are $30 for the public and $80 for medical professionals. For more information, visit the event’s website.healthcare

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.