Lifestyle medicine is a prescription to treat physician burnout

I lost my mom to breast cancer two months before finding out I was pregnant for the first time … with twins. Trying to navigate being a new mom of two without my own mom was ridiculously hard, both physically and emotionally. While I had help at first, within a month, I often found myself home alone with two screaming colicky babies. There were times I felt like I was drowning in a sea of diapers. It was in those moments I really missed having my mom around.

I went back to work when my twins were four months old. While I loved my job as a pediatrician and missed my patients and coworkers, I also missed my babies. I was working full time on very little sleep, and it didn’t take long to start feeling it. I felt like I wasn’t doing my best at home or at work because I was spread so thin. The beginnings of physician burnout were beginning to settle in, and I found myself searching. I didn’t really know for what at the time, but I knew something needed to change.

Around this time, I attended a conference at the Culinary Institute of America put on by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health called Healthy Kitchens Healthy Lives. This is where I first learned the concept of food as medicine, and I soon became enamored.

Before this, I wasn’t a cook. At all. Like dinner = frozen food. My previous forays in the kitchen often led to frustration with a high percentage of kitchen fails. But I wanted something better for my kids and for myself. I just didn’t know where or how to start.

After attending a few nutrition conferences over the subsequent years, I added new skills to my cooking repertoire. This empowered me to have the confidence to begin experimenting on my own. We began eating more home-cooked meals, which was a huge accomplishment for me. However, something still wasn’t quite right. I was still feeling tired and burned out. It wasn’t until I discovered lifestyle medicine that everything seemed to click for me.

Lifestyle medicine is an evidence-based approach to preventing, treating, and even reversing chronic disease. It focuses on optimizing these six areas: nutrition (specifically a whole food plant-based diet), physical activity, sleep, stress management, connecting to others, and avoiding risky substances.

As soon as I heard about lifestyle medicine, I was so sure it was the perfect fit for me that I immediately pursued board certification. Lifestyle medicine emphasizes the importance of health care providers having to walk the walk in order to effectively teach our patients. So that is what I did.

I started eating better, became more well-rested, and in turn, felt more balanced. This led to feeling happier both at work and at home. Soon I found that I became more efficient at work due to my increased level of concentration, which then translated to more time. I felt like I got my life back.

As I began to integrate lifestyle medicine into my practice, my patients started making changes to their lives in a way I had never seen before. It wasn’t the advice I was giving that had changed. It was the coaching aspect and the personal experience in changing my own lifestyle that taught me how to give advice that is actionable.

Lifestyle medicine equips practitioners with the tools to affect change. One of the biggest job satisfiers for physicians is positively impacting the trajectory of their patients’ lives. Having a parent tell you that their child is “a different person” because of the time you spent with them is priceless.

This is why I believe if more physicians studied and applied the principles of lifestyle medicine to their lives and their practices, we could put a dent into the burnout many of us face. We can build up resilience to the rigors of our work and experience higher levels of job satisfaction as we see our patients get better. In essence, lifestyle medicine is a prescription for physician burnout.

In many ways, I feel that my journey into lifestyle medicine is the legacy my mom gave to me. Arising from the emptiness of my early motherhood, I landed on a path leading me to flourish personally and professionally. I will be forever grateful to her not just for the life that she gave me, but for the life she is giving me.

Cherie Chu is a pediatrician who blogs at Wellness Pediatrician.

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