The Potential Benefits of Lifestyle Medicine to the Environment
For the next generations, that is what matters the most.

Georgie Sowman Posted by Georgie Sowman on 7 Jun 2019 / Comments


I signed up for the Diploma in Lifestyle Medicine for many reasons. And there is no doubt that the course has benefited so many aspects of my practice as a GP. But the more skills I gain in treating patients using non-drug modalities, the more it has become apparent that lifestyle Medicine also has the potential to protect the environment.

There has been increasing awareness in the last few years for the pressing need for individuals, organisations , and nations to work together to change behaviour that impacts negatively on the natural wold. Like many systems, healthcare carries a carbon footprint, can contribute to air pollution, and to plastic waste. There is also awareness that environmental health in turn has implications for human health. Examples of this are the impact of air pollution, the impact of marine plastic entering the food chain, and the importance of wild spaces and nature on human health and behaviour .

I am a mother of three who works as a GP in the North of England, with a passion for Stand up paddle-boarding ( SUP). I started paddling 10 years ago, when my youngest daughter was a baby. SUP is the fastest growing Watersport world-wide, and has enormous benefits to aerobic fitness, muscle strengthening , and balance. But for me, getting into the North Sea all year round delivers opportunities to de-stress, reflect, and most of all develop a deep connectivity to nature and the environment. Because of this I started volunteering for the Charity Surfers against Sewage ( SAS) as lead for beach cleans 6 years ago. Last year I started the Plastic free community scheme with SAS in Beadnell northumberland. This includes promoting and celebrating changes made by individuals and businesses to reduce single use plastic waste .

In healthcare there are some fantastic organisations and schemes working to lessen Healthcare’s impact. Both the NHS sustainability Unit and Green impact for health champion social prescribing. But what appealed to me in Lifestyle medicine was also the opportunity to develop evidence based skills in non-drug lifestyle treatments for chronic disease. And many of Lifestyle Medicine’s core principles go hand in hand with reducing environmental impact.

Examples of this include the recommendation to follow a wholegrain plant-based diet, low in animal products and processed foods ( both linked to increased energy usage in their production and higher carbon footprint). It teaches the joyful art of prescribing physical activity, which can be in the form of active commuting ( encouraging patients out of their cars and reducing air pollution). But mostly by working to reduce lifestyle related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, we can help alleviate the burden from pharmaceuticals ( drugs make up 22% of the NHS Carbon footprint, 79% of which are from general practice). And on top of this, there is also the opportunity to reduce the millions and millions of single use blister packs, bottles, and packaging encasing medications and devices that once discarded, can sit in landfill for hundreds of years, or cause pollution elsewhere.

I am inspired by projects such as https://walkwithadoc.org/ . I’ve notices that beach cleaning involves joining like-minded volunteers, with a shared sense of purpose. It involves Physical activity, enables conversation and social connectivity, and delivers benefits to the local human and wildlife community . It also means time spent by the sea. In Blue Mind theory, Californian Biologist Wallace J. Nichols discusses the concept of ‘water as medicine’. I wonder whether this is why the feedback after beach cleans has included ‘ that was therapeutic’ to ‘ I feel really good now’. I’d love to set up ‘Beach Cleans with a Doc’ sessions for our patients that would benefit not just human but environmental health too.

There is much to be done, and some of this will need whole systems upstream to change. It would be great to see organisations such as NICE to consider environmental cost of medications with the same weight as financial cost when making decisions.This would be especially in lifestyle related conditions such as hypertension treatment thresholds ,or statins in primary prevention. But for now, simply by promoting Lifestyle Medicine to our colleagues, and practising Lifestyle medicine with our patients, we are all making a change. And for the next generations, that is what matters the most.

Georgie Sowman
Dr Georgie Sowman
General Practitioner

I am a Northumberland Family General Practitioner , and I am working towards my Diploma in Family Medicine for August 2019. I am interested in the impact of Lifestyle Medicine on individuals during consultations , but how this ties in with community and environmentalism . I’m passionate about the ocean the positive benefits of spending time in and by the sea .