Over 75% of patients in the primary care setting present with stress-related complaints. Curiously, patients and health care providers all too often see stress as a relatively benign sequela of many common illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, lung disease, dementia, diabetes, and mental illness. Unfortunately, various day-to-day lifestyle choices and environmental factors, unrelated to the presence of any disease, can cause stress sufficient to contribute to the development of various diseases/disorders and suboptimal health. There is evidence suggesting that counseling in stress management–oriented therapeutic interventions (as offered by lifestyle medicine–oriented practitioners) may prevent or reduce the onset, severity, duration, and/or overall burden of stress-related illnesses. Such counseling often involves considerations such as the patient’s nutrition, physical activity, interest in/capacity to meditate, drug abuse/cessation, and so on. Unfortunately, lifestyle medicine–oriented approaches to stress management are rarely offered in primary care—the patient care arena wherein such counseling would likely be best received by patients. Would health care outcomes improve if primary care providers offered counseling in both stress management and positive lifestyle choices? The purpose of this article is to provide both primary care practitioners and educators in health care training programs with an introductory overview of epigenetics. An emerging field of science offering insights into how factors such as stress and lifestyle choices interact with our genes in ways that can both positively and negatively impact the various micro (eg, cellular) through macro (eg, physiologic, pathophysiologic) processes that determine our tendencies toward illness or wellness. A deeper understanding of epigenetics, as provided herein, should enable primary care providers and medical educators to more confidently advocate for the primary benefits associated with counseling in both stress reduction and the pursuit of healthy lifestyle choices.
- lifestyle medicine
- medical education