“Lifestyle medicine is the most positive thing happening in the medical space”

Mayo Clinic nephrologist and genetics researcher Dr. Stephen Turner discovered lifestyle medicine late in his career. That didn’t stop him from becoming one of its most passionate advocates.

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Nephrologist Stephen Turner, MD, DipABLM, says he spent most of his career at the renowned Mayo Clinic practicing medicine exactly how the health care system expected him to practice it.

“Tests, drugs and procedures,” Dr. Turner said. “The system wants you to prescribe tests, drugs and procedures, and so you get really good at doing that.”

It wasn’t until he was in his 60s that Dr. Turner discovered lifestyle medicine, a rapidly growing specialty that transformed how he approached his patients’ and his own health. A member of the inaugural 2017 cohort to become certified by the American Board of Lifestyle Medicine as a lifestyle medicine physician, Dr. Turner is now a passionate advocate for lifestyle medicine as a first-line intervention in health care.

He recently made a generous gift to ensure that more physicians are exposed to the pillars of lifestyle medicine at a younger age than he was. His $50,000 donation to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) will provide financial assistance for Lifestyle Medicine Residency Curriculum (LMRC) program directors and faculty to pursue American Board of Lifestyle Medicine certification. This will equip residency leaders with mastery of lifestyle medicine so they can train and mentor the residents going through their residency training programs.

“Looking back, I realize now that I was probably already burned out by the time I finished my residency training,” Dr. Turner said. “I believe it is important to introduce the pillars of lifestyle medicine to clinicians when they are young, not just so they are better prepared to care for patients but so they learn to take better care of themselves.”

Dr. Turner’s embrace of lifestyle medicine was a big change from his past professional life. He spent much of his career as a successful researcher studying genetics, while seeing a limited number of patients. One of his research projects investigated how well genetics could predict whether someone would develop hypertension. The findings suggested “not well.”

“I came to understand that genetics was not very predictive,” he said.

At that point, Dr. Turner was over 65. He closed his lab and worked half days seeing patients in his nephrology clinic. Nephrology is a branch of medicine that focuses on disease of the kidneys. Patients suffering from hypertension, type 2 diabetes, kidney stones or chronic kidney disease were often referred to him by other physicians.

“You could manage their drugs but the people kept getting heavier and more diabetic,” he said. “I made the observation that what these people really needed was a lifestyle reboot.”

Dr. Turner’s observation was driven in large part by changes to his own lifestyle health. He survived prostate cancer and met his partner, Beverly, whose family history of high cholesterol had led her to adopt a vegan diet. He read ground-breaking books such as the “China Study” by T Colin Campbell and “How Not to Die” by Dr. Michael Greger and learned about the scientific evidence demonstrating the potential for food as medicine for prevention of chronic disease, treatment of chronic conditions and, in intensive therapeutic doses, reversal of chronic illness.

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As he made changes to his own lifestyle habits, Dr. Turner started talking to a nutritionist colleague at the Mayo Clinic who mentioned ACLM, the nation’s medical professional society representing clinicians dedicated to a lifestyle medicine. ACLM defines lifestyle medicine as the evidence-based use of a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet, physical activity, restorative sleep, social connection, avoidance of risky substances and stress management. ACLM, which represents more than 7,000 physicians and other clinicians, is the only organization that educates, equips, and supports certification of physicians and other clinicians in lifestyle medicine.

Dr. Turner began talking to patients about their lifestyle habits and explaining the evidence that supported how changes could improve their whole health. During clinical rounds, he visited patients with lifestyle-health related books that could benefit their specific health ailment. Resident doctors accompanying him on rounds would say afterward “I’ve never seen anyone do that before. Can you show me the books you’re using?”

For patients who committed to lifestyle behavior changes, the results were at times astonishing. Patients suffering from severe hypertension enjoyed dramatic decreases in blood pressure and, subsequently significantly reduced the antihypertension medication they required. Patients with chronic kidney disease, diabetes or advanced atherosclerotic vascular disease stabilized their kidney function and did not progress to the point of needing dialysis. Patients with a history of kidney stones were able to prevent stone growth and new stone formation.

At times, Dr. Turner took good-natured ribbing from colleagues — “Here comes Turner with his veggies.” But as health care spending soared, the pandemic raised awareness of the risks of chronic lifestyle-related disease and the evidence grew proving the therapeutic power of lifestyle medicine, interest in the field exploded. ACLM, which had 500 members in 2014, has grown to more than 9,000 practicing in the field. Large health systems are increasingly integrating a therapeutic dose of lifestyle medicine into patient care, employee health and their broader communities.

“Interest in lifestyle medicine is growing not just among clinicians and health systems but among patients who are increasingly understanding that they can make a big difference in their health with small lifestyle changes,” said ACLM President Dr. Cate Collings, MD, MS, FACC, DipABLM. “Dr. Turner’s generous gift to ACLM will help more clinicians gain the knowledge and skills to practice lifestyle medicine and partner with their patients take control of their heath.”

The time is now for lifestyle medicine to become the foundation of health and health care, Dr. Turner said. He hopes his gift to ACLM can help build that foundation.

“ACLM has really become my intellectual home,” Dr. Turner said. “I truly believe lifestyle medicine is the most positive thing happening in the medical space. I am excited to do my part to keep that positive momentum going.”

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