Emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic has left many of us feeling stressed and lowered our standards for what healthy living looks like. Over the past 15 months, we've spent more time indoors and sedentary—and, let's face it, when we're bored or stressed, our lifestyle choices can become less than healthy. Reconnecting with our health can be a challenge. And that's where Dr. Chippy Ajithan, a mindfulness expert who is also a cardiologist, comes in.
Ajithan has been a cardiologist for 20 years with Heart Specialists of Sarasota. Her newest venture, the Mindful Cardiologist, teaches four pillars of health that can help reduce and reverse chronic disease: nutrition, movement, mindfulness and love.
"Sixty percent of Americans are living with some form of chronic disease, laying a $4 trillion burden on healthcare annually," Ajithan says. "By 2028, it's estimated that America will spend $6 trillion on healthcare. We have more drugs than ever, and people are living longer, but why are they still stick? Mindful cardiology was really born out of this desire to shift health care while still wearing my allopathic hat."
Ajithan follows teachings from Dr. Dean Ornish's Chronic Disease Reversal Program at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Ornish incorporates lifestyle changes into his patients' treatment to reduce heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and more. Ajithan also finds inspiration from other lifestyle practitioner leaders like Dr. Michael Greger and Dr. Mark Hyman from the Cleveland Clinic.
"The answer to fixing ailments of modern society is to start at the root and try to figure out why people are getting sick," Ajithan explains. "Maybe they are eating too much processed food, not getting enough exercise, haven't forgiven someone from their past or are simply too stressed out. We can ease this burden of disease that doctors and patients are dealing with."
On Thursday, July 22, Ajithan will share tips for getting started with her mindful approach to reducing stress at a free event called "BeyondMe: Nourishing the Mind, Body and Soul," hosted by Jewish Family and Children's Services. The event will be hosted at the Sarasota Yacht Club from 6 to 8 p.m.
Below, Ajithan shares her talking points with us.
The first pillar of Ajithan's practice is plant-based nutrition. The average American diet is highly processed, low in fruits in vegetables and high in fats and animal protein. Ajithan says studies have shown a link between meat intake and cardiovascular risk, plus cancer and diabetes risk. In fact, just two servings of red meat can increase risk of death from a heart attack or stroke by 40 percent. "By substituting one serving a day of red meat with either fish, chicken, nuts or legumes, you are reducing that mortality rate by seven to 19 percent," she says.
"Diabetic doctors and endocrinologists are so focused on the carbohydrates and sugar, telling patients not to eat beans and rice, but animal protein instead. This is so false on a biochemical level," Ajithan says. "You don't need to be vegan overnight, but processed meat is directly linked to all causes of mortality and cancer mortality."
"It increases inflammation, oxidative stress, creates insulin resistance and causes DNA adduct [eventual cancer cell formation], and increases TMAO in cells, which is directly linked to plaque formation in the arteries," she continues.
You don't have to go plant-based overnight. Even switching to a Mediterranean diet, which consists of lots of fish and Omega 3-fatty acids, has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by 30 percent and diabetes by 52 percent.
"The most commonly used diabetes medication, Metformin, only reduces risk by 30 percent," says Ajithan. "We haven't even scratched the surface of what diet can do to benefit patients."
Exercise and Movement
"There are several medical studies showing the positive connection between increased movement and health benefits," says Ajithan. "I don't typically spend a lot of time talking about exercise, because it is commonly known how good it is for us."
The issue Ajithan finds is that people are increasing exercise, but undoing accomplishments gained in the gym by making poor food choices. She says movement is important, but it has to be dovetailed with food. If you are planning on spending one, two or three hours at the gym, make sure you are following it up with a nutritious meal.
Ajithan recommends starting with 10-minute walks each day and building up your exercise routine from there. Even those 10 minutes can positively impact your heart and overall health.
Ajithan finds that meditation is the key that unlocks every aspect of this program. Once you learn to pay attention to your mind and exert control over it, you realize 99 percent of the time, the mind rules us, she says.
"How many times do you stop to observe your thoughts and exist in a state of mindfulness, or become witness to your thoughts?" says Ajithan. "Once you witness them, you have control. Then you can change nutrition, get out and moving, and let go of grudges and resentment. You can start to heal."
Underlying several health problems is the factor of stress. Stopping for two minutes to change your breath patterns and take deep breaths will change your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, Ajithan says. The American Heart Association has caught onto this, too; in 2017, it put out a statement about how meditation correlates to cardiovascular risk reduction.
Ajithan hosts free virtual meditation sessions over Zoom every Wednesday night. It is a 15-minute guided meditation starting at 8 p.m.
Love and Self-Love
"At the end of the day, love is what heals us all," Ajithan says, "starting with self-love and expanding it outward to include everyone else in the equation, including family, neighborhood and community. Even if someone is being hateful, they are probably coming from a place of hurt. No person is awful unless they have pain."
She also believes underlying bitterness and anger can translate into physical disease.
Creating a mindset of love can start with writing in a journal about what you are grateful for. Getting in touch with nature, reaching out to family and friends that you haven't spoken to in a while, or even volunteering can help increase the feeling of love and self-love within yourself.
"I'm trying to always lead with love and to forgive and find compassion and give people benefit of the doubt," says Ajithan. "That's why every time I feel myself spiraling down, I try to do what I preach: step outside myself and become more aware."
TL;DR: Ajithan's Quick Tips to Get Started
1. Add natural color to your diet. Incorporate a new fruit or vegetable each week.
2. Take 10-minute walks in your neighborhood or even just around your house.
4. Spend five minutes per day focusing on deep breathing or quiet time.
To register for the BeyondMe Event, click here or call (941) 366-2224. The event will take place on Thursday, July 22 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Sarasota Yacht Club, 1100 John Ringling Blvd., Sarasota. You can find Ajithan at drchippy.com or on Instagram.