The doctor who treats the problems of modern lifestyles

Dr Rangan Chatterjee believes stress has become a major problem for many people

Dr Rangan Chatterjee: “Eighty per cent of the problems people go to their GPs with are related to modern lifestyles.”

Dr Rangan Chatterjee: “Eighty per cent of the problems people go to their GPs with are related to modern lifestyles.”

 

Doctor, author, television presenter and podcaster Dr Rangan Chatterjee arrives late for our meeting in a smart Dublin hotel. Wearing a hoodie and sports shoes, he apologises profusely and sits immediately, willing to answer whatever questions I put to him. His casual, engaging manner is just about as far from the traditional authoritative medical doctor as you can imagine.

“Eighty per cent of the problems people go to their GPs with are related to modern lifestyles. I realised my medical training was good for acute illnesses but not for the bulk of what I see,” he explains. Following his degree in immunology, Dr Chatterjee went on to become a kidney specialist before realising his passion lay in general practice. His late father, Dr Tarun Chatterjee, a consultant in genito-urinary medicine, thought he was crazy to give up his specialism.

Now, 11 years later, he spends about two days in clinical practice, dividing the rest of his time between his broadcasting work – he’s the star of BBC TV show Doctor in the House and the resident doctor on BBC 1’s Breakfast – and promoting his books – The 4 Pillar Plan and The Stress Solution.

Perhaps exactly because of his friendly, personable demeanour, the Manchester-based doctor has become one of the leading voices in the lifestyle medicine movement. “Life is tricky and the health landscape has changed. It’s no longer about what’s conventional and alternative. What I call progressive medicine is about finding the right tool for the right patient and helping people change their behaviour.”

In his view, stress is the biggest problem for the majority of people

Rather than give his patients pills to balance their bodily systems, Dr Chatterjee recommends a range of lifestyle adjustments to give them back control and passion in their lives. The signs of stress, he says, range from tension in the neck or lower back, sporadic pain, skin flare-ups, irritable mood, irrational decision-making or overly emotional behaviour.

Dr Chatterjee’s first book, The 4 Pillar Plan, focused on diet, rest, sleep and movement and his new book, The Stress Solution, broadens the focus to look at how to “reset your body, mind, relationships and purpose”.

“Technology has changed everything and life is so busy. People no longer have boundaries between work and home life. We’ve eroded down time out of our lives by filling up every minute with things,” he explains. Scheduling your entire day to include time for exercise, time for family, time for rest as well as work demands is a key to taking back control in your life, according to Dr Chatterjee.

One small change

“A lot of what I do now would be more like what a psychologist or life coach does,” he admits. Dr Chatterjee says that when patients instigate one small change every day for a week, they will begin to feel the difference. He also believes that short daily stress-busting routines are preferable to one hour-long weekly session. In 2018, he taught 500 UK-based doctors his lifestyle medicine and has 1,000 booked in for another one-day training course in 2019.

The astonishing thing is that much of his advice is so simple. Take, for example, his 3D greeting, which recommends you use your eyes, touch and voice when you greet someone. Or, his 3, 4, 5 breathing practice where you breathe in for three seconds, hold for four seconds and breathe out for five seconds. “When your out-breath is longer than your in-breath, you reduce the activation of your stress state and encourage your body to move into a thrive state,” he writes. Or even his advice to eat the alphabet (ie 26 different plant foods) every month to keep your gut bacteria diverse, which according to the latest scientific research, also improves your mental health.

But what’s most refreshing about The Stress Solution – and perhaps a little different than many self-help books – is that Dr Chatterjee puts relationships with family and friends at the heart of his treatment plan and gives examples of how he, his wife and many of his patients have found better ways to live.

“You must schedule time to see your friends. You may think you can see what your friends are doing on social media so you don’t need to see them in person, but seeing your friends is not a luxury, it’s essential,” he says. And, he advises people to remember that “other people’s negative behaviour is evidence that they are in a bad place and that their lives are not going well”.

He also admits he has struggled with stress himself and follows many of his own tips on a daily basis. “It’s a good practice to have a golden hour each morning without your mobile phone. And when I practise the 3 Ms – mindfulness (breathing, being in nature or meditation), movement (skipping, Tai Chi or yoga) and mindset (gratitude, affirmations or loving kindness meditation), my day goes well. Sometimes, my son [8] or daughter [6] will join me, which helps them develop resilience tools,” he says. And, he says, he doesn’t take his phone into the bedroom at night time. “I charge it downstairs because if it was upstairs, I’d be tempted to go on it.”

He also says he takes a tech-free lunch break and goes for a walk outdoors. On Sunday mornings, he, his wife, Vidhaata, and their two children go out without their phones. And they play the gratitude game at dinner time – in which they each have to answer three questions: What have you done today to make someone else happy? What has someone else done to make you happy? What have you learnt today? “The kids love this game and when we start to reframe our day and reflect on the positives, we start to connect with each other and the dynamic at the table changes within second,” he says.

Dr Chatterjee’s tips for reducing stress

1) Wake up at the same time every day, even at weekends. Get as much natural light as possible in the mornings.
2) Take daily exercise and exercise in the earlier part of the day and definitely no later than three hours before bed time.
3) Eat your meals within a 12-hour window each day and dinner before 7pm if possible. Eat the alphabet – 26 different plant-based foods each month.
4) Schedule time to connect and be intimate with your partner without the distraction of technology. Take a digital holiday
5) Get more sleep and avoid watching anything that will raise your levels of emotion, excitement or anger two hours before bedtime.
6) Practise daily breathing techniques, meditation or yoga.
7) Do something you love, pay attention to the small things and develop a long-term vision.
8) Partake in activities that engages with others, eg volunteering.
9) Practise gratitude and positive affirmations.
10) Schedule your entire day, including your free time, to help you also prioritise the things you enjoy doing most.

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