Human contact to heal our ills Connecting: Dr. Dean Ornish, known as champion of the low-fat diet, urges all of us to build more intimacy into our lives.

March 31, 1998|By Sandra Jacobs | Sandra Jacobs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There's more to life than a low-fat diet, most of us agree. But who was expecting to hear that from Dean Ornish, the physician-apostle of near no-fat eating?

Lately Ornish is everywhere: kindly lecturing via PBS airways, promoting another would-be best seller, smiling at us from the cover of Newsweek, even introducing a new line of frozen foods. With each appearance, the doctor is touting his new message.

People interested in heart disease -- either because it's their business or because their lives are at stake -- know Ornish as the dean of the low-fat diet. For more than a decade, he has captured attention with his message that cutting fat to a spartan one-tenth of calories, combined with exercise and meditation, actually could reverse heart disease without surgery and often without drugs.

Now he's come to believe that the care and feeding of our bodies is only part of the story. In his new book, "Love & Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy" (HarperCollins, $25) Ornish summarizes the growing clinical evidence -- dozens of studies -- linking emotions to physical health. Then he discloses how he confronted his own emotional struggles and suggests ways to do the same. How we relate to other human beings, he concludes, strongly determines our health and ultimately our survival.

"There's a tendency to dismiss anything having to do with love and intimacy in medicine because it's hard to measure," Ornish said in a recent interview. "But even the things we can measure -- your social contacts, how many people you talk to in a week -- show three- to five-fold changes in disease and death. When you consider the whole body of evidence, it makes a very compelling case that these things matter."

A sense of belonging

His message resonates so well that Newsweek splashed Ornish on its cover two weeks ago and PBS stations around the country are airing two hour-long lectures by him as part of their annual March fund-raising.

Most of us think of intimacy as the close, honest relationship between two loving people, but Ornish goes further. He applies the concept to any relationship that makes people feel connected to each other and to a community -- from a weekly coffee klatch to religious practice -- though he says that varying depths of intimacy indeed matter.

In our lifetimes, he notes, there has been a breaking of societal bonds that once fostered a feeling of belonging: Few of us attend the same house of worship we did as children, or live three generations to a house, or even know our neighbors. Refashioning such bonds, he says, may make us healthier.

"Anything that takes you out of the context of being separate is healing," Ornish says. "Anything that takes you out of the context of separateness is intimacy."

Ornish has reached these conclusions the hard way. He describes in "Love & Survival" the angst he felt as he turned 40 when he should have been exulting.

His research on heart disease was finally being acknowledged, he was a best-selling author, and the U.S. president was seeking his counsel. Yet he felt in personal crisis. His marriage was ending, his achievements felt hollow. Perhaps no measure of success would be enough for a person who defined himself through successes, he thought.

Unfulfilled need

He continued the meditation and vegetarian diet that helped pull him out of a more serious depression at age 19, but a greater need was going unfilled.

He found an unexpected lesson in his research on heart disease. Participants not only ate low-fat diets, exercised and meditated, they participated in support groups conceived to help them stick with the diet and exercise.

But Ornish sensed something more was happening. People were opening up to each other, sharing fears, cheering each other, even loving each other. He thought of the well-known surprising study that women with breast cancer who met in a support group lived longer than counterparts who did not.

He took a hard look at how much he really shared with others, whether he allowed himself to be vulnerable. He questioned his drive to succeed.

And he set about the arduous task of making changes in his relationships and how he viewed his commitments. The result is a happier man, who seeks a closer connection with others, and who turns down work opportunities to spend time with his new "beloved."

By telling his own story, he says, he hopes others will consider looking at their own relationships. In "Love & Survival," he offers avenues for doing so -- including psychotherapy and community volunteer work.

An endorsement

Of course, the core of his dietary prescription to prevent and reverse heart disease remains firm. Despite daily requests to endorse products, Ornish says, the Advantage

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