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Why do people get sick and why do they die?”
These are questions that Internal Medicine physician and Texas Health Care member Errol Bryce, MD has contemplated most of his life, and ones he has spent his career trying to answer.
Growing up in Jamaica in impoverished circumstances, Errol Bryce planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career as an engineer, but when the elder Bryce died at the young age of 39, his father’s premature death prompted Errol to pursue a different path.
“I decided that I would change the world. I wanted to make people live forever,” Dr. Bryce says, reflecting on his decision to go into medicine.
Just as the events of Dr. Bryce’s youth drove his early career decisions, they continue to drive his medical practice today, fueling the passion he has for wellness and healthy living.
Dr. Bryce says the reason most people get sick and die prematurely is because of the poor lifestyle and health choices they have made, combined with a health care system that does not adequately focus on wellness outcomes.
Unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and stress are the three principle drivers of poor health, Dr. Bryce says. Most people’s diet problems are directly linked to excessive sugar, salt, fat and bad carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates, such as white rice, white flour and sugar, are especially harmful – they convert to LDL cholesterol, a.k.a. the “bad” cholesterol.
Refined carbohydrates also lead to “diabesity” – a relatively new term being used in the medical community to refer to individuals who are both obese and suffer from diabetes. Dr. Bryce often sees patients who suffer from both conditions, which are closely linked.
NEW STEPS to Health
In addition to treating patients in his successful practice on 8th Avenue in Fort Worth, Dr. Bryce has also created a 40-day program to help participants create lasting transformations in their lives. It’s called the NEW STEPS to Health program, and it consists of eight key steps that Dr. Bryce explains are essential to healthy living:
Nutrition: Dr. Bryce advises a zero or very low cholesterol, plant-based diet. He says people should eat very little meat or fish.
Exercise: People must exercise 30-60 minutes per day; five to seven days a week. The key to a successful exercise regimen is routine – it has to be built into our daily schedules and become an automatic activity, one we don’t even stop to think about.
Water: Dr. Bryce explains that human beings have lost their natural thirst receptors for water. “We have to be intentional” about drinking water, he says – at least eight 8 oz cups of water every day.
Sleep: The human body uses sleep as the time to remake itself, Dr. Bryce explains. We all need 7-8 hours of sleep per day, and it’s critical that people not go to bed on a full stomach.
Timeout: The body needs regular R&R, Dr. Bryce reminds his patients. People’s hectic work and family schedules often don’t allow enough time to take it easy, but it’s important to be deliberate about getting adequate relaxation time.
Equilibrium: Balance in our lives is important, Dr. Bryce says. He notes that one of the most common regrets from patients in hospice is that “they did not spend more time with their loved ones. They don’t say they wish they would have worked more. We need to slow down.”
Partner: Have a physician partner. It’s important to see a doctor regularly who can help you live and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Stress resistant personality: One of the things Dr. Bryce teaches in his program is how to handle stress better so that it does not overtake and consume people, leading to unhealthy habits.
Dr. Bryce says that in the first 21 days of the program, participants are practicing how to get into a routine. By the second three-week period, genes begin to change, creating a true routine that becomes second nature to follow.
To get the complete wellness routine from Dr. Bryce, interested folks should check out one of his seminars. However, if that’s not feasible right away, Dr. Bryce suggests the following basic steps for someone interested in improving their health:
First, one has to “move from a wish to a decision. They have to take charge” of their health. In other words, instead of thinking to ourselves, “I wish I could lose weight,” we need to say “I have decided to lose 20 pounds” and then identify and follow the steps to attain that goal.
Second, whatever new steps you are going to take, make sure they are safe first. That’s why you need to talk to a doctor before beginning a new diet or exercise regimen.
Third, create your routine. Exercise at the same time, every day, no matter what. It shouldn’t matter if it is raining or it’s cold out – get the exercise in somehow.
Fourth, people should educate themselves on what constitutes a heart-healthy diet and how they can avoid the temptations of fattening and sugary foods. There are a number of resources available online and elsewhere. Dr. Bryce recommends two books in particular on this topic, You Are Not Your Brain, by Jeffrey Schwartz, MD and Rebecca Gladding, MD and Pleasure Trap, by Douglas J. Lisle, Ph.D and Alan Goldhamer, D.C.
Dealing effectively with stress is also imperative, Dr. Bryce says. An easy way to relax one’s body is to engage in deep breathing – take three very slow, deep breaths. Another option is to recite the first three verses of the Psalm 23 from the Bible, or another favorite scripture.
Finally, don’t go to bed with a full stomach. If you do, the food you have eaten easily turns to fat, leading to fatty liver disease. Dr. Bryce notes that more liver transplants are due to fatty liver caused by poor diet than are caused by alcohol abuse.
These are steps that anyone can follow – if they put their mind to it and commit to truly changing their lifestyle. But it is not easy, Dr. Bryce acknowledges. He tells a story of a diabetic patient whose indicators were off the charts – in the wrong direction. Dr. Bryce had a frank conversation with the patient, telling him that unless he dramatically changed his diet immediately, the food he was eating would kill him. He simply had to stop eating sweets and junk food. The patient swore that he would stop – his frightening lab results had finally taught him a lesson.
Later that week, Dr. Bryce was at a coffee shop and from a distance, spotted the same patient. The severely diabetic man was leaving the establishment with a large bag of pastries, loaded with sugar and carbs. Change is hard, Dr. Bryce warns, even for a person who has everything to gain, including his very life.
Another example Dr. Bryce provides is that of coronary bypass patients. Having one’s chest cut open and rerouting blood vessels around the heart is “one of the most invasive procedures there is,” he observes. Yet, over the long term, less than one of every ten coronary bypass patients make any meaningful changes to their lifestyle in the way of diet, exercise and stress.
Changing the Focus in Health Care
Just as Dr. Bryce has strong opinions on what we need to do to live healthier and longer lives, he has equally strong opinions on how the health care system needs to change. Put simply, physicians need to be compensated based on how they help people live longer and healthier, Dr. Bryce contends. The payment model has to change from the present fee-for-service system to a wellness and outcome-based structure. Until then, physicians, who are the best-educated and best-trained people to deal with what is becoming a health crisis, will be forced to continue to focus their time and energy on procedures and tests aimed at resolving immediate issues, as opposed to focusing on long-term outcomes.
As long as that continues to be the case, Dr. Bryce notes, physicians are going to increasingly be left behind. Industry is moving forward on its own because it recognizes the tremendous cost of health problems, a cost that comes out of companies’ bottom lines. That’s why corporations such as Lockheed Martin and Safeway and business leaders like Warren Buffet have pursued their own wellness initiatives for their workforces. In so doing, they boost productivity by lessening employee time lost to sickness and they reduce health insurance premiums by having a healthier workforce.
Dr. Bryce sees this as a positive development that will improve public health, but one that could be more effective if physicians could be fully engaged in the process. For that to happen he says, business, government and the health insurance industry will have to better prioritize patient wellness and fundamentally change the physician payment model across the board.
Driven by Faith
However, in the face of these challenges, Dr. Bryce is undeterred. He will continue to approach wellness with the same passion, whether it’s with patients in his office or at one of his 40-day challenge seminars. After all, for a man who grew up in poverty in Jamaica and went on to Waterloo University, medical school at the University of Montemorelos and completed his residency at Wilson Memorial in New York City, Dr. Bryce is accustomed to overcoming challenges and succeeding.
For all his accomplishments, Dr. Bryce remains humble. Reflecting on his poor upbringing – where for the first 17 years of his life he did not know where his next meal would come from – and the unlikely path he took from Jamaica to a respected and successful physician, Dr. Bryce says simply, “God took me out of that life.”
Faith has been and remains vitally important to Dr. Bryce. “I have a passion to follow God’s will for my life. I am driven by that thought.” Fortunately for his patients and the lives he touches, Dr. Bryce is also driven to help them live longer and healthier lives.