A Clean Bill of Health with Dr Chris Steele MBE

ITV’s This Morning’s Dr Chris Steele shares his thoughts with Kayley Loveridge on mental health, sun safety and key medical breakthroughs.

Q. What key health and medical concerns are you noticing cropping up again and again in patients today? Are these any different to 10 or 20 years ago?

Chris Steele: I think overall, medical complaints that are presented to doctors [today] aren’t massively different to what they were 10, 20 years ago. People present with the same complaints; backache being the commonest, and throat infections, ear infections. I think maybe mental health issues like depression and anxiety… patients are more willing to come to their doctor and talk to them about those issues and ask for help [these days]. That’s the important thing.

The difference is, patients will come in and ask you about conditions that they’ve read about in the papers and magazines, and there’s a huge amount of interest in health stories and the newspapers and magazines know that health is a big issue. They may go on to the internet to search and find information (which often is incorrect with regards to their own complaints), then come into the surgery, holding a printout from Google [laughs]. And that’s a thing that didn’t happen 10 or 20 years ago!

The internet has made a difference—I won’t say a huge difference—but people have gone on to the internet to find things out themselves.

Q. People often get caught up in the fun of the summer months and may forget about health precautions (like sun safety) at this time of the year. What precautions should we be taking when it comes to our health during the summer months and why are they so important?

CS: I think during the summer months the most important issue is protection against overexposure to sun rays. You’ve got two main types of rays and sunlight: UVA and UVB. Whether the sun is shining or not, if it’s daylight out there, that’s sunlight coming through the clouds. The problem is that we are seeing an increase in skin cancers [which is] very different from how it was 20 years ago.

What I have to tell patients is that in terms of applying sunscreen, you’ve got to think of the skin protection factor (SPF). And really, you should be looking at a minimum of factor 15. I think maybe I should be a bit more specific here, as this is extremely important, the factor number protects you against UVB rays—they’re the rays that burn the skin and are implicated in skin cancer. UVA ages the skin but also has an effect on the skin, causing skin cancer. With UVA protection, you see that on the containers by looking for stars. So when you look at sunscreen, have a look at the back [of the bottle], it will give you a star rating… one, two, three, I think four. You should go for the maximum star rating. If you’ve got a high factor and a high star rating, you’re getting good protection.

Never allow children or teenagers to burn, because that is a major risk factor for skin cancer, years and years later. I know, [because] I’ve had skin cancer three times. And finally, on that, you should not lie in the sun or sunbathe between 11am and 3pm. It’s just because at that time, the sun’s rays are at their most intense.

Q. Research suggests that a large number of people in the UK experience stress regularly. How far do you think stress contributes to physical illness and what can we do to alleviate these feelings?

CS: Stress has always been around us. But these days, there are so many different causes of stress, it could be a marital breakdown, financial stress or the loss of a job. There ought to be more help available on the NHS, rather than just prescribing medication. And we know there are lots of effective interventions out there; there’s one called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It’s more talking therapy, talking to patients and teaching them how to try and cope with the situations that are bothering them, be it anxiety, be it depression or whatever.

Relaxation techniques, like meditation, yoga. But you know, CBT, yoga and meditation—you can’t get these things on the NHS. We’re terribly short or CBT therapists and we know it’s effective in anxiety, it’s effective in depression. It’s a non-drug intervention that does work and we haven’t got the facilities to help patients with CBT or other relaxation techniques.

And then another thing to overcome stress: get a hobby… a hobby is a distraction. I’ll tell you something again from my own experience. I went through a bad spell of depression, I was on anti-depressants and basically, what I did, I took up pottery classes. Boy did that help me, I could say it saved me.

Q. While more and more people are speaking about their experiences with mental health and raising awareness, NHS funding and waiting times for mental health services are at an all-time low. Could you tell us your thoughts on this? 

CS: This has been a long-term problem in the NHS, and I could come up with one word: funding. When you talk to people, you know, they wouldn’t mind paying a little bit extra in their tax to improve the NHS funding process. Maybe you could name a part in income tax ‘NHS fund’. If there was more funding available, especially in mental health… because the thing with mental health is that people don’t talk about their mental health, there’s a stigma and mental health in men—oh my goodness!

That’s a big problem. Sports men are now coming out and admitting that they’ve had anxiety or they’ve had depression in the past. That does help because these guys are role models to some people. I think sports people coming out, sports men in particular, to help male patients [will help]. Men should not be ashamed of going to their doctor’s to say ‘I’m feeling depressed, doctor.’

Q. The multi-vitamin and supplement industry are massive and ever-growing, with just under half of all Britons admitting to taking a supplement daily. What are your thoughts on the consumption of extra vitamins?

CS: I think for the majority of people who are buying these supplements, they are wasting their money and in fact, there was a study published last week that came to that conclusion. For example, vitamin B and vitamin C are water-soluble so you can’t store them in your body, you pass them straight out. So if you’re buying tablets that contain vitamin B and vitamin C, they’re going out into the toilet when you wee, you’ve wasted your money.

I’d say this, except for one vitamin: vitamin D. With vitamin D, your body makes it in your skin when the skin is exposed to sunlight. It’s really accepted that most people in the UK are deficient in vitamin D. If it’s a sunny day, just get out for 10 minutes in the sun; 10 or 15 minutes in the sun will boost your vitamin D levels.

So that’s one that you should certainly consider taking: a vitamin D supplement, especially during the winter months. With pregnant women and children, I think you need to ask your doctor, because the advice will be dependent on the individual and what is pertinent to their health status.

Q. Deteriorating health becomes more and more of a worry for people entering later life. Is there anything we can do from an early age to help prevent serious illnesses like dementia or cancers from occurring later in life?

CS: My advice is this: know your numbers. Everybody knows their waist size or their shoe size, but do you know your blood pressure? Do you know your cholesterol? Do you know your blood glucose levels? If you’ve got to the 40, 50 age group then you should go to your doctor or practice nurse and just say ‘I need to know my numbers.’

These are three important factors that don’t necessarily give you any symptoms until something goes wrong. Doing that, maybe once a year on your birthday is a good time to take stock. See, by doing that, you’re addressing blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, you’re addressing the major killers such as heart disease and stroke. And, of course, watching your blood sugar, you’re hopefully going to prevent diabetes which causes blindness, heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure and gangrene.

The big health worry out there is obesity. Being overweight increases your risk of many, many different types of cancers and then you’ve got the strain on the heart. But the one thing that does cause me despair, is obesity. That’s through lack of exercise and incorrect diet.

Q. Do you have any predications in terms of medical breakthroughs in the coming years?

CS: Yes, there are some exciting areas, and one of those is immunotherapy and the treatment of cancers. That’s making great leaps forward. There have been some very promising results in the treatment of lung cancer, which is not an easy one to cure, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Basically, with immunotherapy you’re sort of stimulating the patient’s own immune system to kill cancer cells rather than [using] toxic chemical like chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is a toxic chemical; it kills cancer cells but it also kills your hair cells and your white blood cells. To move away from toxic chemicals to give a drug that stimulates a patient’s ow immune system to attack cancer cells is dramatic. The other area is stem cell therapy. I’m no expert there, but that’s an area that has a huge amount of research and progress made there, so those two areas are very exciting.

Q. Finally, what three top life mantras do you have for staying (and keeping) healthy and happy?

CS: From my point of view: diet. I certainly try to have a healthy diet, my wife’s a nurse—she does all the cooking, I don’t. I can’t even boil water without burning it! So you know, diet is extremely important. I don’t smoke and I don’t drink because these are two big threats. There should be exercise in there. I’ve got to be honest, I don’t do a lot of exercise but I do walk when I can, but I think diet and no alcohol and no booze—and no fags!

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