Melissa Dawson is breaking up with a lifelong partner: Sugar. A Cleveland Division of Police sergeant who runs its Employees Assistance Unit, she focuses on developing programs that help officers deal with the stressors of being first responders. Often, the programs revolve around mental health initiatives.
However, based on her own experience feeling tired a majority of the time, Melissa realized physical health needed to be a top priority, too. So, in collaboration with Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, a new program was created for her fellow officers – Healthy Heroes – designed to improve an individual’s health by making stress-reducing changes in their diet and lifestyle.
Melissa during a Healthy Heroes group session at Cleveland Clinic. (Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic)
One of the most eager participants in the initial, 10-person cohort was Melissa.
“Sugar isn’t good for my body. It makes me feel sluggish,” says Melissa, 46, who is married and the mother of a 9-year-old daughter. “But I’m an emotional eater, and I would eat when I’m happy or when I’m sad. So, working to reduce my sugar was really important to me. I didn’t want to become a diabetic.”
Organized like a support group, Healthy Heroes encourages participants to learn from and encourage one another, while gaining insights and direction from Cleveland Clinic physicians, health coaches and registered dietitians who provide educational training and blood testing. Through training, and a thorough review of their metabolism, participants better understand their specific health issues and how to improve them.
Melissa, her daughter, Dana, and husband, Robert. Melissa has been with the Cleveland Division of Police for 23 years. (Courtesy: Melissa Dawson)
“When you’re under a lot of stress, you may eat foods that aren’t healthy for you,” says Elizabeth Bradley, MD, Director of the Center for Functional Medicine. “Healthy Heroes has been an opportunity to help these officers address their modifiable risk factors, and we’ve had great results.”
According to Dr. Bradley, these modifiable risk factors, besides an improved diet, include sleep, exercise and taking appropriate vitamins. Combined with having a keen awareness of one’s own stress-inducing triggers, improvements in these areas can have a dramatically positive impact on functional medicine outcomes.
“Our program encompasses all different parts of lifestyle,” explains Dr. Bradley. “We try to be gentle in the beginning, because it’s really hard to make a lot of behavioral changes at once. We meet each patient where they’re at and start with baby steps.”
Since her involvement with functional medicine, Melissa has seen improvements in her health including, glucose and sugar levels, cholesterol levels and energy. (Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic)
Those baby steps soon lead to real change, as Melissa discovered through her own participation in Healthy Heroes. By being mindful of healthy food options, and motivating herself to exercise and avoid controllable stressors, her lifestyle has turned around.
“Why am I doing this? Because I needed to do it for myself,” Melissa explains. “I was sick of being really tired and just dragging every day, not being able to keep up with the demands of work and home. I’ve really been able to improve my quality of life.”
Healthy Heroes has been so successful two other groups of officers have just embarked on the program through Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Bradley and team offer a wide array of other tailored functional medicine programs, including those for individuals with gastrointestinal, autoimmune or dietary disorders. Others focus on women’s health issues, weight management, pain management and more.
The Center for Functional Medicine, founded in 2014 as a first-of-its-kind program at a U.S. academic medical center, takes a patient-centered approach to chronic disease management by focusing on one key question: Why are you ill? By digging into the root causes -- such as poor nutrition, stress, toxins, allergens, genetics and bacteria levels – specialists customize a healthy living plan for each patient.
Melissa lost about 23 pounds to obtain a healthier weight and has more energy to be active with her daughter. (Courtesy: Melissa Dawson)
Melissa has a long list of proof points: her sleep has improved; her glucose and sugar levels are in a healthy range; she exercises four times a week, with help from a personal trainer; her joints don’t ache as much; and by meal-planning, she has cut almost all sugar out of her diet.
Other results have been just as tangible. She has more energy to do things with her daughter and has lost about 23 pounds to obtain a healthier weight. Additionally, her follow-up blood work showed a decrease in cholesterol levels. “When I got my (blood test) results back, I wanted to cry. I was so excited. Now, I want to maintain what I’m doing. This is the new me.”