In my observation, far too many people today are merely surviving instead of thriving. I attribute most of the erosion of well being—including the growing prevalence of chronic, degenerative diseases—to the increased stressors of contemporary society. Although the role of stress in disease has long been recognized, it is now more fully understood through the advances of scientific research.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in cancer has been the discovery of the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system and cancer growth and reoccurrence. This was first detected though observational research showing a strong association between cancer patients on beta-blockers and a reduction in reoccurrence rates, a slowing of cancer growth, and decreased angiogenesis. 1-6 Researchers studying the relationship of vagal nerve activity (measured through heart rate variability) and the neuro-modulation of tumors found improved overall survival rate in cancer patients when the parasympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for calming the body) is activated.7

These are exciting discoveries, and support my life’s work on the importance of using herbal adaptogens and nervines to help the body adapt to physical and emotional stressors. Neither disease nor treatment of disease, including natural approaches through health optimization, can be described in a linear reductionist model, which is what almost everyone attempts to do. It is the collective effect of the perturbations in multiple underlying networks that result in the symptoms of disease, thus effective treatment should be directed at strengthening and harmonizing all systems of the organism.

Because modern medicine and specifically pharmaceutical medications do not offer permanent solutions, we must support our innate life force in building resilience. I feel more strongly than ever before that adaptogenic formulations, together with nervine formulations, are the most important supplemental support for protection against chronic disease and the promotion of optimal health and a long life.

A Practical Approach to Supporting Optimal Health

In my clinical practice, which now spans three decades, my main goal is to provide comprehensive gentle medicine that lends a helping hand to the Life Force in building and sustaining an optimal state of wellbeing. The following three objectives are the foundation of the medical model (Mederi Care) and the foundational adaptogenic formulas I have created:

  • Build robustness and resilience
  • Enhance auto-regulation
  • Enhance auto-organization

Everything within us and around us is interconnected. Interconnectedness, within, is achieved through networks on many levels, across cells, tissues, and organs (these types of networks are called multi-scale networks).

The entire biological system can be viewed as a nested network within networks within networks with the overall control acting like a Global Autoregulation Network.

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Supporting the innate Life Force and the body’s capacity for self-healing by using the least invasive treatment possible yields a system-wide benefit, optimizing and restoring the body’s self-healing abilities and minimizing side effects. Supporting the Life Force includes:

  • Enhancing anabolic restoration and systemic energy, harmony and efficiency
  • Expanding adaptive capacity
  • Building protective capacity

Supporting the Adaptive Capacity
All living systems have the intrinsic ability to respond, to counteract, and to adapt to external and internal sources of disturbance. Homeodynamics, one of the basic concepts of functional medicine, states that as human beings, we are an integral part of our environment rather than creatures that merely adapt to our environment. The body maintains biochemical individuality through continual physiologic and metabolic processes. A crucial component of the homeodynamic space is the stress response, by virtue of which a living system senses disturbance and initiates a series of events for maintenance, repair, adaptation, remodeling and survival.9 As we age, there tends to be progressive shrinkage of the homeodynamic space!

Adaptogenic formulas enhance dynamic stability through auto-regulation and organization.

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A Graphic Representation of Adaptive Homeostasis

Shown here, in addition to the normal or physiological range, are both positive and negative adaptive ranges that can be transiently induced via signal transduction pathways in response to sub-toxic, non-damaging stimuli. For example, when organisms are exposed to a diet rich in amino acids, they turn off production of amino acid synthetases, thus decreasing the capacity to synthesize amino acids. This is a case of negative homeostasis. Restoration of a ‘normal’ diet reverses the transient decrease in capacity and restores function in the normal homeostatic range.

How Mild Stress Can Have Positive Effects

Although unrelenting stress is never beneficial, not all stress is bad. In a process known as hormesis, exposure to mild stress triggers cellular responses with biologically beneficial effects. Single or multiple exposures to low doses of otherwise harmful agents, such as irradiation, food limitation, heat stress, hypergravity, reactive oxygen species, and other free radicals has a variety of anti-aging and longevity-extending hormetic effects. A result of hormetic amplification is an increase in the homeodynamic space of a living system, with enhanced innate defense capacity and a reduced load of damaged macromolecules.

Hormetic strengthening of the homeodynamic space provides wider margins for metabolic fluctuation, stress tolerance, adaptation and survival.10-12

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The diagram above shows the four common types of dose-response relationships that have been identified.

  • The top left (linear) is the one we are most familiar with, where starting from a ‘zero’ dose, there is a linear relationship between increasing dose and the observed response.
  • In the right top (threshold) corner, we know that sometimes there is no response until a certain threshold is reached, followed by a linear relationship. Sometimes there is a lag phase until a response is observed.
  • As shown on the bottom two curves, what we are discovering is that in many cases the dose response relationship at low doses does not follow either a linear or threshold model but shows different responses over zones of high doses compared to low doses.
  • This dose-response relationship can be either J shaped (bottom left) or inverted U shaped (bottom right) depending on what is being measured and the model it is being measured in.13

To be continued…

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In my last post, I broadly discussed the exciting field of epigenetics, which is radically changing the landscape of what we’ve long believed about genetics and biological destiny. Emerging research shows that food and herbs may be the most important factors in our genetic well-being, directly affecting our health, disease risk, and longevity.

As a clinical herbalist, I find the relationship between herbs and epigenetics particularly compelling. A large body of research shows that a wide array of botanical compounds work in a variety of ways to maintain health at the cellular level, and offer great promise in improving our molecular expression, protecting against cellular stressors and aging by normalizing gene behavior. We cannot change the genes we have, but we can positively alter the fate and behavior of our genes by supplying them with beneficial herbal and dietary compounds.

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The science of epigenetics is turning what we’ve long held true about biological destiny upside down. Although it remains true that our DNA—our genetic code—provides the blueprint for our physiological makeup, researchers have discovered that there’s something extra controlling our genes—and food and herbs may in fact be the most important factors in our genetic well-being.

That extra “something” controlling our genes is the epigenome, the cellular material that sits on top of the genome (the complete set of genetic material present in a cell or organism). While epigenomes do not alter the genetic code, they direct genes to switch on (becoming active) or off (becoming dormant) through a variety of biological mechanisms. This intriguing finding means that your genetic heritage is not the primary determinant of your health, disease risk, or longevity.

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I believe zinc deficiency might be the number one overlooked health concern facing our aging population. Zinc is an essential trace element found in every cell of your body, where it plays an important role in cellular structure, function, and metabolism. A multi-tasking mineral, zinc is required for metabolic health, immune response, reproductive health, and numerous biochemical functions. Zinc also helps preserve DNA integrity, is vital for more than 2000 transcription factors, is necessary for the production of brain neurotransmitters, and functions as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.

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Closely related to the culinary herb sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is a plant with a rich history of use as a healing herb. Because this venerable herb has so many applications, it has become one of my favorites. I often include holy basil in adaptogenic tonics, and also find it useful for specific conditions, ranging from support for cancer and cardiovascular disease to improving skin health.

Native to India, holy basil is also known as tulsi, which means “the incomparable one.” Considered as sacred in the Hindu faith, most traditional homes and temples in India have at least one tulsi plant, which is used in prayers to insure personal health, spiritual purity, and family well-being. In Ayurvedic medicine, tulsi is classified as a rasayana, an herb that nourishes a person’s growth to perfect health and enlightenment and promotes long life.

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Most of you know that I enjoy cooking—my intention is to create food that is not only delicious, but deeply nourishing. As an herbalist, I’m especially interested in the health benefits of common herbs and spices used in culinary traditions around the world. My Italian heritage means that basil, oregano, and rosemary play a prominent role in our kitchen, but our shelves are filled with a wide variety of spices and herbs. One of my favorites is turmeric, a deep golden yellow powder that is best known as an ingredient in East Indian curries. Throughout history, turmeric has been valued as a spice, food preservative, dye (giving Buddhist robes their familiar golden color), and most importantly, as a powerful plant medicine. A close relative of ginger, turmeric grows in southern India, China, and Indonesia.

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