More people are reaching a ripe old age than ever before in history. In the early 1800s, life expectancy was a mere 45 years. But today, in Australia, Canada, Japan, and most European countries, people can expect to live to 80 and beyond. If the trend continues, a majority of babies born in these countries will live past their 100th birthday. But this increase in longevity comes with some bad news. Although we manage to survive longer than preceding generations, we often gain time without being healthier in those extra years.

The Difference Between Thriving and Surviving as We Age

Studies worldwide indicate that after age 60, most people have at least one chronic disorder, such as heart disease or diabetes. A recent population-based study in Sweden found that at age 80, only one of 10 individuals were living well and not suffering from either a chronic disease or Frailty Syndrome.

In the U.S. almost one-third of people older than 85 have received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, often combined with other types of dementia such as that caused by vascular disease.1

What’s Wrong with Our Modern Medicine Healthcare Model?

Modern Medicine faces fundamental challenges in that we are removing the human element and attempting to reduce everything to a single cause and effect.  Given the functional interdependencies between the molecular components in a human cell, disease is rarely a consequence of an abnormality in a single gene, but reflects the perturbations of the complex intracellular and intercellular network that links tissue and organ systems.2


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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.


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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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