By Dr. Bill Rawls Posted 02-21-2020
At 62 years old, I’m finding it difficult to judge how old I feel. Instead of collecting symptoms over time like most people do, I’ve spent the past decade shedding them. Every year, my health has improved.
That said, let me be clear: I haven’t stopped aging — the cells of my body are still getting older. But they’re aging more slowly because I’ve learned how to properly take care of them, and I’m not being compromised by debilitating symptoms. Considering my body was a total wreck just 10 years ago, getting to this point has been a remarkable journey in itself.
The Health Crisis That Saved Me
My journey started more than 30 years ago as a conventionally-trained physician practicing obstetrics and gynecology. I chose that specialty because it was associated with promoting wellness and bringing life into the world, both of which inspired me. Oddly, however, the job itself was anything but healthy — being an OB/GYN came with a tremendous amount of stress and a rigorous night call schedule that left me severely sleep deprived much of the time.
When I was in my 30s, I could handle it. Not getting enough sleep and eating on the run was just part of the deal. From juggling a busy job in the medical profession to raising a family and being a weekend warrior, I prided myself on being able to do it all. As I moved into my 40s, however, things started to change — the resilience of youth began to fade.
Gradually, symptoms started creeping in. Less pep and stamina. A bit of stiffness in the morning. Achiness after an average workout at the gym. Indigestion. Loss of focus and mental sharpness. I chalked it up to aging, but as symptoms kept accumulating, my ability to function plummeted.
By age 47, I crashed. My whole body was falling apart. I woke up and ended every day feeling like I had a severe flu with body aches, fatigue, brain fog, and intestinal dysfunction. My stamina was at rock bottom. My knees and hips hurt so bad that it was often uncomfortable to walk. I lost the ability to sleep normally, even when I wasn’t on call.
My condition gradually deteriorated to the point that I lost the ability to take night call, which ultimately forced me to leave the medical practice I was in. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I still had kids in college and expenses to pay. Talk about stress — mine was through the roof!
Visits to doctor’s offices became like a revolving door. My internist ran every test and diagnostic protocol known, but they were all negative. The only significant finding was that my thyroid gland wasn’t functioning properly, but taking thyroid hormone did nothing to improve my symptoms.
Repeated visits to various specialists also failed to turn up a reason for my misery. I even had a cardiac catheterization because of constant chest pain and irregular heartbeats. My coronary vessels were clear, and all the doctors had to offer was yet another prescription to add to the growing list of prescriptions for all my other symptoms.
For the next several years of my life, I was trapped in the uncertainty of being dependent on the medical system, but not being helped by it either. It was a dead-end street that was carrying me nowhere. I just wanted my life back.
In the meantime, however, I had to find a way to generate income. Without a firm diagnosis, I wasn’t able to file for disability. Somehow, deep down, I felt my purpose in life was figuring my situation out. I knew that if I could restore my own health, I might be able to help thousands of other people caught in a similar situation. Too many people end up in a state of chronic illness managed with drugs — alive, but not living.
Ultimately, I did the only thing I thought I could do: I started a solo practice in gynecology and primary care. It relieved me of night call, and gave me the control I needed to figure out my situation. The theme of the practice was “promoting wellness,” though I still wasn’t quite sure what that meant.
Some things were obvious, however. I had to admit that I’d been driving myself into the ground for many years. Though I had always promoted healthy eating in my practice, I rarely followed my own recommendations. I liked being busy, rarely took downtime, and often let the stress in my life add up until it was oppressive.
My biggest issue, however, was chronic sleep deprivation. I had rarely slept when I was on call, but I also didn’t allow time to sleep adequately when I wasn’t on call. As a result, I had become dependent on sleep medication. All those things had to change.
It would take years to get free of relying on sleep meds, but eventually I was able to enjoy the benefits of normal sleep again. Even exercise, which had been my one health virtue, had to change — I had to learn to exercise in a more gentle and restorative way that didn’t aggravate my inflamed tissues.
I was well versed in nutrition and knew what constituted a healthy diet; now I just had to stick to it. So I switched to organic foods where it mattered, and took other steps to clean out toxins from my living environment. I couldn’t totally eliminate stress, but I found ways to cope with help from qigong, yoga, and meditation.
Improved health habits alone, however, were not enough for me to regain my health. I also recognized that drugs were just masking my symptoms, and that the medical system writ large is too focused on bandaiding health concerns instead of identifying and addressing the underlying causes. I wanted my health and my life back, which meant finding therapies that restored the natural healing capacity of my body. There had to be other options, and I was determined to find them.
I devoured books on alternative medicine and studied different types of alternative therapies. I attended numerous conferences on holistic and integrative medicine, and ultimately became certified in holistic medicine. I explored anything that might be credible and didn’t pose significant risk. I worked with energy healers, had acupuncture treatments, took elaborate regimens of nutritional supplements, detoxed, fasted, and tried a variety of different diets.
With my newfound knowledge and plenty of trial and error, my health improved, and just as importantly, I learned new ways of helping my patients overcome illness without being overly dependent on medical therapy. But despite all my progress, I wasn’t where I wanted to be in terms of personal health. I still felt like I was dragging a ball and chain on most days, and couldn’t figure out why.
Turns out, life had one more curveball for me: I discovered that I was harboring the microbes associated with Lyme disease. For a short while, I thought I’d found the answer to my misery, but after multiple rounds of antibiotics left me sicker than when I started, I had more questions than answers.
Oddly enough, however, my Lyme disease diagnosis ended up being my final turning point. It opened a door to better understanding of chronic illness in general, and led me to the one therapy that ended up being my ultimate salvation: Herbal therapy.
In my search for alternative solutions to Lyme disease, I became aware that many people have had success overcoming chronic Lyme using herbal therapy. You might be thinking, herbal therapy isn’t strong enough to do anything. That’s what I thought at first, too. I had tried various herbal preparations from the grocery store, primarily to alleviate symptoms, but found them wanting.
Retrospectively, I shouldn’t have had high expectations for the low quality herbal preparations I was using. Once I dug into the modern research and rich traditional history of herbs, and started using high quality extracts in the combinations and doses that had shown benefit for other people, my health started improving immediately.
I saw a significant change within a few months, and in the following years, I got my health back completely. The herbs were addressing every aspect of my illness: They calmed the runaway inflammation that was making my life miserable; they suppressed the Lyme microbes; they restored the ability of my immune system to manage my microbes. I came to deeply appreciate their natural defenses.
That’s not where my story ends, however. The close of this chapter led me right into my second chapter, where I discovered that all the lessons I fought so hard to learn revealed the answer to another, universally human question. It was one I hadn’t dared to ask myself when I was so ill: How can I keep living as long as possible and enjoy it with plenty of energy and vitality — instead of with all the symptoms and decline that can make getting older so miserable?
Turns out, I already had the answer — I just didn’t know it yet.
Beyond Illness: The Real Reasons We Age Too Fast
As my life continued its turn for the better, I began to recognize that not only were my symptoms of chronic Lyme retreating, but so were those I had just assumed were the unavoidable side effects of getting older — joint issues, feeling drained, mood changes, lack of mental clarity. And the more consistently I took the herbs, the better I felt both physically and mentally.
I was so intrigued by what was going on beneath my skin’s surface, that I immersed myself in the study of how herbs might be affecting the processes of aging, too.
My timing was good. More is known now about why the body ages than ever before, and there has been an enormous amount of research verifying traditional uses of herbs and exploring how they work. That said, aging is an incredibly complex process, and I won’t pretend otherwise, or that eliminating it is even possible. But I do think I can pinpoint the main causes of aging, and more importantly, some key factors that accelerate it.
In short, we age because our cells die. We’re made of trillions of living cells, all working in harmony to keep us alive and going, that accumulate until we reach peak adulthood around age 20. After that point in time, the number and quality of cells in the body gradually decline.
How long you will live is a function of how many cells you start with at peak adulthood, and how fast you burn up cells as you go through life. If cellular burnout occurs at a rate that overwhelms the immune and detoxification systems in the body, symptoms — and eventually illness — occur.
So what increases the rate of cellular burnout? Stress — but not just the kind you’re thinking of. The modern world has become dominated by five stress factors that play different but pivotal roles in how quickly cells deteriorate.
The 5 Key Aging Accelerators
The excess of refined carbohydrates and bad, polyunsaturated fats that have become a signature of the modern processed-food diet are extremely damaging to cells and all systems in the body. For starters, you’re likely not getting all of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other nutrients found in fresh fruits and vegetables that your cells require to function properly.
Plus, all those simple carbs and unhealthy fats do damage by a variety of mechanisms:
- Carbs are highly reactive molecules that stick to other molecules, especially proteins, and gum up the operative machinery inside cells. This collapses collagenand other supportive molecules, stresses cells, and accelerates their burnout.
- Excess carbohydrates also cause chronic elevations in insulin, the hormone that regulates glucose. High insulin causes a cascade effect that disrupts all other hormone pathways in the body and has been associated with immune dysfunction and diabetes.
- Starches and sugars flood mitochondria with fuel and accelerate the burnout of mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells that turn nutrients into usable energy. It’s like pouring coal into the engine of a steam locomotive while it’s sitting on the tracks with the brakes on — the engine is going to overheat and burn out.
- Excess dietary carbohydrates stimulate growth of unfavorable microbes in the gut, causing digestive dysfunction and a leaky gut that overwhelm and stress the immune system and generate systemic inflammation.
- Fats that are refined using heat and chemicals break down into potent free radicals that damage the membranes of cells, which are essential for healthy cellular functions.
There are as many as 200,000 manmade chemicals in our environment today that did not exist 100 years ago. Most are derived from burning coal and the use of petroleum and petroleum products, and they have varying levels of toxicity.
Though concentrations of specific toxins are rarely high enough to be lethal, cumulative exposure has been shown to impair cellular health. Here are some of the ways toxins wreak havoc in the body:
- Bind with macromolecules (DNA, RNA, proteins), causing direct cell injury and possibly cell death (cytotoxicity)
- Inhibit normal enzymatic processes in the body
- Damage cell membranes
- Cause gene dysregulation (turn on bad genes)
- Inhibit normal immune function
- Create free radicals or act as free radicals, increasing the burden of oxidative stress
- Mimic chemical messengers in the body, disrupting biological processes
- Mimic hormones in the body (i.e., xenoestrogens from plastics and pesticides increase risk of hormonally active cancers such as breast, prostate, and uterine cancers)
- Toxic heavy metals including aluminum, lead, mercury, and uranium directly poison enzymes, adversely affecting all functions in the body.
- Contribute to decline in liver function with aging
The act of surviving amidst the elements has always been a struggle for humans. But the nearly nonstop psychological stress of living in a world with a 24-hour news cycle and constant digital connection to our bosses and inboxes escalates the stress of daily living to a whole new level.
Chronic stress over-activates the fight-or-flight response, which drives cells harder and burns them out faster. It also disrupts communication systems in the body, including hormones and the nervous system, creating inefficiencies that stress cells and cause them to burn out faster. And chronic stress slows gastric and intestinal mobility, which compromises digestive function and promotes overgrowth of unfavorable bacteria in the gut.
Most importantly, chronic activation of the fight-or-flight response disrupts sleep — the body cannot repair itself without the downtime allowed by sleep. The immune system is especially vulnerable to the negative effects of chronic stress and sleep deprivation.
Historically, this category — which is really about physical stress to the body — would have been marked by acute trauma to the body, excessive physical exertion that breaks the body down, and extremes in temperature or pressure. But in the modern world, the chief physical stress is being too sedentary.
Today, most people have desk jobs, and prolonged inactivity is characteristic of modern life. The human body, however, is designed to move. If regular physical activity doesn’t happen, the body becomes sluggish, toxins back up, and inflammation ensues. Over time, excessive or ongoing inflammation contributes to the breakdown of healthy cells and normal tissue.
All living organisms are colonized by microbes, some of which have always been a threat to human life and health. But that threat is growing, thanks in large part to the first four cellular stressors, discussed above. They damage immune cells just as much as other cells, and over time, the damage becomes bad enough to disrupt the immune system’s ability to keep a healthy balance of good and bad microbes.
As a result, bad microbes are able to thrive, and they become a primary stressor to cells. In fact, the more I learned about the microbes we harbor, the more I realized just how big a threat they are to our longevity.
Microbes Are the Most Overlooked — and Underrated — Factor in Accelerated Aging
The sum of all the microbes that inhabit the human body is referred to as the microbiome. With 40,000 different species possible, the microbiome is much more complex than anyone ever imagined. Though it was once thought that microbes were isolated to the skin, nasal passages, and gut, a growing body of research has shown that the microbiome extends to all tissues of the body — including the brain.
It’s true, studies have shown that microbes can travel from the gut to other parts of the body through the bloodstream. They can also travel from nasal passages into the brain. Several studies have confirmed that brains from healthy people contain hundreds of species of microbes.
Microbes also have been found in joint, heart, and other tissues in the body — not just in people who are ill, but in healthy people, too. All the evidence points to the fact that having microbes in tissues is a normal state.
What the microbes want is to pirate vital nutrients and resources — they must have a living host like you to survive. Though we have a mutually beneficial relationship with most microbes that inhabit the body, we all harbor potentially aggressive microbes that can cause harm if given an opportunity.
You depend on a healthy immune system to keep your microbes in check. If your immune system is healthy, you won’t hear from any of them. But if your immune system falters, the microbes gain strength in numbers, and they start robbing cells of nutrients, resources, and energy.
This stresses and weakens cells, causing them to age faster. And you start to feel it, quite literally. It can manifest as stiff and painful joints, brain fog and memory loss, digestive distress such as constipation or abdominal pain, notable changes in mood, and all sorts of other symptoms we generally attribute to aging.
In particular, microbes further weaken the immune system and disrupt cellular communications. When the cells don’t communicate properly and can’t work in synchrony, everything in the body becomes dysfunctional, and wastes back up. Early on, you might experience mild symptoms like fatigue and malaise, but as conditions worsen, it can turn into full-fledged chronic illness — like it did for me.
Here’s the biggest catch: Your immune cells age, but your microbes don’t. What I mean by that is, your immune cells age just like all the other cells in your body, often accelerated by the stress factors I discussed above (poor diet, toxins, stress, and inactivity). Your microbes, however, don’t age in the same way that your cells do.
Microbes have incredibly low mutation rates, which means the new microbes they generate tend to be just as functional as the old ones. Essentially, they stay forever strong. This means keeping your immune system strong becomes increasingly more important as you age to prevent your microbes from overrunning your cells. One example of just how steadfast microbes are: When we die, and our immune system is no longer wrangling microbes, they take over and consume our body — that’s decomposition.
Learning this revealed to me why herbs can be such a vital ally for longevity — and why I had been experiencing such a resurgence in my own energy and health levels just as they were supposed to be waning.
Why Herbs are the Missing Link to Optimal Aging and Vitality
Of course, I can’t credit herbs entirely for my recovery or my new lease on life. I know that all the other efforts I made to eat a more whole-foods diet and to minimize stress, toxins, and inactivity were a key part of restoring strength to my immune system and all the cells of my body.
But I also know that those lifestyle changes only got me so far, and that introducing herbs to my daily regimen gave me the leg up I needed to get over that final hump. I saw the same thing in the thousands of patients I’ve helped overcome chronic illness with herbs, who’ve gone on to enjoy active and fulfilling lives. Now, after so many years of research on herbs and the human body, I understand how the plants deliver such vital benefits.
The benefits of herbs come from biochemical substances called phytochemicals. A plant produces several types of phytochemicals to protect itself from stress factors, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Antimicrobials: These phytochemicals defend against microbes like bacteria and fungi that threaten plant health.
- Immunomodulators: They not only stimulate NK (natural killer) cells and other key white blood cells of the immune system, but they also reduce damaging inflammation.
- Antioxidants: These protect the plant’s cells at every level from free radicals, which can damage parts of the cell such as the outer membrane, proteins, DNA, and mitochondria.
- Anti-inflammatories: antioxidants found in herbs counteract inflammation, but herbal phytochemicals also downregulate the inflammatory process.
- Regulators: Phytochemicals also have regulatory functions that help balance all of the plant’s hormones and signaling mechanisms. Because plants and animals evolved together, the same substances balance hormone pathways, such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis, which facilitates the body’s stress response and secretion of hormones, like cortisol (a stress hormone), quickly and efficiently. This normalizes circadian rhythm, supports normal sleep, and improves tolerance to stress.
All of these phytochemical powers take the stress off plant cells and enable them to function better and use energy more efficiently. When cells are less stressed and more energy efficient, they burn out at a slower rate. That translates to healthier cells and a reduced rate of cellular loss.
And here’s the exciting news for us humans: Because plants and animals coevolved, when we consume the protective plant phytochemicals by taking herbs, we gain all the same age-decelerating benefits. In essence, we adopt the plant’s natural defenses and protective properties.
Which herbs you take, however, matters, as types and levels of phytochemicals can vary significantly from plant to plant. When I was in the middle of my struggle with Lyme, I chose herbs that stimulated the immune system and provided significant antimicrobial properties. After my health was restored, I shifted to herbs called adaptogens, which are known for their restorative and normalizing properties.
Adaptogens are a subset of tonics, a category of herbs that help contribute to a longer life by having an overall balancing or normalizing effect on all the functional systems of the body. They improve your resilience to all types of stress, and give you an extra leg up on achieving wellness at any age. Though definitions vary slightly, I believe adaptogens share these three key characteristics:
- All adaptogens have antistress qualities that help provide stabilizing effects on the neuroendocrine system, especially the HPA axis and Sympathoadrenal System (SAS), which plays a crucial role in our response to external stimuli.
- All adaptogens help modulate and/or enhance the immune system.
- All adaptogens inhibit mitochondrial dysfunction induced by the stress hormone cortisol.
Best of all, because adaptogens don’t cause dependency or have drug-like properties, they are typically well tolerated when taken on a daily basis and have a very low incidence of side effects and toxicity. My three favorite adaptogens include rhodiola, reishi mushrooms (not technically herbs, but just as potent and beneficial), and shilajit, a byproduct of plant materials that have been compressed into the earth.
I would recommend taking these adaptogens daily to anyone who wants to boost their longevity and overall vitality. For even more impressive results, pair them with adaptogen companions like turmeric and gotu kola, which have some but not all of the same characteristics, plus they complement and enhance adaptogen’s powers.
Does taking these herbs relieve you of having to improve your diet, exercise more, and minimize stress and toxins in your life? No. But they can help pick up the slack of the occasional burger and fries or lazy weekend of binge-watching Netflix. After all, no one is perfect — and what’s the point of living longer if you can’t treat yourself to a favorite guilty pleasure every once in awhile?
Since learning about the wonderful benefits of herbs, and particularly adaptogenic herbs, I’ve made it my life’s mission to teach others about herbs, and to get them into the lives of as many people as possible. It’s such a simple yet profound way to enhance your cellular and overall wellness!
I want everyone to enjoy the same exhilarating level of vitality that I’m experiencing now in my 60s — and that I thought I’d lost forever when I was 50 and struggling with chronic illness. I’ve learned firsthand that when you take control of your health, and focus on achieving balance and resilience (instead of just trying to quiet your symptoms), you can experience true vitality and add more life to your years.