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An Interview with John Steinke: The Antiaging Benefits of Essence Herbs

Transcribed from Cary Nosler's Wide World of Health show, broadcast April 4, 2010

Cary Nosler: Our guest today is John Steinke. John began his medical career as an acupuncturist and herbalist specializing in sports medicine. John's primary practice involved trauma care and performance enhancement for top athletes, including players for the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers. While treating his clients John observed that a lot of the young athletes were showing signs of premature aging. Now, if you think about it, if you race your car at top speed all the time, there's a greater opportunity for mechanical failure than if you cruise around at a more moderate pace. That's what John observed with his patients, who were suffering with chronic pain disorders caused by frequent and numerous injuries.

Besides football players, John treated long distance runners and triathletes, who were suffering from joint problems, chronic fatigue and immune disorders caused by overtraining. John found great success by applying his extensive knowledge of anti-aging herbs and herbal formulas to help both groups of athletes. As a long-time San Francisco 49er fan, I first learned about John's work reading "Total Impact," the autobiography of famed San Francisco 49er and Hall of Famer, Ronny Lott. John is now with Tango Advanced Nutrition. John, thank you so much for joining us on the Wide World of Health.

John: Thank you for the very nice introduction.

Cary: I must say, in the brief time that we've known each other prior to this interview, I've noticed you have a very balanced way of going about what you do. You seem to be somewhat contemplative about the whole process as well, and I wonder if part of the philosophy of acupuncture and the centuries old traditions that go with it might have something to do with your temperament when you look at the problems that afflict people?

John: Certainly there's that. I think that when you run a clinical practice like I did for 20 years, you're going to be confronted with issues that force you to stop and think. As you mentioned, I was working with two types of athletes – pro-football players and elite endurance athletes. Both groups were developing disorders that are very similar to premature aging, and I had to figure out what was going on so I could help these athletes. As a result I've spent my career studying the various connections between sports and aging, exercise and rest, supplements and diet, and how all these things fit together.

What I looked at in particular were three types of Chinese herbal formulas. One uses a group of herbs to restore endocrine function and support hormonal activity. This is part of the tradition of anti-aging herbals that goes back about 3,000 years. A second group includes herbs known to improve blood circulation. The third group consists of herbs that deal with chronic inflammation, which I think is the central disorder of aging these days.

"Essence is thought to be your inheritance, like your DNA, and how your essence unfolds over a lifetime is crucial to how you age."

Cary: Obviously, these formulas you've been researching come from clinics and medical institutions where they have been subjected to intense testing. That's an interesting evolution for the Chinese, because a lot of what they talk about – for instance kidney Qi or liver Qi – doesn't necessarily refer to a specific organ, but addresses various functions that are attributed to that sphere of activity.

John: Yes, that's correct. Over the last 40 years China has applied more and more Western science and Western medical technology to bring their ancient formulations into the modern world to deal with diabetes, strokes, heart attacks – all of the disorders of aging we're interested in. This ability to update their older traditional formulas has led to significant breakthroughs in treating aging disorders.

I don't think the West really understands the extent of what's been going on. There is just so much research going on in China, probably the equivalent of three or four of our Apollo programs to put people on the moon. And I've been able to tap into a part of this research, based on my interests, and this is what we're making available through our nutrition company, Tango Advanced Nutrition.

Cary: Speaking about athletes, and not just elite athletes, a lot of folks are looking for a way to get to the next level. When you come to a point where you're doing as much as your body can do, and it's in a sense telling you to back off a bit, I think for a lot of folks most of their problems come from overtraining. And then they look for some kind of stimulant to allow them to keep going and train even harder, and they end up putting their body under even greater stress.

John: Yeah, absolutely true. And this applies as well to the elite endurance athletes I was working with, many of whom were women in their early thirties. Simply put, they were overtraining and over-competing, because their competition schedules were too intense too. They were starting to notice decreases in their performance, as well as fatigue, depression, poor sleep and chronic nagging injuries. And this is now actually called the overtraining syndrome.

At a certain point, rest is not enough to overcome the problem. You have to do more than just reduce your workouts and cut back on your training schedule. You really have to supplement in order to re-support yourself, and interestingly, the herbs that worked the best were Chinese anti-aging herbs that have been used for more than 3,000 years, the ones that support endocrine and hormonal function.

These herbs, often called adaptogens, were adopted by the Soviet Olympic sports teams as part of their training programs due to their ability to restore endocrine function. That's a crucial part to being able to deal with the overtraining syndrome.

And we all know that exercise can help you live longer, but only to a point. When the Swedes looked at this closely they discovered that exercise that burns up to 3,000 calories per week can help you live longer, but exercise beyond that begins to push the mortality rate back up. In other words, exercising too much will actually increase the rate at which you age.

"Essence formulas are not just one herb, but they're six, ten, twelve herbs, prescribed with a specific blend to match a certain person's exact constellation of symptoms."

Now, the idea behind using the right herbs and supplements, as well as getting good rest, is to extend your capacity for exercise and recovery so you can actually work out more, and at an increased intensity, so that you gain the benefits of your workouts while benefiting from the anti-aging component.

Cary: Doesn't it fascinate you to think that these Chinese formulas and traditional herbal medicines were developed thousands of years ago, when the formulators obviously had no way to measure hormone levels? There were no blood tests to help them deter-mine different kinds of stress factors, but somehow, through close observation, they were able to put together these very sophisticated formulas to address these issues.

John: Yes, the formulas are very sophisticated, and required astute observations by Chinese herbal physicians over thousands of years in order to understand all the feedback mechanisms involved in putting together the right combinations of ingredients. Interestingly, some of the earliest formulas came from pediatric herbalists who were looking to treat what was called "failure to thrive." This referred to children whose growth was stunted. They were not fully developing as they should. In time the herbalist figured out which herbs worked to restore the children to normal development. It was only later, when they realized that something similar was happening in the elderly, a kind of age-related "failure to thrive," that they began using the same herbal formulas to help the very old.

A good example of this is the herb, Rehmannia, a central anti-aging herb in many traditional Chinese healing formulas that is great for restoring proper endocrine balance and function. Rehmannia is an important component in many of the formulas produced by Tango Advanced Nutrition, but it's just not that well-known here in the West. Here, people are very aware of Ginseng, which is a great adaptogen, but Rehmannia has played a much more important and central role in Chinese anti-aging formulas for thousands years.

Cary: You're talking about Rehmannia, but the Chinese don't use single herb formulas. Their Essence formulations are rather complex constellations of different herbs, with primary herbs, and supportive herbs, and more herbs supporting the supporting herbs.

John: Yes, very good, and you used the proper term there. They're called Essence formulas because the essence is thought to be your inheritance, like your DNA, and how your essence unfolds over a lifetime is crucial to how you age. And Essence formulas are not just one herb, but they're six, ten, twelve herbs maybe, prescribed with a specific blend to match a certain person's exact constellation of symptoms.

Very rarely do the Chinese ever use a single herb in treating or support of health, it's always formulations. That's because in a formulation you can have one group of herbs to address one area of concern, and another group of herbs to address a secondary circumstance, and then you've got active ingredients from all of these different herbs. Each herb may contain a hundred different active ingredients, all harnessed together and pointing towards a specific goal, but working on different physiological pathways. That's what makes them so effective, unlike drugs that pound away at one kind of physiological pathway. This also explains the high safety profile of these formulas, because you don't get the side effects commonly seen with a single drug.

Cary: Talking about how traditional Chinese medicine has entered into the 21st century, it's pretty obvious that Chinese formulas, as advanced and sophisticated as they are, were once looked down on because they weren't effective for certain issues, like the plague, that respond better to Western medicine. Now it seems that just taking care of symptoms alone isn't enough, and a lot of attention is being focused on the foundational aspects of health. I would suspect that the Chinese would have a better, longer track record of finding out how to integrate their ancient formulas into the modern paradigm of medicine. Do the two co-exist peacefully?

John: Yeah, absolutely. For instance, Chinese herbal hospitals use Western blood tests and related lab work to help guide their therapy. Also, you have to realize that China is a huge country, with over 1.3 billion people, and there are numerous research institutes all over the place, many that we in the West have never heard of. For example, you may find a "small" town of 15 million people with a local research institute that has spent the last 20 years just studying diabetes. They may have treated 30 or 40 thousand diabetic patients with a unique herbal formula that was developed as the institute's basic formula.

There's just so much stuff going on over there, and they're using the most advanced analytical testing systems to monitor and improve their formulas. And they're not just designing the formulations, they're also improving the extraction techniques as they figure out how to cultivate their herbs to produce more of the active ingredients they're looking for. It's a fully vertically integrated system where Western and Chinese herbal medicines are fully merged together.

Actually, if I could go back to the 49ers thing, I can give you a bit of an idea of how it works. When I first started treating the 49ers I was puzzled by a statement one of the players made, that the average life expectancy of a pro football player is only 55 years. And I actually saw some retired players from the Oakland Raiders, only 32 or 33 years old, who were already so crippled with arthritis that they could barely walk. Others had heart disease and all kinds of other problems, and that really had me puzzled.

Then I learned that these players, starting back in youth football and on through their high school, college, and pro careers, get slammed with an average of 130,000 high-impact hits. Now just think about all the bruising that occurs as blood coagulates in damaged tissues. In Chinese medicine they refer to this as "blood stagnation," and there are some really good Chinese martial arts formulas for treating bruises and helping the body heal. But what really motivated me was trying to figure out what could be done, on a long-term basis, to keep these guys from dying from an age-related disease at the relatively young age of 55.

"Each herb may have a hundred different active ingredients, all harnessed together and pointing towards a specific goal, but working on different physiological pathways."

So I started looking at what was going on in China and I ran across a doctor – his name is Dr. Dexin Yan – who was running a gerontology hospital in China. For Dr. Yan, the central disorder of aging wasn't the endocrine system, but what he referred to as elevated blood viscosity, or blood stagnation. Basically this occurs when all of the components in your blood are changed in a such a way that blood viscosity increases, making your blood so thick that it is difficult to push it through your system to nourish the tissues.

Cary: And the blood is carrying substances that each tissue needs to repair itself and to get rid of its waste products.

John: Yes. Now around this same time there was a lot of research into microcirculation in China. Researchers developed a tiny device that allowed them to evaluate blood flow through the capillaries. And it's at this deepest level that nourishment from the blood is given over to the cells, and waste products are removed for transport to the liver for disposal. And of course there are various other components, such as hormones and enzymes, that must be transported from different cell types to other cells throughout the body to help them function efficiently.

So if your blood viscosity is elevated, and your capillaries are damaged at the microcirculatory level, then you've got two problems working to accelerate your aging process. Dr. Yan's primary focus was on circulatory disorders, such as strokes, heart attacks and impaired cognition, basically all of the kind of things that show up as we age. Now his work set off a light bulb in my head, and I realized this is what was really going on with these pro athletes. And it's not just football players, but this is probably what is going on in all of us too, as we all have to deal with the same age-related disorders.

Dr. Yan was able to evaluate the problem at his gerontology hospital, and using blood tests and other lab work he was able to determine which herbs would counter those effects of blood stagnation. In the end Dr. Yan came up with some great formulas, and we are able to offer those formulas through our company. Interestingly, his theories and work on blood stagnation were adopted throughout China, and now blood stagnation is assessed and treated by every Chinese herbalist and hospital across China.

Cary: He was able to look at the traditional herbs that were used and create his own formula based on more accurate ways of assessing what they can do.

John: Yes, and these are not the heavy duty herbs that you would use to resolve a severe sports injury, but these are sophisticated herbal formulas you can use on a daily basis to restore blood circulation. And when healthy circulation is restored, almost everything else begins to improve.

Cary: What's that formula called?

John: It's called Vital Cell. There's one herb in Vital Cell, called Salvia miltiorrhizae, that is probably the third most used herb in China. It's another one of those herbs that are not well known in the West. I think it's an incredibly good herb for keeping blood healthy, but again, it's the whole formula that works to address various aspects of blood circulation and blood components, including cholesterol, triglycerides, immunoglobulins – components that affect how blood circulates as well as what it delivers to the cells. That's actually my personal desert island formula. I have access to every supplement in the world as an acupuncturist, but if I knew I was going to be stranded on a desert island, and I could only take one formula with me, it would be Vital Cell. I think it's that crucial.

Cary: You've got other formulas for resolving other conditions.

John: Yes. Another area that's really of great interest is chronic inflammation. You see this in elite endurance athletes, because they damage their joints from chronic overuse, and in pro football players, joint injuries will show up later as arthritis. But these athletes are also heavily exposed to allergens, and thirty percent of our population is currently dealing with chronic inflammation from allergies.

Cary: But talking about inflammation also means that we're talking about cardiovascular disease, vascular inflammation, brain inflammation – it seems to play a role in all the different problems we face.

John: Yes, and while we talk about herbs for blood stagnation and circulation, and herbs for the endocrine system, I think we really need to deal with chronic inflammation – it's the central cause, the central source for heart disease, gum disease, a whole range of issues.

Cary: So put out the fire first.

John: Yes, you have to put out the fire first. Otherwise the damage from chronic inflammation will just keep accumulating. Chronic inflammation shows up when the body is unable to completely rid itself of an acute inflammation. And a low-grade inflammation can occur because of a constant irritation. The consistency of the inflammatory source is always there, like in the case of the allergy or a runner who just won't stop, just keeps pounding their knees and their feet. Either way, there is a systemic weakness that allows the inflammation to continue. And so chronic inflammation just eats away at everything else. There's definitely extraordinary herbs and formulations for chronic inflammations of various sorts.

Cary: Do you have to take several things or are there just one or two?

John: You really want to go after your specific inflammation. If it's arthritis, you take something that addresses that. If it's allergies, you go address that. Another area that I really like Chinese herbs for, and there's 500-600 years of history doing this, is to shorten the duration of a cold, flu or chronic cough, and to prevent the situation from progressing into a state of chronic inflammation. Interestingly, we have a formula called ImmunoPhase that is very good for those purposes, but some of the herbs we use are now being used in China for arterial inflammations. One herb, called Ilex root, is used in all Chinese formulas when extensive inflammation of the arteries is present, but it's also in cold and flu formulas, so you see immune enhancement with these herbs while helping your cardiovascular system. At some level, it all becomes interrelated, because chronic inflammation places a stress on the whole system.

Cary: John, you've certainly whetted our appetites and again I appreciate the way you explained it in your very patient and comprehensive way, a trait I really appreciate. Thank you so much for sharing with us today.