By Katherine Birchenough
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how strongly we are influenced by light and the seasons. Have you ever noticed that in winter we are not only indoors more, but we are more introspective? Energy tends to be conserved and stored as we rest and prepare for spring, the season of hope and renewal. As we near the vernal equinox on March 21st, the center of the sun begins to spend a roughly equal amount of time above and below the horizon at every location on earth, so night and day are about the same length. Stimulated by the increase of light and warmth, we are able to summon the energy for new beginnings. In the spring, we experience rebirth—physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
In our bodies, rebirth happens every day as we rest overnight and repair the damage inevitably caused by just being alive. The waning of the light of the day signals cells in the back of the eye to communicate to a structure deep in the brain called the Pineal gland (also called the “third eye”) that it’s time to wind down. A cascade of hormonal regulation then occurs, allowing our bodies to get to the task of repair and renewal.
Many things can interfere with this process. Lack of exposure to natural light, too much artificial light and too much screen time all have a negative effect. Getting to sleep too late or lack of deep restorative sleep can also prevent this process of self-renewal, resulting in what I call a “repair deficit.” I see this in many of my patients in the form of chronic illness and rapid aging. Unfortunately, the lifestyle changes needed to correct this are very difficult and may be impossible for some people.
As a physician practicing functional medicine, my goal is to remove barriers to wellness, replace what may be missing and restore the body to its normal, healthy state. I also realize that busy professionals like myself may be subject to a higher stress burden and more wear and tear, which may lead to having a harder time with schedule modification, sleep quality, meeting nutritional needs and all of the other things we need to do for optimal physical functioning. Hence my interest in regenerative medicine, defined as the “process of replacing, engineering or regenerating human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function.” Since the early 1990s, regenerative medicine techniques have been used to heal injuries such as burns or damaged joints by the application of living cells or growth factors to enhance the body’s innate healing and repair mechanisms. It only makes sense to me that these methods can also be used as age management strategies by healing and renewing joints, skin, hair and even the brain.
What are the current regenerative therapies available? Well, most of you have probably heard about stem cells. Derived from your own fat cells or bone marrow (autologous), or from donated umbilical cords or amniotic fluid (mesenchymal), they are being successfully used in the U.S. for joint pain and in other countries for disorders as diverse as autism to autoimmune disease. Stem cells are rich in growth factors, which act as messenger molecules that tell your cells what to do. Platelets, the sticky cells in your blood that help form clots and scabs, are also rich in growth factors. This is the principle behind using platelet-rich plasma, or PRP, for regenerative procedures. PRP is being used for facial rejuvenation, hair restoration, joint pain and even sexual wellness procedures.
I use a lot of PRP in my practice, but lately, I’ve been getting more excited about exosomes. Like small delivery trucks, exosomes are little packets of growth factors secreted by most cell types already found in the human body. They are also produced by stem cells in response to stress, and this is how they are made for use in regenerative medicine. Exosomes act as messenger molecules, and once they are bound with the target cell, they exert their effects by telling the cell to perform functions associated with repair, regeneration and healing. Unlike stem cells, they are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier and thus have potential in regeneration of brain cells and cognitive functioning. Once exosomes are administered, cell reprogramming starts to occur. This can take several weeks, but the effects can continue to develop over several months.
Currently, I’m using exosomes for facial microneedling procedures, hair restoration, sexual rejuvenation and intravenously for systemic immune modulation and cognitive benefit. It’s part of a whole-body, whole-self makeover that includes metabolic and nutritional analysis and hormone balancing for the maximum effect. Take some time this spring and reflect on the process of renewal. Think about what you may be able to do to give your body and mind the chance to perform at their best. If you can’t do it on your own and need help, there are some incredible options available to us now.