It’s not often that we have a repeat interviewee at WellBe, but sometimes someone is just such a wealth of knowledge that we have to go back. In our first interview with Dr. Bill Rawls, he shared his story of healing chronic Lyme and discovering the power of herbal medicine along the way. But now, on the heels of the release of his new book, The Cellular Wellness Solution, Dr. Rawls is back to discuss cellular health. Read on to learn why you should care about cellular health; the relationship between cellular wellness, stress, and aging; how microbes in the cells contribute to chronic disease; how herbs can combat cellular stress, and much more.
What Is Cellular Health?
Dr. Rawls’ new book was spurred by a lightbulb moment, when he understood that cellular health is at the heart of our overall health. The conventional medicine system, he’d seen, tended to complicate things with a seemingly infinite amount of tests, diagnoses, and treatment paths. But, he found, “when you bring it down to the cellular level, you really change that equation completely. You simplify our understanding of chronic illness, cancer, and how we should deal with it. It’s a different conversation and one that is more apt to lead to wellness than the other.”
To understand why cellular health is the one thing that really matters, it’s first important to understand the role of cells in our bodies. “We’re basically a collection of cells, and all of our cells work together to make us function as a unit,” Dr. Rawls says. He explains that we’re made up of trillions of cells, and each of those cells is an independently functioning unit with a specific job. In order to fulfill that job, each cell needs certain things — nutrients, downtime to recover from being stressed — and when it doesn’t get those things, health problems arise.
“When you look at health from a cellular point of view, it’s really all about the health of your cells,” he says. “When you feel good, it’s because your cells are healthy. It’s as simple as that. And if you don’t feel good, it means your cells are stressed.”
Understanding Stress and Aging through Cellular Health
So cell health matters. But what impacts our cellular health over time? Will it naturally deteriorate as we age, or does lifestyle matter? As it turns out, the answer is both.
Dr. Rawls explains that all humans accumulate cells until about age 20, at which point you have way more cells than you actually need — about five to 10 times as many cells as are necessary for functioning. “So, you feel great when you’re 20,” he says. “You feel invulnerable because here you are, all of your cells are brand spanking new, and you have all these extra cells. After that point, though, you gradually lose cells.”
Aging, he explains, is simply the gradual loss of functional cells in the body. This happens because cells eventually burn out their mitochondria from continually working, and when that happens they lose the ability to generate energy. But it’s not all that simple: lifestyle factors impact the rate of cellular burnout, making the connection between stress and aging quite strong.
“If it were just from the normal process of mitochondrial energy loss, it’s estimated that we would all live about up to 120 in the absence of any stress,” says Dr. Rawls. “But when your cells are stressed, they use more energy. They burn down their mitochondria faster, so you lose cells faster.” It’s a simple equation: the more stressed you are, the faster you burn out cells, and the more quickly your body ages.
And when we talk about stress and aging, we don’t just mean mental stress. In fact, Dr. Rawls identified five different categories of stress that affect our cells in different ways:
1. Nutritional stress: The typical American diet, which is high in carbohydrates and processed foods, doesn’t give the human body the nourishment it needs. “So our cells are compromised right from the beginning,” he says.
2. Toxic stress: In the modern world, we’re constantly exposed to toxins – from devices and toxic substances in our air, water, or products — and this weakens our cells. “These chemicals get embedded in our cells and compromise functions”
3. Mental stress: Because many of us spend our lives in constant fight-or-flight mode, our cells are on high alert all the time, which doesn’t allow them the opportunity to recover from other kinds of stress. “Our cells need downtime,” Dr. Rawls says. “We need sleep and rest to recalibrate the brain.”
4. Physical stress: This could include physical trauma or injury, but also being sedentary. When you’re sedentary, Dr. Rawls explains, you don’t move your blood, and cells need blood to clear metabolic debris and congestion.
Microbe stress: This is a biggie — we’ll dive deep into it below!
Each of these types of stress affect your body and cells in different ways, but the bottom line is clear: “When your cells are stressed, they can’t do their job and you feel bad,” Dr. Rawls says. “Simple as that.”
The Connection Between Cells, Dormant Microbes, and Chronic Disease
The last type of stress, microbe stress, is a big focus of Dr. Rawls’ new book, and an emerging area of study in the field of cellular health.
We’re all exposed to various harmful microbes throughout our lives: through tick or other insect bites, through things we eat or medications we take, through infections and viruses, and many other sources. Dr. Rawls explains that with all these exposures, microbes eventually enter the bloodstream, sparking “a war with our immune system.” When this happens, your immune system responds with acute inflammation to fight off the pathogen, and you experience symptoms.
“It’s generally thought, well, we have an infection, we feel the infection, and once our symptoms resolve, the microbe is gone,” Dr. Rawls says. “As it turns out, that may be much less true than we think.”
He explains that when microbes enter the bloodstream, they make their way into our cells, which can result in one of three outcomes:
1. The microbe wins, taking over the cell and using it as food and resources to generate more microbes. This generally happens when cellular health is compromised.
2. The microbe is expelled. This happens when a cell is healthy and thus able to properly defend itself from the invading microbe.
3. The microbes enter and become dormant. This is where things get a little more complicated.
“These microbes are small, about 1,000 to 100 times smaller than our cells, so we can actually harbor bacteria in our cells that are dormant,” says Dr. Rawls. When a microbe is dormant, it remains in the cell but is inactive, meaning it doesn’t hinder the function of the cell. However, it can become active again if your cells become stressed, whether through poor diet, exposure to toxins, a sedentary lifestyle, or any of the other types of stress laid out above. “If you stress your cells chronically, all of the things you’ve been accumulating through your lifetime can reactivate,” says Dr. Rawls.
This idea of dormant microbes being reactivated is currently being explored as a potential explanation for chronic illnesses (read our interview with Dr. Kasey Holland to learn specifically about what reactivated EBV does to the body). “We have different chronic illnesses because we all pick up different microbes as we go through life,” Dr. Rawls says. “It has the potential to really change our understanding of what chronic illness is, but also change our understanding of how we should look at solutions. And it puts cellular wellness right at the heart of it. If your cells aren’t healthy, then you’re vulnerable to chronic illness.”
What that means is that if we can target cellular health, we can make people less vulnerable to chronic disease — and this is huge, since 60% of Americans have a chronic illness.
How Antimicrobial Herbs Counteract Chronic Disease by Targeting Cellular Health
So if healthy cells help protect you from chronic disease, how can you improve your cellular health? According to Dr. Rawls, herbs might be one very powerful way to do so.
Dr. Rawls was able to reverse his own chronic Lyme with herbal medicine, and along his journey, he came to understand that the power of herbs can be harnessed for many other purposes. “I realized that drugs and herbs are really two different things. I mean, it’s like apples and oranges,” he says.
Drugs, he explains, block enzymes or activate receptor pathways that artificially block a symptom or artificially slow down a disease process by manipulating cellular functions. But, he says, “what they are not doing — what no drug has the capacity to do, though — is reduce cellular stress.”
Chronic illness, he explains, can be defined as chronic cellular stress: whatever stress you are experiencing is ongoing, so your cells aren’t recovering, leading to chronic cellular dysfunction and the accompanying symptoms. Drugs help people with chronic disease by lessening these symptoms, but they do not treat the root cause of cellular stress. Herbs, Dr. Rawls realized, do just that. “That was just a light bulb moment when I realized what was going on,” he says.
He came to learn that there are many different herbs that can specifically target the different types of stress outlined above: some have antidiabetic processes (which might help with nutritional stress), some have detoxification processes (which might help with toxic stress), and virtually all herbs have antimicrobial properties to help with microbe stress.
“All herbs have some antimicrobial properties,” Dr. Rawls says. “They have to. In fact, every living organism on earth has to protect itself from other kinds of creatures.” Among the various antimicrobial herbs, of course, there are varying levels of potency, and how powerful an herb is will depend on its environment: plants that exist in environments with more microbial stress will have robust antimicrobial properties, while those with less microbial stress will be weaker.
Then comes the question of how to access and ingest antimicrobial herbs. Dr. Rawls explains that while you can find herbs in pharmacies and grocery stores, they tend not to do much because of their poor quality. To really get the benefits of antimicrobial herbs, he says, you generally need to order them online from a high-quality source (Dr. Rawls actually has his own line of herbs through Vital Plan).
In terms of what kinds of herbs to take, Dr. Rawls cautions that some herbs have very powerful, drug-like properties and so you shouldn’t take them without consulting with an herbalist. There are, however, what he calls “green zone” herbs, which anybody can take and benefit from without consulting an herbalist. Some of these herbs include commonly used herbs, like cinnamon and turmeric, and you can find the whole list of “green zone” herbs in his book.
Then there’s the question of how to best consume antimicrobial herbs. Dr. Rawls explains that there are three main ways to get herbs:
1. Whole herb powder. This common form is made by drying up an entire plant and then crushing it into a fine powder. “Frankly, you’re getting a lot of fiber and not much phytochemistry, because you’re just getting the stems and roots and leaves of the plant,” he says. “Whole herb powders are great, but they’re just not high potency.”
2. Tinctures. A tincture is made by soaking plant parts in water and alcohol to extract the plant’s phytochemistry, then taking the plant parts out and discarding them. The more plant parts in the water/alcohol mixture, the higher the concentration (just like you get a stronger tea if you use multiple tea bags). Dr. Rawls recommends tinctures, noting that they are more potent than whole herb powders.
3. Standardized powdered extract. This form, which Dr. Rawls refers to as “one step beyond the tincture,” is made by spraying a tincture onto a surface, then drying off the water and alcohol to collect the powder, which is then put into a capsule. This means that each capsule is basically pure phytochemistry, and much more potent than either tinctures or whole herb powders. “It’s just a really easy way to get herbs,” he says.
The WellBe Takeaway on Cellular Wellness and Chronic Disease
It’s clear that our cells play a massive role in our overall health — but you don’t need to be an expert in biology to achieve optimal wellness through improving the health of your cells. Here’s what to remember about cellular health:
- We’re all made up of trillions of cells, and each cell has its own specific function. When your cells are healthy, your body is able to function optimally, and you feel good. When your cells aren’t healthy, the cells can’t complete their functions and you feel bad.
- Every human accumulates cells until about age 20, and then their cells slowly lose function from that point onward. The aging process is simply the loss of functional cells. In the absence of any external stressors, everyone would live until the age of 120, but various stresses in our life accelerate the process of losing functional cells. There are five types of stress that the cells experience: nutritional stress, toxic stress, mental stress, physical stress, and microbe stress.
- Microbe stress is one of the biggest detriments to cellular health. Microbe stress occurs when a microbe enters a cell and prevents the cell from performing its normal functions. Microbes are sneaky, so often they can enter a cell and then go dormant for a period of time, making it seem as if your body has beaten off the infection. However, when your body is stressed, the microbe wakes up and symptoms reappear. Reactivated microbes are a major cause of chronic disease.
- Pharmaceuticals treat chronic disease by artificially lessening their symptoms. Herbs, on the other hand, target the root cause of chronic disease: cellular stress. Because herbs are plants that must protect themselves from microbes, all herbs have antimicrobial properties that act against the harmful microbes in human cells.
- You can take herbs in the form of whole herb powder, tinctures, or standardized powder extract. Dr. Rawls recommends tinctures and standardized powder extract, as whole herb powder isn’t potent enough to have real benefits. You can purchase herbs online through high-quality sources; those you find in pharmacies or grocery stores are generally too low-quality to have any real benefits.
Watch the full interview with Dr. Bill Rawls to learn about the connection between herbs and cellular stress (and how they operate differently than pharmaceuticals), why humans today consume fewer phytochemicals than humans in the past, why it’s difficult to pinpoint specific microbes that cause specific symptoms, why bad microbes can cause gas and bloating, whether lifestyle changes or herbs are more important for reversing and preventing chronic illness, why he believes so few people take herbs, why multivitamins often don’t do very much, how exercise impacts cellular health and chronic disease, and much more.
What things in your life do you think might be causing cellular stress? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
- Martínez Steele E, Baraldi LG, Louzada MLDC, et alUltra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional studyBMJ Open 2016;6:e009892.
- Buttorff, Christine, Teague Ruder, and Melissa Bauman, Multiple Chronic Conditions in the United States. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017.
- Parham S, Kharazi AZ, Bakhsheshi-Rad HR, Nur H, Ismail AF, Sharif S, RamaKrishna S, Berto F. Antioxidant, Antimicrobial and Antiviral Properties of Herbal Materials. Antioxidants (Basel). 2020 Dec 21;9(12):1309.
The information contained in this article comes from our interview with Dr. Bill Rawls, MD, author, and Medical Director for Vital Plan, an herbal supplement and wellness company. His qualifications and training include graduating from the Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest University. You can read more about Dr. Rawls here.