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Adaptogens and nootropics are becoming much more popular as the flaws in Western medicine become more and more apparent. David Winston has spent over 50 years studying herbal medicine. Today we discuss his book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
Allan: 01:02 David, welcome to 40+ Fitness.
David: 01:05 Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.
Allan: 01:07 You know, more and more, in the last 10 years. It just seems like it's a, it's kind of a building thing, which I think is really good, there's more discussion about some of the natural healing properties of plants and herbs. Looking back at some of the Eastern medicine, Chinese medicine, Ayurveda from India, and actually adopting some of those now as treatments and protocols and not going with the chemicals. So your book Adaptogens really kind of gets into the history of this and to what they are and how we can use them. It's fascinating to me how much as out there and we're just still just kinda scratching the surface.
David: 01:56 Well, that's true. You know, it's interesting. This year is the 50th year since I started studying herbal medicine. And I joke a bit, but I'm not entirely joking when I tell people after 50 years, I now consider myself to be an advanced beginner. There is endless amount to learn whether we are talking about traditional Chinese medicine aryuveda, the middle Eastern Teb Al Nabawi, Kampo from Japan, et cetera, Tibet Medicine, American eclectic medicine, physio medicalism, all these traditions are rich in the use of plants for medicine. So these traditions in some cases go back at least 3000 years. Plus you then combine that with the vast amount of plant, medicinal plant research that is occurring throughout the world.
Very little unfortunately in the United States, but extensive amounts in China, India, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, France, Germany. So all around the world there is a tremendous amount of plant research and in many cases, this plant research, this modern plant research is confirming, although sometimes going well beyond the understanding that people have had for thousands of years of how these substances can help us to live healthier, better lives.
And one of the things that's really important to understand, a lot of people have this idea that it's sort of an either or situation. It's either Orthodox Western medicine or it's complimentary alternative medicine, herbal medicine, natural medicine. And honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. Where Orthodox medicine is strong tends to be where things like herbal medicine aren't that effective and vice versa. Where herbal medicine is really strong, tends to be in areas, especially dealing with things like chronic degenerative disease where Orthodox medicine often has little to offer.
So when it comes to the individual, the patient, the client, the real win-win is understanding which is appropriate in a given situation. Herbs are not the answer to everything. Adaptogens are not the answer to everything, but then nor does Orthodox medicine have the answer to everything. So understanding which therapy, which treatments are most effective, most appropriate for a given situation, for a given person is essential.
Allan: 04:36 Now an adaptogen is not just a chemical compound they're pulling out of a plant to, to make a new medicine with its, it's actually using the whole plant. Right? Can, you can talk about adaptogens, what they are and what they do?
David: 04:50 Absolutely. And this is going to get slightly complex. Um, but I will do my absolute best to keep it as simple as possible. So initially, you know, in all these ancient systems of medicine, there are tonic herbs. So in Ayurveda they're called Rasanayas, in TCM, in traditional Chinese medicine, they're known as Chi Tonics or kidney youn tonics or blood tonics. But these traditional definitions of a tonic remedy do not necessarily equate to what we today call an adaptogen.
An adaptogen is a modern scientific concept developed initially in the Soviet Union. The initial research was done by Professor Lazaroff starting in the late 1940s. If you think, wow, they must've been very, you know, forward-thinking to do this kind of research. The reality was this was initially military research and the Russians were, the Soviets were trying to do what cruise chefs said, and that was to bury the West. They were trying to find ways to make better soldiers, better cosmonauts workers so that they could outdo us and literally win the cold war.
Basically what happens is the research eventually goes from the initially started looking at chemical substances and with Dr. Breckman who is considered the father of adaptogenic research. He switches over to looking at plants and they eventually settle on a plant called, at the time in the United States, we learned about it known as a Siberian ginseng, but the proper name for it is Eleutherococcus senticosus and that's where the initial research starts. And what they did is they first promoted a definition of an adaptogen using a very simplistic three parameters.
Number one, the plant was nontoxic in a normal therapeutic dose. Alright, so that's, that's fine. The problem with that is that describes almost every herb in the material Medica. I mean they ask, there are some toxic herbs, but most herbs are relatively benign in a normal therapeutic dose.
Secondly, they decided that these herbs would create what was called a nonspecific state of resistance to stress. So that means they help you to resist stress, whether that stress is psychological, physiological, or environmental. But the problem there is that other categories of herbs including nervines, which we think of as nerve tonics, things that are common also help you to deal with stress more effectively. So that doesn't really mean that is absolutely an adaptogen.
And thirdly that they would have what is called an amphoteric effect on the body, helping to normalize function of multiple systems, especially the endocrine system, nervous system, immune system as well as the cardiovascular and digestive systems. So that was the initial definition. And that last started, I think that was, that definition came out around 1969 so after that and the intervening where now 50 years later, the definition has changed.
Now those first three parameters are all still true, but they have added to the definition. So in the 1990s they determined that adaptogens work primarily through two master control systems in the body. One is called the HPA axis, that's the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. This is the master control system of almost all endocrine function, much nervous system function, immune function and what also what deals with chronic stress in our lives. And then the second system is called the SAS, the Sympathoadrenal System. And this is your fight or flight mechanism, which deals acute stress. So in order for an adaptogen to be an adaptogen, there has to be evidence that it is primarily working through one or both of these two master control systems. Further research showed us that adaptogens also work on a cellular level.
So what does this mean? It means that they do several things.
Number one, they help reduce stress hormone production. So that's especially cortisol, norepinephrine, and they help prevent cortisol induced mitochondrial dysfunction. So for instance, some of the conditions associated with stress induced mitochondrial dysfunction include things like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome, which is one of the reasons adaptogens can be so useful as part of a protocol for treating those conditions because underlying those conditions is basically elevated levels of stress hormones, specifically cortisol, which shuts down the mitochondria, which are the engines of yourselves. So if your mitochondria are not working, you are going to have all sorts of problems with fatigue, with muscle weakness, with muscle pain, uh, with cardiovascular issues and et cetera, et cetera.
And they do this, not only do they shut down the excessive production of cortisol, but they do it by up-regulating certain stress modulators in the body. These are noticing heat shock proteins, fork head proteins and something known as neuropeptide Y.
So in order for an herb to be an adaptogen, it has to do every single one of these things. Of course the ancients had no idea about any of these things. So when they are talking about a Rasanayas or a Chi tonic, you know, those things, some of them actually turn out to be adaptogens, but of course, many of them do not because they don't meet the parameters of today what we know is an adaptogen.
Allan: 11:02 Okay. So kind of my key takeaways from this is that that one, adaptogens don't just address one part of the body. Like I think in the book you talked about how tumeric actually supports the liver, a single organ versus actually supporting the whole body through the, you know, HPA and through the SAS Yes. Right. And then the other piece of it is it doesn't just push us in one direction. It's sort of a balancing, getting us more towards homeostasis than pushing us in one direction just because we're stressed trying to push us unstressed. It's literally just kind of trying to find that balance.
David: 11:42 Correct. Now I will say that turmeric by the way of course is not in adaptogens. The turmeric, it just doesn't work on the liver. A tumor has much broader implications. In fact, the majority of herbs have a wider sphere than just working on a single organ. But adaptogens you could, yes, I think your, your definition, think of them as almost systemic remedies, but they're primary effects are on endocrine nervous system and immune function. That is where, because that's of course what the HPA axis and the SAS, those are the things that they are affecting. Now of course the reality is is that the SAS also and the HPA axis also affect skin function. They also affect circulation. They also affect reproductive function, both male and female. So again, very wide ranging effects.
And at the same time you'd mentioned homeostasis. Adaptogens work in a really interesting way. So think of it this way. We, we, anybody who has had anatomy and physiology learned about homeostasis, where the body tries to maintain its normal balance. So some things are maintained in very, very tight, like your serum sodium levels, your blood serum, serum levels of sodium have to be maintained with a very, very narrow range. And so the body will work exceedingly hard to make sure that it stays there. And the idea of homeostasis is everything's tries to stay the same. Well, in reality, there is a second process known as allostasis that the body uses to maintain homeostasis and adaptogens also enhanced allostasis.
What is allostasis? So any of your listeners who have ever gone surfing, and you don't even have to be a surfer, you could go skiing, you could go ice skating, skateboarding, anything where you need really good balance. So if you got up on a surfboard and you stand absolutely still, as those waves are moving you in every direction, you're gonna stay on that board for about a second. In order to stay on the board, you start moving and shifting your body weight to compensate for changes. That is allostasis. Allostasis is the body's ability to change in order to maintain balance and adaptogens help in that process.
Allan: 14:16 Okay. So most of the book we're talking about stress, so we're talking about our body is going through, it'll can go through acute stress, which just basically means, you know, I see a bear and Oh, I've got run, versus chronic stress where my CFO is the bear and he's on me every single day. And so that stress just sticks with me and my fight or flight is basically every waking moment. Adaptogens can kind of help us with that. Right. So can you kind of talk through the stress reaction process and then how adaptogens can support us as we deal with chronic stress.
David: 14:53 They're working on multiple levels and that's where it gets a bit complicated because, just to give you an example: I mentioned earlier that among these sort of molecular chaperones or stress chaperones that adaptogens affect, we have what are called heat shock proteins. These are molecular chaperones. And so these molecular chaperones heat shock proteins protect, mitochondria from stress induced damage. Then they also regulate a chemical called FOXO. It's a fork head protein and basically FOXO basically is a neuro. FOXO is upregulated and it promotes the synthesis of proteins that inhibit the effects of stress. It helps detoxify cells. It also has been shown to enhance longevity. I also mentioned it basically up-regulates in neuropeptide Y, which is a neurotransmitter which has been shown to relieve anxiety.
It's been shown to inhibit pain perception. It lowers blood pressure, it inhibits addiction, it inhibits cortisol release. So those are just some of the compounds that it is affecting and having a broad ranging effect on the body. So when we are under stress, there is a whole cascade of cellular and organ response in the body. And adaptogens are saying to the body, think of adaptogens as sort of like a stress vaccine. Some people call it a stress memetic. In fact, what adaptogens do is they say to your body, stress is coming. So let's get ready for stress. In that sense, it's a little bit like going to the gym. So many of your listeners probably work out, maybe some of them are runners. You did the first time you ran, you didn't run a marathon, at least not if you were smart the first time you start running a short distance and then the next day you run again and again, or you go to the gym and you start off with a low amount of weights and a small amount of repetitions and you gradually work your way up to where your muscles become stronger. We are more stamina, more strength and the ability to do more
Adaptogens work very similar to this. They basically say to your body, stress is coming yet ready. And so the body builds up so that it is more prepared to deal with stress when the actual stress comes, whether that is an acute stress or a chronic stress. The one difference between adaptogens and say going to gym is that if you go to the gym and you don't go to the gym for two weeks, you may lose a little bit of strength and stamina, but you still have a significant long-term effect adaptogens to be taken regularly because the effect doesn't have a long term effect. So these are things you would take on a regular basis. And of course, which adaptogens and individual takes are going to depend on the specifics of that person because it's important to note that adaptogens are not a one size fits all phenomenon.
A lot of people think, Oh, you need an adaptogens, just take any one. Well, that's not true. There are stimulating adaptogens. There are calming adaptogens. There are heating adaptogens, cooling adaptogens, drawing adaptogens, moistening, adaptogens, nourishing adaptogens. And so the key is, and that's more of course, one of the reasons I wrote my book, is that I wanted people to understand what I would call the personality of each of these adaptogenic herbs so that you can figure out which one or ones, because remember, traditionally in all of the great systems of verbal medicine, herbs are never taken as simple as meaning one herb at a time. They're taking in complex formulas.
Why? Because we are dealing with complex people with complex problems. And so the idea is which adaptogens or adaptogens and the sort of supportive herbs or companion herbs for adaptogens such as nervines Nootropics, we'll talk about this more later, or restorative tonics that you take with them to help create something that is actually going to be beneficial and work for the individual. Great herbalists don't treat diseases. We treat people.
Allan: 19:17 Let's go ahead and jump ahead then and let's have that conversation about the nervines and the supporting components and, and, and the Nootropics. Let's get into those. Just a little bit so they know what we're talking about.
David: 19:29 Okay. So we just, we've defined what an adaptogen is and we'll talk more about them. But there are other, and I include this in my book, there are other herbs that I would call companion herbs to adaptogens. They work really well with adaptogens.
And so the three categories of these, and the first is nervines are nerve vines in England and these are calming herbs. I mentioned that briefly before and they basically helped restore the emotional foundation. So for people who are especially type A personality, for people who are emotionally labile, for people who have number ten reactions to number one problems. Nervines can be really useful along with perhaps calming adaptogens. For a person like that.
Then we have water known as no a tropics. Now I have to define this because nootropics, some people call them smart drugs.There are three different categories.
There are the chemical smart drugs, which are often designer drugs created in the laboratory with no history of previous use and no record of safety. Uh, I am very leery about these substances.
Then there are the supplement, nootropics and these include things like L-carnitine and things like that which have a very good safety.
And then there are our herbal Nootropics and there are a wide variety of herbal nootropics. These herbs tend to be neuro-protective. They are anti-inflammatory on neuro anti-inflammatories. They enhance cerebral circulation, they enhance memory, focus, concentration. And there is some evidence that at least some of them may help at least slow, if not possibly help prevent something like dementia or Alzheimer's. But that is a very, very preliminary.
Then we have what I would call restorative tonics. And these are basically herbs that are nutritive. They help to enhance overall function, but they do not meet the definition of an adaptogen. So now I'll mention a couple specifically.
We have herbs like the goji berry. Very, very popular herb. And the Chinese herb astragalus. Herbs like this are wonderful nutritive herbs, but they are not adaptogens, even though a lot of people tend to throw them in that category, unfortunately, they just don't meet those definitions.
Allan: 21:58 Okay. If I came to you as a client and generally, okay, you're just a general description, over 40 and high chronic stress and you were going to kind of put together a general protocol, what are some of the things that would be included in that protocol?
David: 19:17 Well, unfortunately, that's not enough of a definition, a description that I could come up with something because I need to know everything about you.
You know, as is somebody who is a patient of mine. I need to know not only their age and their weight and their blood pressure. I need to know their medical history. I need to know, I need to know everything I can about them, you know, and they would bring in their blood work from their physician and their diagnosis is that they have from their doctor. And you put together a protocol that is specific to the patient.
Because remember as I said, great herbalists don't treat diseases. Medical men, Western medicine focuses in on disease. We don't focus in on disease. We focus on creating protocols to help people be well, to help people prevent disease. To help people to gain maximal health, strength, longevity, et cetera. So, but what I would look at is, for instance, if you were somebody who was deficient and depleted, I might include some stimulating adaptogens and stimulating adaptogens would include things like, perhaps, Asian Ginseng or Rhodiola.
On the other hand, if you were really depleted, deficient, exhausted all the time, then I want to make sure I include some of the nourishing adaptogens. So there may be something like American Ginseng. If you were a type A personality, you know, you can't shut your mind off, then we might consider some of your calming adaptogens such as Ashwagandha or Schisandra. And so there are different ones that we would use.
And by the way, not every single person gets an adaptogen. And I don't want people to think that adaptogens are panaceas. Adaptogens are incredibly useful. Don't get me wrong, I do use them a lot, but I'm using a broad spectrum of herbs. Adaptogens are just one part of that. And I need your listeners to understand. Adaptogens are not a replacement for the foundations of health.
Foundations of health are adequate, good quality sleep, a good diet, exercise, healthy lifestyle choices. So if you are eating fast food three meals a day, only getting six hours sleep, running yourself ragged, training for a marathon, working in incredibly stressful job, and smoking, I don't care how many adaptogens you take, it is not going to make up for the fact that you are abusing yourself. And in fact at best it's going to simply allow you to abuse yourself a little bit longer until you finally collapse.
It's kind of the whipping the exhausted horse. You can make it go a little further, but it's going to collapse. So adaptogens are not a replacement for the foundations of health, but for the average American who is overfed under-exercised, not getting enough sleep, especially when it's a situation where, for instance, you're actually trying to take care of yourself, but maybe there's a new baby in the house.
You're not getting enough sleep. Or maybe you just graduated from a law school, passed your boards and you just hired on to a new law firm and they're expecting you to work 70 hour weeks. Or maybe you are in college and you're having to pull all-nighters and study, which I do not recommend as it reduces comprehension dramatically.
But you know, adaptogens under those circumstances where you mentioned the example earlier where your boss is on your case all the time and it's incredibly stressful and maybe you don't have the option to change. Maybe you're in a situation where you live in a small town where there's only one employer and you don't have a lot of options. Adaptogens can be incredibly useful. Again, helping to prevent stress-induced cortisol elevation, helping to reduce the stress-induced anxiety, helping to reduce the stress-induced elevation of blood pressure and the resultant of course, mitochondrial dysfunction that comes with elevated cortisol levels.
And I will point out that elevation of cortisol can come from lack of sleep, obesity or stress And chronically elevated cortisol levels not only basically shut down the mitochondria in the cells. Chronic elevation of cortisol is proinflammatory and of course all of our chronic degenerative disease is inflammatory in nature. It raises blood pressure, it interferes with sleep, it interferes with digestion, it decreases the immune response, and increases the growth of tissue including skin tags, benign prostatic hyperplasia in men, fibroids, uterine fibroids in women cancer, chronically elevated cortisol is really not good. And so anything we can do to help our body to reset and be at a, you know, a healthier baseline on a regular basis is going to a long term have profound positive implications for our health.
Allan: 27:31 So I guess the way I kind of take this, as you know, you can't just say, okay, I need ashwagandha. I need a Chinese Ginseng or Asian Ginseng root. I need American ginseng root and everybody needs that. The reality is you're going to have to kind of put together a protocol for yourself based on your own personal needs.
David: 27:51 That's actually true. You know, they're there. First of all, as I said, not everybody needs adaptogens, period. But if you do feel you need adaptogens, and again, that's one of the reasons I wrote the book is so that each herb has its own monographs. You can read about it and say, wow, does this make sense for me? And I often mentioned like, I often use it with this or that so that people can kind of get a sense if they don't have access to a clinical herbalist or a naturopathic physician who's trained in botanical medicine or a medical doctor who knows herbs. If they don't have access to someone like that. They can at least educate themselves so they can decide which of these things may, would be most appropriate for them. And again, not everybody needs them, but I would say that, you know, discounting cultures where they're either people are actively starving, suppressed or at war, Americans are some of the most stressed out people in the world.
Allan: 28:51 Absolutely. That's why I moved to Panama.
I define wellness as being the healthiest fittest and happiest you can be. What are the three strategies or tactics to get and stay well?
David: 29:07 Well, three, let's go back to the foundations of health that I just mentioned. In 1910, the average American slept slightly over nine hours per night. Now, the average American sleeps less than seven hours per night. In the intervening 100 plus years, we have not evolved to need less sleep. We're just chronically sleep deprived.
So number one, make sure that you get minimum seven hours sleep at night. Eight is definitely better. If you're sleeping more than nine hours a night, that suggests some issues. So somewhere between seven and nine hours is probably ideal. But the key important thing is when you wake up in the morning, do you feel refreshed? Do you feel rested? Because even if you're getting 12 hours sleep at night and you wake up in the morning and you feel tired, you're exhausted, then you have some type of sleep issue. And so it is absolutely essential that you figure out what that is.
Because, no matter what you have, if you have sleep issues, your chances of having a heart attack increase. If you have sleep issues, your chances of dying from cancer increase. If you have sleep issues, your blood pressure's going to increase. It gives sleep issues, your cortisol levels are going to increase. So sleep is foundational.
Number two, move and move a lot. We sit too much. We are not active. And of course some people are not as capable as you know, heavy exercise. I'm not talking about you have to run marathons, do what you can, whether it is swim, whether it is dance, whether it is practice yoga, move
Number three (I'm going to go beyond three). Eat a healthy diet and I'm astonished at what people think is a healthy diet. I have my patients fill out a three-day diet diary and I'll just sit there and scratch my head sometimes. Because people tell me, I think I eat pretty well. And so of course, food is foundational.
You know, they say as computers, garbage in, garbage out. Well, the diet is the same way. Garbage in, garbage out. You are dependent on your food for what Chinese medicines called the Gushi, the Gransha, the nutrients of that food to feed every cell in your body. And so eat healthy.
I am not a big fan of fad diets. I think that you need to figure out what works for you. And some people can be very healthy vegetarians and I've met people who just can't do that diet. So it's not like there's one diet that is good for everybody. You have to figure out what works for you. But what I can tell you very clearly is fast food, for instance, fried foods, a heavy, heavy meat diet, things like that are generally not good for almost anybody.
Then number four, emotional health. Emotional and spiritual health are, in my opinion, again, foundational. Having loved ones, whether it is anything from a companion animal to friends, to a life partner, to community, social networks. these are incredibly important. And I am a big believer in the power of a higher power, of having some type of spirituality in your life. I am not necessarily talking about a specific religion, but having something that you realize that you are a small part of something greater than ourselves. So having a meaningful ceremony, whether you think of it as the Gaia, the power of nature, God, or Allah, that to me is not as important. Of course for individuals I'm sure it is very important. Their spiritual and religious beliefs and that's great, but find something that works for you and works within your life.
And so for me, those sorts of things are absolutely foundational to health. And then we have other things that can add to that. And some of them, like nutritional supplements can be useful. Although I am much more interested in using herbs because I think they are more, much more bioavailable. And in a form that people can actually utilize more effectively. Those kinds of things. Stress reduction techniques are sort of built based on that foundation.
Allan: 33:49 Well thank you David. You know, one thing I'll say about the book is if anything and everything that you want to know about adaptogens, this is the book, that's called Adaptogens, but it literally you, you covered the history, you cover what they are, how they work. You know, all the different types. Cause there's, there's lots of them. You said there was 250,000 plant species that we've identified and we're just starting to learn how those can help us. But this book really, I think you could have called it the encyclopedia of adaptogens or the complete book with androgens. It really is comprehensive. And so if you're interested in adaptogens, I strongly suggest you check out David's book.
David, if someone want to get in touch with you, learn more about the book or things you're doing, where would you like for me to send them?
David: 34:33 Well, couple things. Number one, if anybody is interested in the book, they can get it. You know, simply from Amazon, if they like or their local bookstore. It's widely available. You can also contact me or reach me through to websites. There is my school, I have a two year urge studies program for people who want to train to be clinical herbalists and that is herbalstudies.net and then I also have a website which is an educational website where people can download free articles, information articles from my library, which is one of the largest private herbal research libraries in North America. Information on my classes where I'll be teaching around the world. I teach all over the US, Canada, Europe, occasionally central America, and that a website is herbaltherapeutics.net and those are the two are places that people can get additional information or contact.
I also have through, I believe it's herbal therapeutics website. I have a Facebook page where I do posts about every two weeks so people can tune into those posts and read the old posts every on thing. I'm mostly on the topic of herbal medicine and my travels and things like that. And so hopefully people will avail themselves. The book, Adaptogens, herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. This is the second edition and I think anybody interested in the topic will hopefully learn quite a bit and be able to make better choices for themselves in their use of adaptogens, nervines, nootropics, and restorative tonics.
Allan: 36:27 All right, you can go to 40plusfitnesspodcast.com/403 and I'll have the links there for the book for David's sites and all that.
David, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness.
David: 36:39 Thank you Allan. It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
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In Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence, Dr. Daniel Siegel teaches us how to use meditation for a better life, better relationships, and stress reduction.
Allan (1:07): Dr. Siegel, welcome to 40+ Fitness.
Dr. Siegel (1:12): Allan, it’s great to be with you.
Allan (1:14): You told a story in the book Aware how you had, I guess, someone who was a student or someone that was listening to one of your talks, and she came up. And due to where her head was, her awareness and the way she looked at the world, she misconstrued your name, Dan Siegel, to Dancing Eagle.
Dr. Siegel (1:34): That’s right. Dance Eagle.
Allan (1:37): I thought that was interesting because a very similar thing happened this morning, or a story my wife was telling me that happened yesterday. We’re traveling to Hattiesburg for a tailgating event this weekend for football. I’m going to go to the football game. And as we were planning that trip, I wanted to know if she was okay with us leaving early Saturday morning. So, I typed a text to her real quick, “Are you okay to go to Hburg (Hattiesburg) early Saturday morning?” And I sent that to her. Now, what I didn’t know and what happened was, because she had forgotten her lunch, she had gone over to Whataburger to get a burger, and they talked her into upsizing to the fries, so she was a little disappointed in herself. And she sees the text and she sees the term “Hburg” and she immediately reads “hamburger”.
Dr. Siegel (2:27): Oh my gosh.
Allan (2:33): We sometimes see reality one way and it’s not actually what’s happening. It’s just shaped by all these other things that are in our heads.
Dr. Siegel (2:41): Totally. You get primed, your mind is ready to look a certain direction when actually the things going around you are going in a different direction.
Allan (2:50): One of the reasons I reached out for your book in particular was, I haven’t talked about meditation, so I wanted to get someone on who was a real deep thinker in this topic. And I was really glad to see your book come out so we could have this conversation. You took me on a journey that I was not expecting. When I’ve looked at meditation in the past, I’ve always thought of it as more of a stress management, Zen kind of activity, but there are a lot of other benefits that we can get out of meditation.
Dr. Siegel (3:26): Absolutely. And meditation is a word that sometimes gets people confused, or they have certain emotional reactions to it. It just means some practice to cultivate your mind, to develop your mind in a positive direction, to strengthen your mind really. When you look at it that way, there are different aspects of the mind of course, like focusing attention or how you have certain kinds of intention, and you can actually strengthen those abilities. So, in the book I wanted to really review what does the science tell us of meditation, and then how can you actually learn to do what science says is really helpful for your mind, your body, your relationships? That’s why I wrote the book Aware, to put all that in one place.
Allan (4:12): I actually think the human brain is fascinating, and the way that we do things, like, Hattiesburg and hamburger. You went really, really deep on this, but to start the context of it, you gave me what I thought was a very brilliant tool to manage this practice, and you call it “The Wheel of Awareness”. Do you mind going through and briefly defining The Wheel of Awareness and how we can use that to, in a way, better structure a meditation practice? I know I’ve gone through walkthroughs with people, or the guided meditations, but this one was one of the, I guess, most comprehensive, but easy to understand methods I’ve ever seen.
Dr. Siegel (4:56): I’m so happy to hear that, Allan. My daughter will be happy to hear it too because she helped me with the drawings in the book. She’s in her 20s, she’s a meditator. It was really important for me in setting up this book, and for Maddie, my daughter as the illustrator, to try to make things as direct and clear and understandable as possible, while at the same time not leaving out anything about the incredible richness and depth of what we know from science and what you’re going to experience in your own meditation practice. So, The Wheel of Awareness is a really simple and accessible tool. It’s an idea that’s also in meditation, where you take two scientific concepts, which are really foundational in the work I do, and bringing them into one approach. Those two ideas are this – health and wellbeing come from a process that we can simply name “integration”. And integration is where different things are brought together, where you link or connect differentiated or specialized things. If you think about walking, your left leg and your right leg need to be different from each other, but to walk smoothly, you need to link them – left, right, left, right. That kind of thing. In a relationship like with your wife, when you’re going to go tailgating, you want to know, “I would like to leave early and I need to check with her to see what her needs are.” So you were right there, Allan; you were differentiating your needs. But in reaching out to her and asking her, even though she interpreted “Hburg” as “hamburger”, she was being linked to you. So you were offering an integrating experience, knowing she’s different from you. That’s the differentiation. But then reaching out with compassionate, respectful communication – that’s the linkage. So, whether it’s an integrated relationship or an integrated brain and body, that seems to be the basis of wellbeing. It’s remarkably simple, but incredibly supported by science.
The second scientific statement is that consciousness, being aware, is needed for change. When you want to intentionally try to change something, like the plans for when you’re going to the tailgating thing – you both have to be conscious of what you’re doing. So I thought, what happens if you integrate consciousness? And there’s a table in my office with a glass center, and I said, if consciousness is simply defined as having the knowing, like if I say “Hello”, you know I said “Hello”, but there’s also the sound “Hello”. If we put the knowing, called “being aware” in the hub of a table, in this case that’s called a wheel, a hub of a wheel; on the rim, we would put the knowns, like in this case the sound that we know from hearing or sight, which is basically light coming into us, or smell, taste and touch. So you have the first of four segments of the rim, which would be the outside world coming into you that you touch, you smell, you taste, you hear. Then you move the spoke of attention over, this singular spoke, and then you explore the interior sensations of the body, like the feelings in your muscles or your bones or your organs like your lungs, for example. You move this spoke over again to the third segment of the rim, which is all the different thoughts and feelings and memories, your images you might have, mental activities. And then you move this spoke over one more time to your sense of relationship, like your feeling of connection to your wife, or your friends who are going to be at the tailgating party. Those are interconnections in the relational world in which we live, and we can open up to sensing them in this fourth segment of the rim. And then in a little bit of a more advanced step, we actually take that spoke of attention and bend it around and just explore the hub itself. Pure awareness. I did this with patients and they started getting better from anxiety, mild to moderate depression, dealing with trauma and dealing with some issues just to finding meaning in life. It was really helpful. And then I did it with my students who are therapists. They found it helpful. So I started doing it in workshops, and then as a scientist I just decided to do it systematically. So I did it with 10,000 participants in workshops. I had them take the microphone, and for those who took the microphone, recorded those results, and then saw universal patterns around the planet, because I did it all around the world, and then tried to explain from a scientific point of view, what does the wheel do for us that can bring such health benefits? And then, what does it tell us about the nature of our minds?
Allan (10:07): I think that’s where at first, sometimes it’s a little easy to get lost on this. But to recap, the way I interpreted this was, if I think of a wheel – a top of a table, or a wheel – I’m in the middle and this is my current state of awareness, my current knowing. And then there’s this other stuff coming in. I’ve got what my eyes, ears, nose and everything is telling me about my world. I’ve got the information that my body is giving me about what’s going on – pains, aches, stiffness, soreness, itching or all that’s coming in from my body. And most of the meditations I’ve done had been there, and I never really turned around and say, “Let’s talk about my state of mind. What am I thinking and what do those thoughts mean? Am I interpreting from a place of goodness and good intention?” That to me was a next step. Then you get to that fourth level or fourth part of the circle on the outer rim, where now you’re thinking about what other people mean, can I emote and understand their perspectives and their communication and those kinds of inputs, awareness that’s there? And as you do this, you didn’t say this so much in the book, but I kind of felt like you start to try to expand that hub in the middle, that the hub actually would feel like it’s getting bigger.
Dr. Siegel (11:40): Yes, exactly. That’s an analogy, like if your hub is just the size of an espresso cup, it’s small. And if life dishes out a challenge, like a tablespoon of salt, and you dump it into that small container of awareness, let’s say it’s like water – it’s too salty to drink. But if you expand, just like you’re saying, Allan – if you expand that hub so it’s like a 100–gallon size, which you can do with The Wheel of Awareness practice – then when life dishes out a challenge, which is the analogy of a tablespoon of salt, you’d dump it into 100 gallons; it’s fresh to the taste. So, it’s really important that we cultivate that hub of awareness, and in the book, you learn how to do that.
Allan (12:25): You based this on what you call “three pillars of mind-training”. I think it’s really important for us to understand that, because if you use these three pillars, I really do believe this gives that practice, the energy to make it succeed. Do you mind going through the three pillars of mind-training?
Dr. Siegel (12:44): Absolutely. This is what scientists have stated are the three, and there’s probably going to be more in the future, but right now these are the three that are foundational, because they build the structure of a really solid meditation practice. The first of these three pillars is “learning how to focus attention”. You’d be surprised how accessible this is for children or adolescents or adults even, to strengthen their ability to focus attention, notice when a distraction is there, and redirect back to their intended target of attention. When people learn to focus attention, you strengthen those areas of the brain, of course, that you’re using for attentional processing. That’s the first pillar – focused attention. It lets you see with more clarity, depth and detail, because you’re stabilizing your ability to hold attention.
The second pillar is called “open awareness”, and this is where you are basically learning to sit in the hub and invite anything in from the rim. It’s a kind of “bring it on” attitude, and this amazingly has a different kind of impact on the brain, but it allows you basically to distinguish a spaciousness of awareness in the hub from the particular things you could be aware of on the rim. So instead of like the focused attention thing where let’s say you choose sight for your particular focus at that moment, or hearing, instead now what you’re doing is you’re saying, “I’m not going to choose a point on the rim. I’m actually going to rest in the hub.” And that further differentiates hub from rim, which is very important, as we can talk about in a moment.
The third pillar beyond open awareness and focused attention is, I call it “kind intention”. Other people call it “loving kindness” or “compassion training”. If you think about the mind, the mind can have a mental set, kind of an attitude, if you will, and that attitude can be angry and hostile, or can be kind and caring. When you cultivate a kind and caring attitude – we’ll just simply call it intention – it really sets the whole tone of the day. It sets your emotional responses to things, it sets your responses to yourself and others, it sets your responses in terms of how you’re going to behave. And the research is really clear. The more kindness you have in your life, the healthier your body is, the healthier your relationships are, and overall the healthier your whole life becomes. So, kindness is not just icing on the cake, and it’s not even the cake. It is the main meal. You can cultivate it. And when you put these three things together, I call it “three pillar training”, research shows it’s going to do a number of really, really positive things in your body and your brain, that if we name them, if you hear this list, you would say, “Oh my gosh. If there’s a vitamin that would give me that, I’ll take it every day.” And it’s not a vitamin, but it’s a very simple practice, just like you brush your teeth every day. You can develop a regular practice of doing these three pillar trainings, and they’re all embedded into one practice of the wheel, fortunately. So, if you run around finding different practices, you could just do one practice; you get all three of the pillars.
Allan (16:23): Yes. One of the reasons that I’ve had a renewed interest in meditation in the last couple of years is stress levels. Right now, that’s one of my core goals in life, is to do some things that help me reduce and/or manage stress. When I got into the book, as I said, it really took me in an entirely different direction to understand the true value of meditation. I really related to the story you told of Zachary as he went through, because he, like me, was working in a kind of environment where he couldn’t necessarily be himself or didn’t feel like he could be himself and be real. As a result, he had a lot of relationship issues with work and otherwise; he had pain even. And using the practice, it really did change him. I’d like for you to, if you don’t mind, go through and tell us a bit about Zachary’s story.
Dr. Siegel (17:26): Absolutely. Allan, thanks for pointing that out because first of all, in terms of your first statements, a lot of people turn to meditation because of stress. I think it’s a most common view that you hear people say is, meditation or mindfulness is a stress reducer. And while that’s true, as you’re pointing out, it is so much more, and Zachary’s story is a beautiful example of that. I started doing The Wheel of Awareness in workshops, and there was one center, Ed Bacon’s Episcopal Church in Pasadena, where Ed is the pastor. He wanted me to do a Wheel of Awareness seminar. So we did a 3-day workshop, and it was filled. We had 300 people come, and one of the participants was a fellow we’ll just call Zachary. When Zachary came, his brother brought him. He had just a little bit of a restless feeling at work, like maybe it wasn’t exactly as fulfilling as he hoped it would be. He was very successful financially, had a spouse and several kids. The family life was great. His wife was very happy with him, he was happy with her. Everything was going fine, but as he told later on, something just wasn’t quite right. And so his brother said, “Let’s see what happens. Come to this workshop.”
So, he comes to the workshop, and when he’s doing the wheel practice, two things happen in the workshop. We do the wheel several times. The first was that he had had a pain in his body, and I remember where it was in the actual person, but I don’t remember how I changed the pain in the book. Let’s just say it’s in the shoulder, chronic pain in his shoulder. May have been his knee or his hip or something. So he has this chronic pain, and during the wheel practice, as he’s going through exploring the signals from the outside world in the first segment, the inner sense of the body, becomes aware of his shoulder of course, because you go through the whole body. When he gets to exploring mental activities and opening awareness, suddenly the pain hugely decreases in intensity. And then when he bends his spoke around, something shifts and it’s kind of a tingling sensation in his body. He does the wheel a second time – same thing. And at the end he comes up to me and says, “I don’t know what happened, but I’ve had this pain for like 15 years, and it’s gone.”
And if it was just Zachary, I would have been like, “Oh my God, what a weird thing.” But this happens an every workshop I do. When you do it with 10,000 people, you get a lot of data. It turns out that there’s a whole set of research studies on this, where practices with the three pillars that some people call “mindfulness practices”, other people wouldn’t put the kindness in there for that. It’s a big debate in the field. Don’t worry about that. But anyway, we’ll just call it “mind-training practices”. They do have not only a decrease in the subjective feeling of pain, but when you put a person in a brain scanner and you look at how pain is registered in the brain before and after the meditative practice – sure enough, there are far less signals in the brain registering pain. So it’s not just like a person’s ignoring it; it’s actually less pain. That was remarkable, and that really affected him that you could do something with your mind that affected you so powerfully.
The second thing that happened was when he bent the spoke around into the hub itself and just explored the hub, he said what quite a few people have said actually. It’s hard in this context just to say it, but he experienced a feeling of love and connection to other people, and this interconnected feeling of being a part of a larger world, of nature, of life, that he had never felt before. And it brought tears to his eyes, and it gave him this, in his words, feeling of meaning that he then began to realize was missing in the kind of work he was doing. So, a year passed and Ed Bacon asked me to do the workshop again. And this fellow came with his brother to a lunch we had right before the start of the next year’s workshop. It was amazing, because we all had lunch together, and he said that that first workshop gave him such a powerful experience of losing the pain and gaining a sense of meaning and connection, that he felt he really wanted to pursue more about that and had made plans to switch to a new career, where he could involve The Wheel of Awareness and practices like that, that could get you in touch with a deeper sense of purpose in life. The second workshop had the same kinds of results for him and others as well.
And he’s not alone. People find this clarity when they distinguish hub from rim and integrate consciousness, where they realize you could live a life of meaning and connections, life with purpose, that research shows is actually a fabulous way to bring more fulfillment to life, bring a feeling of things being really powerfully significant. So, rather than what he was doing before, which was good – he was successful financially, bringing in financial resources for the family – that’s important. But he really felt something had been missing. And now, years later of course, he is pursuing this career where he can make this a part of his life, and he’s thrilled about it. Even the way he holds himself, you can tell when you speak with him, is just very different. He’s very alive, and every day feels like an incredible gift for him.
Allan (23:56): That was what resonated with me with this story, that he wasn’t necessarily looking for these as he got into the practice. But by following a set practice like you’ve put together here with The Wheel of Awareness and using the three pillars, it opened him up to release those things and find more meaning, and the pain went away. Those to me are magic, when you break it down. But it’s founded in science. I’ve had other authors on, like Dr. Tatta and his book Heal Your Pain Now. That’s one of the things he was saying, that you’ve got to get your mind as a part of the solution for the pain, and it works. But again, the book was really, really deep. It goes into the way the brain works, it talks about a lot of the science, which I thought was fascinating, because I really do enjoy kind of geeking out on some of these things. But to take this back down, The Wheel of Awareness and the three pillars – that is a basis. I was fortunate I bought the audio book, so I was able to listen along as you talked us through the practice. I know you have some of that on your website as well. If someone wanted to learn more about the book, learn more about you or get the information you have on the website, where would you like for me to send them?
Dr. Siegel (25:20): I think going to the website is a great idea. Allan. It’s DrDanSiegel.com. There you’ll find free resources. So you can go to the Resource tab and do The Wheel of Awareness practice if you’ve never done a practice like that. You could do the Breath practice first for a little bit. The videos we have up for free, and all sorts of stuff, are really intended to let people get familiar with these ideas, because just as you’re saying, there is a practice you can start doing that’s going to really help bring health and connection and meaning in your life. If you’re interested, like Allan is, and as you said, geeking out of really learning about this stuff, the way I divided up the book is, the first part you learn the practice, and that’s it. You don’t need to read the science. But the second part you learn some of the science if you want to learn it. You don’t need to learn it at all, but if you do, you realize how. And when you get into the third part of the book, how did Zachary change? Where does meaning and connection come from? I’m an educator and a clinician and a scientist and a father and all sorts of things. I really want to know how these things happen. So, if you’re up for it, in part three, you explore the life situations of five real people and how when you understand the science, you do get to a really deep clarity about why Zachary was able to change and what the wheel meant for him. And then in part four, it basically says, “Let’s see how you can weave this way of living essentially with an expanded hub. How can you bring that into your life in a regular way?” We have things called “dedicated” or “formal” practices that we do 10 minutes, 20 minutes a day. But the real integration happens when you weave the learnings from that time into how you live your whole day. That fourth part of the book says, “Let’s talk about that. Here’s how you can do it.”
My hope is that the book will be a very practical guide, including the science for people who want to dive into it, but you don’t need to dive into it, so that you know. As Louis Pasteur, the scientist, once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” So, even if you just get a glimpse of what the science is saying, get a feeling for it, workshop participants have told me even though they didn’t understand all of the science, and no one does, even people presenting it – you get a glimpse of it, and that glimpse gives you a clarity about what something like the hub really means and why accessing and expanding it is so helpful for you. You’re integrating your brain. Literally, you’re going to strengthen the structure of your brain. You’re going to make your immune system function better, reduce stress, optimize your cardiovascular functioning. You’re going to reduce inflammation. This blew my mind – you’re going to even optimize an enzyme that repairs and maintains the ends of your chromosomes. And when I turned the book into my colleagues who had written about that, Elissa Epel – one of them – wrote me back. She said, “Dan, this is a great book and everything’s accurate, but you left something out.” And I go, “Oh my God, I have to write another chapter. What did I leave out?” And she had written a book called The Telomere Effect with the Nobel prize winning Elizabeth Blackburn. So Elissa writes me back and she says, “You need to say that these trainings that the wheel has, slow the aging process.” So I wrote back to her and I said, “How can I say that?” She goes, “Because that’s what it does.” And this is the world’s expert on aging.
Allan (29:27): I’ve had her on the podcast. We talked about The Telomere Effect, and yes, it actually does.
Dr. Siegel (29:32): It’s amazing.
Allan (29:33): But the cool thing is – and this is a bad analogy for me to use – is that you’ve lit a fire under my butt to really ignite and start doing my meditation practice. And I know I should pick a calmer analogy, but nothing comes to mind.
Dr. Siegel (29:47): No, that’s good. We’ve got to light each other up, Allan. That’s what we’ve got to do. That’s a good analogy, I love it.
Allan (29:52): Alright. If you want to find that website, you can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/342, and I’ll be sure to have a link there to Dr. Siegel’s website and to the book. Dr. Siegel, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness.
Dr. Siegel (30:08): Allan, it’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Allan (31:17): If you enjoyed today’s episode, would you please take just one moment and leave us a rating and review on the application that you’re listening to this podcast right now? I’d really appreciate it, and it does help other people find the podcast, because it tells the people that are hosting these podcast episodes out there on their apps that you’re interested and they know that other people like you might be interested. So please do that. If you can’t figure out how to do that on your app, you can email me directly and I’ll try to figure it out for you. Or you can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Review, and that’ll take you to the iTunes where you can launch that and leave a review there. I really appreciate the ratings and reviews. It does help the podcast, it helps me, so thank you very much for that.
Also, I’d really like to continue this conversation a little bit further, so if you haven’t already, why don’t you go ahead and join our Facebook group? You can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Group, and that’ll take you to our Facebook group where you can request entry. It’s a really cool group of people, likeminded, all in our 40s, all trying to get healthy and fit. I’d really love to have you out there and have you a part of that conversation. So, go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Group.
October is really shaping up to be a busy, busy month for me. As you know, we did the Ketofest a few days ago, and that turned out really good. Really enjoyed spending time with folks there, and I hope you enjoyed it if you were there. Of course, I’m putting out the extra episodes each week; I hope that you’re enjoying those. I know I enjoy the conversations. I’m recording a little bit in advance just to keep up with it, because it’s a lot of work putting on a podcast episode. And then of course there’s the work on the book. Even though we finished the manuscript and it’s going into the phases of getting it turned into a book, and now an audio book, there are still so many moving parts to that. I want you to be in the forefront of that. I want you to be on the team with me, please. So, go to WellnessRoadmapBook.com and join the launch team. I’m not going to ask a whole lot from you there, but you’re going to get a lot of bonuses, a lot of extra content, things I can’t share with anybody else, things I won’t share with anybody else. You’re going to be on my select team to be on the forefront of launching this book. I think this book is going to do a lot of good for a lot of people, and I want you to be a part of that team. So, go to WellnessRoadmapBook.com. Thank you.