Over the years we have discussed in the pages of the Journal numerous ways of viewing living organisms. Most of us are comfortable with some form of systematic description with processes and patterns that appeal to our common sense and can be verified by either science and technology or traditional training. The sciences that are subdivided out of physiology can be learned at a fundamental level by beginners in medical health education. Digestion, endocrinology, neurology and immunology can all be grasped by our understanding if we want an overview. Specializing scientists look for increasing detail and complexity in each of these branches of study. Fortunately for us, an occasional “visionary” comes along and sees patterns that specialists have missed.
The relatively new science of phsychoneuroimmunology is the progeny of the synthesis of these once “unrelated” physiological systems. Hormones are produced in endocrine glands and have specific targets (organs/tissues/cells) in the body. Neuropeptides are produced in the brain and have targets. The immune cells are produced in bone/stem cells and are differentiated by other tissues such as the spleen and thymus glands and respond to foreign organisms. Each of these systems has feedback loops to create autoregulation like the thermostat in your house that regulates temperature. What psychoneuroimmunolgy is revealing is that each of these systems is also talking with one another. The immune system can signal the nervous system which can alter physiology. An example would be the immune response of a fever. The limbic system, hypothalamus, pituitary and pineal gland all nested in the centre of the brain form the core of the linkage between the nervous system and endocrine system, the mind and the immune system. In the next few issues of the Journal, we will begin to flesh out the immense implications of these discoveries as we explain more details.
So where do herbs come into all this? We may be expanding and altering our definitions of some of the actions. What is an adaptogen? What is an alterative? How do herbs affect the endocrine system? What about aromatherapy effects on the limbic system? We need to define what are an immune stimulant, modulator and depressant. Is there new evidence for amphoteric (re)actions when we include feedback loops? The immune system has developed memory and the digestive system works even when the spinal cord is severed and people can regulate “autonomic” functions with a little training. These little facts take the mind out of the brain and put it into the body. Do we have a brain/mind and body/mind? Probably, our first experience of this complexity came to each of us at puberty when our endocrine system activated our sexual organs. Our bodies changed right in front of us. A few new hormones circulated in our blood but all life changed. Pheromones in our sweat made us (and them) smell differently. A whole new range of thoughts and emotions flooded into us and childhood feelings disappeared. Most cultures mark this transformation with a rite of passage. Tremendous selfawareness and understanding can be gained if wisdom keepers apply their influence to the consciousness of the maturing young adults. What were our experiences? What are we doing for our children? Modern and traditional herbal medicine can help integrate the understanding of psychoneuroimmunology and the needs of a fractured society through the practice of holistic healing. Herbalists can weave people, science, nature and life into a tapestry that is evolving and sustaining.