Understanding Your Body's Healing System
An Interview With Dr. Joseph Pizzorno, ND

According to Dr. Joseph Pizzorno, seven core healing systems maintain our bodies' strength and vitality, with all illness being directly due to weaknesses in one or more of these systems. Recognizing the importance of these systems allows physicians to focus on the source of disease instead of merely treating symptoms. At the same time, it makes it easier to promote overall good health, improve underlying systemic weaknesses or imbalances, and prevent disease recurrence. Moreover, understanding what these systems are and how they work also empowers the individual to take practical responsibility for his or her own health through adoption of proper diet, nutritional supplementation, and a healthy lifestyle.

Dr. Pizzorno is one of the world's foremost naturopathic physicians and an authority on science-based natural medicine. In addition to his responsibilities as a physician and author, he is also a noted researcher and journal editor, and the founding president of Bastyr University, the first fully accredited multidisciplinary university of natural medicine in the United States. He is also the author of Total Wellness and co-author with Dr. Michael Murray of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine.

In this interview Dr. Pizzorno provides an overview of the seven body systems and shares self-care tips for supporting their functions to achieve optimal health.

How did you come to focus on the seven body systems that you profiled in your book Total Wellness?

Dr. Pizzorno: There are many systems in the body that are important, but I picked these seven because of two factors. One, they each have a huge impact on the quality of our lives and, two, we can affect them. So the seven I picked were the immune system, the detoxification system, the inflammatory system, the digestive system, the endocrine system, the regenerative system, and the mind/body/spiritual system.

Let's take them in the order you mentioned them, starting with the immune system. What does each system do and how can we affect them to ensure proper health?

Dr. Pizzorno: What I tried to do in Total Wellness was four things -- describe the role each system plays in the body, show how to recognize when each system was not doing its job adequately, provide an understanding of what damages these systems, and then develop a strategy to reestablish their proper function.

The immune system is a pretty obvious one. I think we're all very conscious of it because of viruses, cancer, bacteria, and all those things we are being exposed to. When the immune system is healthy, it quickly and effectively recognizes and destroys harmful viruses, bacteria, and fungi, along with abnormal cells that can otherwise cause cancer. But when it stops working well, the result is frequent or chronic infections, fatigue, and illness.

A history of frequent colds or infections, unexplained fatigue, or slow wound healing are all signs of impaired immune function, which is primarily caused by overworking or improperly nourishing the system. Fundamentally, probably the worst thing that we do to our immune system is to actually suppress the activity of the white cells. These are special cells in the blood that attack harmful invaders to prevent them from gaining a foothold in the body.

The way we suppress activity of the white cells is by having too high an insulin level in our body. Basically, this excess insulin is caused by the consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates. Any time a person consumes sugar, the insulin level goes up dramatically, and when the insulin level is high it inhibits white cell activity. This can be measured by a test known as the white cell phagocytic index, which indicates how efficiently white cells attack and kill bacteria. When a person consumes the equivalent of 75 grams of sugar, the white cells kill bacteria at only 50 percent of the normal rate and it takes about six hours before the white cell activity returns to normal. The average American consumes about 125 grams of white sugar a day. We also consume another 50 grams of corn syrup a day, which has the same effect. Even a glass and a half of fruit juice taken on an empty stomach has this suppressive effect on the immune system. So that's a very common example of what people do on a daily basis to damage the immune system.

In addition to improper diet, the immune system can also be damaged by environmental toxins. The white cells are very fragile and short-lived cells, and they are particularly susceptible to environmental toxins, particularly heavy metals and solvents. These tend to be very damaging to the white cells. For example, you can look at people who are exposed to a lot of solvents and you'll find that they tend to have a lot more cancer, largely because the immune system is not able to do its normal monitoring of abnormal cells to get rid of them before they grow. Some of the more common heavy metals that we are exposed to are lead, mercury, and cadmium. Sources of lead include old paint and copper water pipes. Cadmium comes from cigarette smoke, and mercury can be introduced into our bodies from dental amalgam fillings and by eating contaminated fish. Common solvents include paint thinner, petroleum distillates, carpet cleaners, and things of that nature.

In addition to avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates, what suggestions do you have about diet?

Dr. Pizzorno: I'm a fundamentalist. What I mean by that is to eat foods as natural as possible and in a form as closely as possible to how they originally occur in nature. So I'm not a great believer in super low-fat diets, for example, because most of the foods that are promulgated as low-fat foods simply have had the fat removed and replaced with sugar, and they're far worse for people's health than the fat that was in the foods originally. Also, when we look at conditions like atherosclerosis, the damage to the arteries occurs not as a result of the fat. It happens from the oxidized cholesterol that is typically associated with the fat. So I think it is important to ensure that when a person consumes foods that have cholesterol in them, that the cholesterol not be in an oxidized form. And, of course, you get oxidized cholesterol when you expose high cholesterol foods to high temperatures in the presence of oxygen. Frying eggs, frying meat, things of that nature.

How do you view vegetarian diets?

Dr. Pizzorno: I think inherently a vegetarian type diet is substantially healthier than a meat-based diet. However, I also think the work that Peter D'Adamo (author of Eat Right 4 Your Type) has done, trying to look at people's blood types and advising on the kind of diet they should follow, has merit. I've looked at the data of several of the studies that he's quoted and I think there's something of merit there. I just think it needs more attention, more research to figure out what it means. I think we're still learning about this whole area.

I would imagine that you would recommend some sort of antioxidant program as well.

Dr. Pizzorno: Yes, definitely. I'm a great believer in the appropriate role of dietary supplements. Not as a replacement for a healthy diet, but as a complement to it. One reason that antioxidants are so important is because they protect cholesterol from the oxidative activities I just mentioned. With regard to the immune function, I recommend vitamin A, the carotenes, vitamins C and E, and zinc and selenium, all of which I cover in my book.

In your book the next system you write about is the detoxification system.

Dr. Pizzorno: This is another very important system. As I point out in Total Wellness, we're being poisoned. We release about two billion pounds of chemical toxins into our environment every year, many of which are cumulative in nature. That's just one example of how we are poisoning ourselves. Normally, the liver neutralizes these toxins. However, once again many of our lifestyle behaviors inhibit the ability of the liver to do its job. A good example would be a diet which is low in B vitamins. B vitamins are critical for proper functioning of the liver for detoxification. Low B vitamins, low liver detoxification, it's that simple.

Then we also have people who unknowingly consume what may be normal foods but for them are problematic. Grapefruit juice is an example of this. As little as eight ounces of grapefruit juice can decrease the liver's ability to detoxify poisons by as much as 30 percent. Grapefruit juice is not a bad food, but it just so happens that for people who have a low liver detoxification function, grapefruit juice actually aggravates this.

How would a person determine whether or not grapefruit juice would have this effect on them?

Dr. Pizzorno: Actually, it's pretty easy. The question I ask people is how do you do with caffeine. For example, if you can drink a couple of cups of coffee with dinner and it doesn't affect your ability to sleep, you don't have a problem with phase 1 liver detoxification. But somebody else might say I can't drink a cup of coffee for breakfast because if I do I can't sleep at night. Such people who are highly sensitive to caffeine are the ones who are most injured by consumption of grapefruit juice.

Another way that we harm the liver is by overloading it. Probably the major source of toxins for the liver are not the environmental pollutants, of which there are many, but intestinal pollutants. What happens here is, typically due to the use of antibiotics, people develop unhealthful strains of bacteria in their intestines. These abnormal bacteria metabolize normal foodstuffs into chemicals which are not healthy for human beings. When the liver is overloaded by these toxins from the intestines, then it cannot handle the normal toxins from metabolism, as well as those we are exposed to in the environment. So one of the key elements here is to detoxify the intestines, which then very effectively detoxifies the liver.

What are some of the ways that a person can go about doing that?

Dr. Pizzorno: It's actually pretty straightforward. What I recommend people do is to consume an herb like goldenseal, which is very good at killing off toxic intestinal bacteria while leaving the healthy lactobacilli alone. As you use the goldenseal to kill off the toxic bacteria, reseed the intestines with good lactobacilli, such as acidophilus, and then increase your consumption of good dietary fiber, which absorbs toxins produced by intestinal bacteria.

How long would one do this?

Dr. Pizzorno: Two weeks, and you'll get remarkable results. There's a simple test called the Obermeyer test which measures intestinal toxemia. Most health-oriented Health Experts have access to this. By taking some of the person's urine, you can use this test to measure the excretion of toxins from the intestine. As the person continues to detoxify the intestines, the level of toxins in the urine decreases, which is a nice measure of the efficacy of this therapy.

That brings us to the inflammatory system.

Dr. Pizzorno: Yes. Most people, when they think about inflammation, think about it as something that is bad, because so many of the diseases that we have are inflammatory dieseases, such as arthritis, eczema, and so forth. But what most people don't realize is that inflammation is a normal bodily process. It's through inflammation that the body recognizes and destroys invaders. It's also the process by which the body initiates tissue regeneration, removing damaged tissues so that they can be replaced with healthy tissues.

The problem is that, because of our diets, we have caused an imbalance in the inflammatory processes in the body so that they go out of control. A classic example of this is excess consumption of arachidonic acid due to a high meat diet. A high meat diet has a lot of this fatty acid, which is converted by the body into what are called inflammatory prostaglandins. In contrast, we have the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, which come primarily from fatty acids derived from fish and vegetable oils, with the best anti-inflammatory oils coming from things like flaxseed oils and fish oils. What I find with a lot of people is that when you change their diet, getting them off domesticated animal fat and putting them on nondomesticated animal fats and fish oils and so forth, the inflammatory processes are dramatically improved.

Basically, isn't any illness that ends in "itis" a inflammatory condition?

Dr. Pizzorno: That's correct.

Then making this dietary change would be a good way to control such conditions, or preventing them from occurring in the first place.

Dr. Pizzorno: Yes, I think doing this is a very significant intervention. But people have to be patient when they make this change. Realize that the average person carries around 30 to 40 pounds of fat, and fat is all fatty acids. So, while people can take a supplement or change their diet, they are still having to compete with all the fat that's been built up in the body over the years, meaning it can take weeks to months before they will see much change.

We will conclude this interview next month.

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