When you think of stem cells, you probably think of the ethical and legal controversies surrounding embryonic stem cell research. But I want you to know that stem cells aren’t just found in embryos, nor is their therapeutic use a distant goal years in the future.
Your body is a repository of these amazing, regenerative cells, and there are things you can do right now to get them to work for you, rebuilding tissues, fighting disease, and dramatically improving your health.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells have the unique ability to differentiate, or transform into cells with specialized forms and functions. The reason there’s so much fuss about embryonic stem cells is because they have a virtually unlimited capacity to convert into any type of cell—after all, that’s how an embryo develops into a full-blown human being. As the fetus matures and more and more cells differentiate to create neurons, muscles, bones, and other specialized tissues and organs, the number of stem cells dramatically declines. Umbilical cords still harbor some undifferentiated cells, which is why they are another highly prized source of these amazing cells.
The excitement over stem cell research is justified. Cells that can be coaxed into developing into specific cell types could, for example, be transplanted into the pancreas of patients with diabetes to restore insulin production, or into failing hearts to rebuild cardiac muscle. Stem cells even hold the promise of growing completely new organs!
Putting Your Own Stem Cells to Work
What gets lost in all the controversy and “futurist” considerations is that adults also produce stem cells. Adult stem cells (known as somatic stem cells) have been identified in the bone marrow, brain, blood vessels, muscles, skin, intestines, and liver. Although they generally remain inactive, they can be called into action by injury or disease to repair those organs and tissues.
The best-studied and most promising adult stem cells reside in the bone marrow. One type, called hematopoietic stem cells, form red and white blood cells and have been used for decades in bone marrow transplants. Others called endothelial progenitor cells home in on damaged areas of the endothelium lining the blood vessels, repair damage, and thus protect against atherosclerosis.
But new research hints at even broader therapeutic uses. That’s because some adult stem cells are pluripotent, meaning that, like embryonic stem cells, they can differentiate into a number of different cell lines. We now know that hematopoietic stem cells, for example, can transform into brain, cardiac, muscle, and liver cells. Other bone marrow-derived stem cells, once believed to produce only bone, cartilage, connective tissue, and fat, can also differentiate into cardiac and muscle cells.
This makes the study of adult stem cells all the more interesting. Unfortunately, as we get older, our stem cells decline in both numbers and regenerative capacity. If only there were a way to increase the activity of our stem cells, we’d really be onto something, wouldn’t we?
Well, there is: hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT).
HBOT Mobilizes Stem Cells
A landmark study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine revealed that HBOT dramatically increases stem cell activity.
The research team, led by Stephen Thom, MD, PhD, hypothesized that stem cells might play some role in the remarkable benefits of HBOT. So they measured circulating levels of stem cells in the blood of study volunteers before, during, and after 20 treatments of HBOT.
The results were astounding. After only one treatment, concentrations of stem cells doubled, and after the full course, there was an eight-fold increase in these rejuvenating cells!
I’ve always known that HBOT works. At the Whitaker Wellness Institute, we have a very busy hyperbaric center, treating up to 60 patients a day, and we have seen absolutely amazing results. Stroke patients once told there was no hope of regaining function are walking and talking again. Diabetics scheduled for amputation of their legs due to gangrenous ulcers have cancelled surgeries. People with severe burns, trauma, and other injuries heal so rapidly that they return to normal function much earlier than anticipated.
I had long believed that HBOT’s therapeutic powers were attributed to flooding the cells with oxygen. (When you breathe 100 percent oxygen in a special pressurized chamber, oxygen levels in all of your body’s tissues dramatically increase.) Now I know that it also mobilizes stem cells, something few other therapies can do, and this goes a long way toward explaining the magnitude of its benefits in so many conditions.
The authors of this study reported that the mechanism for the mobilization of stem cells was nitric oxide (NO). HBOT increases the synthesis of NO in the bone marrow, which signals the release of stem cells