Dr. Amy Killen: The Regenerative Power of Stem Cells


Dr. Amy Killen knows firsthand the importance of a healthy lifestyle as preventative medicine. As a board-certified emergency room doctor for 10 years, she struggled to balance demands as a mother of three with early-morning shift work. Killen says she ate junk food and caffeinated sodas to help stay awake, and she struggled to exercise because she was so tired all the time.

Killen’s aha moment came six years ago when she realized she was seeing patients come through the doors of the ER who were sick and suffering from the same kinds of sleep, stress and health problems she was.

“I realized that in order to help my patients, I needed to first get myself healthy,” she says. Killen quit her job and began studying integrative and regenerative medicine, healing herself with better nutrition and lifestyle practices. She now helps her clients improve their health both inside and out with lifestyle prescriptions as well as innovative therapies, such as stem cell treatments, genetic testing and hormone therapy.

What exactly is regenerative medicine?


“Regenerative medicine is a broad term, but basically it is medicine that relies on your own body to heal itself,” Killen explains.

It often involves injecting stem cells and other growth factors back into the body or using lasers to spur your own body’s stem cells to repair and regenerate, ranging from that skin on your face to the bad knee that keeps you from enjoying running.

Of course, she says, stem cell therapy should only be used after you have improved foundational health, including your sleep, stress levels, exercise and diet. It is, she says, like making sure you’re planting seeds in good soil so they will grow.

“Once you have the good foundation, the good soil, then you can add in some of these fancy treatments and stem cell therapies … and those things will be much more effective,” she says.

Remind me again, what are stem cells?


“Stem cells are the master cells of your body,” Killen explains. “They’re everywhere in your body, and their job is to keep that organ or part of the body healthy.” They can duplicate and they can become different types of tissue. When you cut your arm, for instance, they direct the action to build more blood vessels and build more collagen to repair the wound.

“What happens as we age is that our stem cells become less active. … They’re still there, but they’re lazy … they’re not working as hard or as much. That’s why, she says, a cut on an 80-year-old’s arm will take much longer to heal than a 10-year-old’s injury.

Joints and musculoskeletal pain can be treated with stem cells—typically derived from your own fat, bone marrow or umbilical cords—as well as other types of growth factors, which boost collagen and elastin in the skin and have been shown to stimulate hair growth. They are also being used to help treat systemic disease, Killen explains. In addition, lasers and radio-frequency devices also can use heat or light to create minor damage that the body is spurred into action to heal.

“You can actually get skin rejuvenation, for instance, by just creating a little damage, and then your body heals it and ends up being better after it heals it,” she says.

It’s no overnight solution, though it is an outpatient procedure, Killen says.

“You’re looking generally at a couple of months before you’re starting to see results because you’re trying to increase blood vessel formation and blood flow and get these cells to become more active. It takes some time for this to happen,” she says.

How much do hormones influence my health?


Another pillar in regenerative medicine, Killen says, is hormonal health—from the sex hormones you know such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone to insulin, thyroid and adrenal hormones such as cortisol, which is driven by stress.

“Those are the chemical messengers in our body that are telling all the different organs how to function, how much activity there should be or how little. Those messengers are extremely important, and many people, especially people over the age of 35 to 40, start to have these imbalances in hormones where they’re just not making as many as they should or they did when they felt better.”

So, Killen says, getting a simple blood test to check those hormone levels is important, particularly if something feels off. Sometimes, she explains, adjustments to these levels can be made simply through lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, and other times bioidentical hormones can be prescribed.

A better diet of whole foods, rather than sugar and simple carbohydrates, can help lower levels of insulin, preventing the body from becoming resistant to insulin and developing diabetes. And lowering stress can reduce cortisol, which, in conjunction with a better diet, can lower insulin, making it easier for you to lose weight.

Getting a good night’s sleep also is an important piece of the puzzle because a lot of these hormones, including growth hormone, are made while you’re sleeping, Killen says.

“So for people who are not sleeping, you’re not making these hormones—or not very well—and you’re not going to feel very well,” she adds.

What else can affect our health and fitness that we may not be aware of?


Another chemical influencer, nitric oxide, also plays an important role in our bodies. It’s involved in opening up the blood vessels … so blood can flow through, which also affects sports performance.

This chemical begins to decline every year after age 40, Killen says. But you can actually take more of it in from the nitrates naturally found in healthy foods such as leafy greens and beets and to some extent even dark chocolate. But to get the benefits, you have to able to convert these nitrates into nitric oxide, a job that is done by the bacteria in your mouth, Killen says.

One way people thwart this process, she explains, is by using a daily dose of mouthwash with their toothpaste, which kills the bacteria making this conversion. Similarly, acid blockers can affect the way your stomach reduces nitrates, causing problems with high blood pressure, skin, problems with sexual health and triglycerides.

“So there’s all these little things that people just don’t even know that they could do to improve their performance at the gym, and improve their skin, and their cholesterol and their blood pressure, and it may be just as easy as not using mouthwash,” Killen says.

Video credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com
Photo credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com; Catalin Rusnac, Getty Images; DKosig, Getty Images; jarun011, Getty Images
Hair and makeup: Katie Nash, katienashbeauty.com