By Steve Morris, N.D.
Your immune system is a complex world made up of microscopic cells functioning to defend and protect your body from disease, infection and other potentially harmful foreign agents. A strong immune system will respond to offenders much more efficiently than a weak one and will be able to maintain your health even when exposure rates are high. It is for this reason that a lifestyle program promoting a strong, ready-to-act immune system is so important. Standard medical practice often alleviates illness by fighting it on an external level, without strengthening the body’s own defense mechanisms. This approach frequently leads to successive illnesses. Optimizing your body’s abilities to ward off offenders and fight disease on its own leads towards an increasing level of health.
OVERVIEW OF THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
About one trillion white blood cells, arising in the bone marrow, make up the army of defenders. Your immune system is so elaborate and finely tuned that it is controlled, not by a central organ such as the brain, but rather by a complex information network operating among the individual members. There are three groups of white blood cells. The phagocytes, or “cell eaters,” are the body’s housekeepers, engulfing and digesting debris found in the blood. The other two defender groups are lymphocytes, called “T cells,” which serve specialized roles in the immune response, and “B cells” which produce antibodies. All of these cells share the common objective of finding, identifying and destroying all substances that are not part of the human body.
The immune system is constantly working as you carry on your daily activities. Each immune response is a specific sequence of events begun and shaped by the nature of the offender. Several sequences may be happening concurrently, without your even being aware of any “attacks” on your wellbeing.
The four major phases of each immune response are recognition of the offender; amplification of the defenses; attack; and slowdown. Phagocytes, being the frontline defender, engulf offenders that are inert in nature, such as chemical toxins, asbestos and smoke particles. When more help is needed, phagocytes called macrophages will summon a specialized T cell, called a “helper T cell,” in order to stimulate a broader response. The helper T cell rushes to the spleen and lymph nodes, where other cells are produced. “Killer T cells,” activated by the helper T cells, specialize in killing cells of the body that have been invaded by foreign offenders. Helper T cells also induce “B cells” living in the spleen or lymph nodes to replicate and produce antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that rush to the site of infection ad act to either neutralize the offender or tag it for attack by other cells. The response is then slowed or stopped by “suppressor T cells after the offender has been conquered.
The immune system is very delicate and must be kept in balance to maintain proper health. For illustration, let us say that immune response can be measured on a scale of 1 to 10. Ideally, we want an immune system that is functioning at 3 to 4, and has the capacity to rise to 10 if necessary and then return to 3 to 4. Immune deficient diseases such as AIDS and cancer exist in people whose immune response level is functioning below normal and is unable to respond to foreign invaders. An AIDS patient does not die directly from the AIDS virus, but usually from immune incompetency, such as the inability to fight pneumocystic pnemonia. Pneumocystic pneumonia, in fact, is present in most of our lungs but is only pathogenic and potentially fatal when the immune system cannot control it. Auto-immune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, food allergies and multiple schlerosis, are the result of an overactive immune system which does not discriminate between what is “self” and what is not “self.”
The field of holistic health is based on the premise that the body can indeed heal itself and that the health practitioner’s role is to enhance and strengthen the body’s own capabilities. “Vis medacatrix naturac”, or nature cure, the basis of naturopathic medicine, is the philosophy that nature possesses self-healing properties, using therapies that complement the whole person’s ability to regain and maintain health. Nutritional therapies aim to strengthen the body’s own defense system in a non-invasive, constructive manner.
NUTRITIONAL GUIDELINES FOR STRENGTHENING YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
Antioxidants: A regular supply of antioxidants to the body ensures protection from damaging events caused by oxidations and helps to maintain health through immune system enhancement.
Vitamin C: the best food sources of vitamin C are fruits and vegetables such as greens and sprouts. The best supplemental source is a buffered formula containing calcium, potassium or magnesium. Dosages range from 1,000 mg up to 10,000 mg and beyond, as prescribed by an experienced physician. Vitamin C is considered a gentle laxative due to the bowel tolerance of the colon.
Vitamin E: Natural tocopherol is extracted from the germ of wheat. Best food sources are whole grains, nuts and seeds. Dosages range from 100 IU to 2,000 IU daily, as directed by an experienced physician. Evidence demonstrates that our modern diet, lacking adequate amounts of Vitamin E has significantly contributed to the increase of heart disease. Vitamin E should be increased and decreased slowly due to its effect on heart muscle.
Vitamin A, Betacarotene (Provitamin A): Betacarotene is derived from the carotenoid molecules of colored vegetables such as carrots, beets, yams and squash which are also its best food sources. Scientific studies have shown carotenoids to be protective against cancer. Dosages range from 25,000 IU to 200,000 IU and above under the direction of a physician.
Selenium: A trace mineral with antioxidant properties, selenium is often lacking in modern diets, as a result of its deficiency in soils. Natural sources include bran and germ of grains, and vegetables such as broccoli, onions and tomatoes. Supplemental selenium should be taken with care, as instances of toxicity have occurred. Recommended amounts range from 100 to 200 micrograms per day.
A whole foods diet, rich in whole grains and vegetables, is essential in maintaining a resilient immune system, which can respond efficiently to offenders. A high fat diet puts undue stress on the body and has been associated with a higher risk of illness and shortened life span. In 1880, fats accounted for 10 percent of the standard western diet. This figure rose to 42 percent by 1980. This is nearly half of the calories consumed! A good goal to set is 20-25 percent of the diet to be maintained through life.
Refined carbohydrates, particularly table sugar, have been shown to suppress immune function. Eliminating white sugar from the diet and using honey and fruit sweeteners with discretion can greatly enhance your level of health. It is recommended that even honey and fruit be eliminated when the body is undergoing an illness.
Protein is an essential part of a healthful diet. However, a excessive amount, or a deficient amount, can be detrimental to your health. Western diets often contain upwards of 100 grams of protein a day, which may contribute to calcium loss and other health problems. Protein deficiency, on the other hand, decreases cellular response in the immune system, making the body more susceptible to invaders.
Fiber is another essential ingredient in a health-promoting dietary program. Inadequate amounts of fiber may lead to colon cancer, appendicitis and various diseases of the colon. Low fiber diets may cause decreased transit time through the bowel, greatly increasing exposure time to toxic substances, which then enter the bloodstream. High fiber diets may decrease the risk of heart disease, improve sugar regulation in diabetics and aid weight loss in over-weight persons.
Recent studies have shown that Eicosapentanoic acid or EPA is linked to lowered incidence of heart disease and decreased blood levels of triglycerides and cholesterol. Cultures relying more heavily on fish as a staple have been shown to be highly developed physically and more disease resistant than average. Because humans have a limited ability to make EPA in the body, many researchers believe it should be considered essential, meaning that we need to ingest it purposely. Including fish in he diet of supplementing EPA is highly recommended.
A vegetarian diet is a good model in fitting the factors of a diet-enhancing immune response. Complex carbohydrates (whole grains), vegetables and fruits, and a moderate amount of high protein foods such as legumes, nuts and seeds, comprise a diet low in fat, low in refined carbohydrates (sugar), moderate in protein and high in fiber. Such a diet will maintain and promote good health and can be further adjusted in the case of illness, when a therapeutic diet is necessary.
Routine physical exercise is an important factor in the prevention of premature degeneration of the body’s vital organs. Moderate physical exercise performed regularly results in fewer illnesses by enhancing the immune response. Aerobic exercise is steady activity that challenges and strengthens the cardio-respiratory system, and saturates the organs with oxygen, increasing the body’s ability to neutralize free radicals generated in fighting infections. It is important to develop an aerobic exercise program that fits one’s particular needs and lifestyle so that it can be maintained over time. Examples of aerobic activity include jogging, walking, swimming, trampoline jumping and cross country skiing.
Hydrotherapy, or “water” therapy can be utilized on a daily basis to strengthen the constitution and maximize immune system efficiency. The principle of hydrotherapy is that of warning the body or application, sending blood away from the surface. It is easy to apply hydrotherapy at home by taking showers. Daily hot showers followed by cold showers can send the blood to internal organs and tonify the circulatory system, increasing its overall efficiency. There is a wide array of hydrotherapeutic application, including Russian baths, hot tubs and saunas, as directed by health practitioners.
MEDITATION, RELAXATION & STRESS MANAGEMENT
The mental and spiritual components of a health-promoting lifestyle are becoming increasingly recognized for their importance as we become aware of their real effects on overall health.
Using the mind to relax and create a healing environment in the body has been shown to contribute to increased levels of health. Visualization techniques are being used in cancer patients and others to use the power of thought to combat disease. Learning to cope with and reduce levels of stress through positive affirmation, daily meditation, yoga, creative activities or nature walks increases the body’s immune capabilities. A positive mental outlook and a good sense of humor are truly important factors in the overall health picture. Much work is being done in the fields of unconditional love and forgiveness (Gerald Jampolsky, Edith Stauffer) and healing with laughter (Norman Cousins, Patch Adams) with amazingly positive results, indicating the power of our thoughts.
A study of 86 women with metastatic breast cancer were randomized to routine oncological treatment or to routine treatment plus participation in a once-weekly facilitated support group of +/-8 women who met together for one year. Many closely bonded relationships developed in these small groups. Facing losses and the importance of the grieving process was emphasized. The support survival numbers were actually even better, since the authors, for statistical purposes, considered the 3 survivors deceased as of close of the study at 10 years. Cancer was the cause of death in all but two of the patients. Spiegel D. Bloom JR et al. Effect of Psychosocial Treatment on Survival of Patients with Metastatic Breast Cancer. Lancet Oct 14, 1989; 2(8668): 888-91.
Echinaccea angustifolia and Echinacea purpurea (purple cone flower) are indicated for weakened immune response during both acute and chronic infections, especially at the onset. Echinacea is considered by many herbalists as the most effective lymphatic and blood cleanser. It is safe to use in relatively high doses of up to 100 drops of tincture every two hours (about 1 teaspoon) as prescribed by an experienced physician or herbalist.
Astragalus membranaceus (Chinese astragalus) is also utilized for weakened immune response, especially against respiratory and urinary infections. Astragalus is used to build immune strength when combined with synergistic herbs such as ginseng or Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice root).
Allium sativum (garlic) has been used for generations of people around the world. Due to it’s antibiotic and antirival qualities. Garlic stimulates the immune system by increasing elimination through the lungs, skin, colon and kidneys. It has been used successfully to lower blood pressure. Dosage varies from one clove daily as part of a dietary regime up to high dosage of concentrates (oil of garlic, freeze-dried garlic) as directed by a physician.
There are many botanicals used by naturopaths and herbalists to stimulate immune function. Others to study are Ephedra sinica (ephedra), Glycerrhiza glabra (licorice root), Panaz ginseng (ginseng), Pau d’arco (taheebo) and Silybum marianum (milk thistle).
As we begin to understand the complexity of how our bodies work in fighting disease and maintaining health, we can develop positive living habits that enhance and promote good health. We cannot control all environmental and inherited factors that make up each individual person, but we can work with what we are given and optimize the body’s own delicate information network whose function is to keep us alive and well. The young medical science of immunology is only 20 years old, and there is yet much to discover in how the defense system operates. Our common sense tell us that a health regime consisting of antioxidants, healthy nutrition, proper exercise, hydrotherapy, positive mental outlook and botanicals when needed can only increase our vitality and make each day more fulfilling.
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