Dr. Lee, the Healthy Professor

How to Boost Your Immune System

Challenges to a Healthy Immune System

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This column was prompted by the thoughts of winter and the challenges the season places on the immune system and a report of a recent study, published by a group from the University of Wisconsin that found Echinacea to be of no value in recovery from the common cold.

Echinacea is often recommended as a “stimulator” of the immune system and therefore a wise step in helping to prevent or recover from flu or colds.The Wisconsin study found no significant difference in the rate of recovery from a cold between those who used Echinacea and those who took a placebo version.

I have two comments to offer regarding the study. First there is some question about the quality of the Echinacea used – a ground up version of the whole plant versus a concentrated extract – but we will leave that argument to the experts.

Second is the fact that if Echinacea is to be effective in “stimulating” the immune system one has to assume there is a “healthy” immune system to stimulate. Healthy immune systems are built through healthy nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Herbs that “stimulate” do not “build”. Herbs are “nature's medicine” they are not “nutrients”. Nobody has an Echinacea deficiency whereas many have Vitamin C or protein deficiencies (both significant components in the building of a healthy immune system).

What is the Immune System?

Phrases using the words “immune system” have become common in discussions concerning health. Magazines offer advice on how to “strengthen” the immune system. Supplement manufacturers identify products that “support” the immune system. Health practitioners refer to certain ailments that result from a “weakened” immune system or “immune deficiency”, or “auto-immune” conditions. Self-Help consultants refer to activities, food choices, toxins and behaviors that “challenge” the immune system. Many consumers wonder where this immune system is?

The immune system, unlike the cardiovascular system or digestive system is not a single or even a group of anatomical structures easily identified and located in certain areas of the body. Rather this system is a collection of anatomical structures and biochemical activities conducted by many cells, tissues and organs throughout the body. Constantly challenged by foreign substances, this collection of biochemical functions identifies, isolates, destroys and generally defends the healthy cells.

Without an immune system, we die. To understand the power of the immune system, all you have to do is look at what happens to anything once it dies. That sounds gross, but it does show you something very important about your immune system.

When something dies its immune system shuts down. In a matter of hours the body is invaded by all sorts of bacteria, microbes, parasites etc. None of these things are able to multiply when your immune system is working, but the moment your immune system stops the door is wide open and it only takes a few weeks for these organisms to completely dismantle your body. Obviously your immune system is doing something amazing to keep all of that dismantling from happening when you are alive!

Thousands of times each day, clusters of bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, allergens, unidentified, micro-organisms and toxic chemicals try to take up residence in some part of the body and therefore present challenges to the immune system.

A healthy body is one that provides a rapid response to the challenges presented by these various “perpetrators” so you are able to carry out normal human activity with vigor, ease and surplus energy.

When the immune system is functioning well we don’t notice it. However there are occasions, like scabs on the skin following an intrusion or inflammation which are side-effects of the immune system doing its job. When a mosquito bite gets red and itchy, it means the immune system is working. Allergies are an example of the immune system overreacting to certain stimuli.

Bacterial infections like streptococcus (strep throat) and viral infections leading to colds, flu, polio, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia are examples of the immune system not responding adequately to certain invaders.

Auto-immune disorders like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis are examples of the immune system becoming confused and overreacting or attacking the body it should be defending.

Even cancer and heart disease have an immune deficiency connection.

Components of the Immune System

The largest and most obvious components of the immune system are the skin that is slightly acidic to protect against bacterial invasion and the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and eyes (obvious potential points of entry) that posses antibacterial enzymes as protectors.

Inside the body are the:

Thymus gland: The maturation centre for all white blood cells.

Spleen: The spleen filters the blood looking for foreign cells (the spleen is also looking for old red blood cells in need of replacement). A person missing their spleen gets sick much more often than someone with a spleen.

Lymph system: This is a parallel circulatory system that collects, filters (lymph nodes) and removes biological and chemical toxins from the system.

Bone marrow: Bone marrow produces new blood cells, both red and white. In the case of some white blood cells, the cells mature in the Thymus gland. The marrow produces all blood cells from stem cells. They are called "stem cells" because they can branch off and become many different types of cells. Stem cells change into actual, specific types of white blood cells.

White blood cells: The white blood cells are probably the most important part of your immune system. And it turns out that "white  blood cells" are actually a whole collection of different cells that work  together to destroy bacteria and viruses.

Antibodies: also referred to as immunoglobulins and gammaglobulins. They are special proteins that respond to specific antigens (bacteria, viruses and toxins).

Hormones: These hormones are known generally as lymphokines.

Tymosin (thought to be produced by the thymus) is a hormone that encourages lymphocyte production. Interleukins are another type of hormone generated by white blood cells. For example, Interleukin-1 is produced by macrophages after they eat a foreign cell. IL-1 has an interesting side-effect - when it reaches the hypothalamus it produces fever and fatigue. The raised temperature of a fever is known to kill some bacteria.

Nutrition - Nature’s Protector

Good nutrition is the foundation of a healthy immune system. Only through wise food selection and appropriate supplement selection can you provide the body with enough building material to create all of those cells discussed so far. Good nutrition will buttress the immune system so it can respond rapidly, accurately and with endurance to ensure optimum health.

Anti-oxidants like beta carotene and other carotenoids, vitamin C, bioflavonoids, vitamin E, selenium, and grape-seed extract guard against “oxidative stress” and free-radical damage to prevent or slow the progress of many degenerative conditions including cancer.

By regulating the balance of fats in the body (particularly essential fatty acids) we help the body fight heart disease and produce the "super hormones" responsible for controlling all other hormones and responsible for control of inflammatory conditions like eczema, psoriasis, asthma, arthritis, and migraines.

By regulating fibre intake we aid the digestive system in the elimination of toxic waste and by providing adequate protein we proved the building blocks for the complicated collection of white blood cells know as the great protectors.

Although a perfect world would allow us to obtain all the nutrients required for optimum immune defenses, we do not live in a perfect world. Therefore my position has come to the point of regarding responsible supplementation as a necessity, not an option. So in addition to choosing a wide variety of healthy foods, high in protein, anti-oxidants, essential fatty acids, fibre and friendly bacteria, I strongly suggest supplementation in each of these areas to optimize immune function.