In the previous edition of Here & Now we looked at the immune system, components of the immune system and immune dysfunction.
To recap…some of the components of the immune system are the lymphoid tissues, bone marrow, thymus gland, spleen, lymph nodes, and the B and T cells. The B cells are involved in creating antibodies to attack foreign material entering the body and the T cells act by direct cell-to-cell contact to protect the body. The three main types of T cells are the T-helper 1 cells (Th1) that regulate our defense against bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and tumor cells. The T-helper 2 cells (Th2) promote the production of antibodies. The T-helper 3 cells (Th3) provide immune control through regulating excess Th1/Th2 activity by the activity of good gut bacteria levels (Acidophilus/Bifidus). Dysfunction of Th3 is often caused by overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut.
I went on to say that immune dysfunction is caused by such things as physiological and emotional stress, toxicity, hormonal imbalance (metabolic imbalances) and nutrient deficiencies (poor diet or absorption).
In this edition I will discuss some of the ways we can support and strengthen the immune system.
Healthy Lifestyle and Diet
A healthy lifestyle and diet is the foundation to a healthy immune system. It’s simply a matter of choice – the choice of what you put into your body. Choose a diet that is nutritious and limit fats, sugar, salt, tea, coffee, alcohol and take-away foods. Drink two litres of water daily, eat lots of fruit and vegies and chew your food well. We know the basics of good nutrition, however in our busy world, sometimes it’s difficult to maintain a healthy diet, which in turn can place enormous strains and stress on the body. So let’s have a look at the subject of stress and how it can affect our immune system.
Stress…whether physical, emotional or environmental, tends to use up minerals. Minerals are necessary co-factors to the production of enzymes. Enzymes help us to digest. Poor digestion results in poor nutrition and a vicious cycle has started. Poor nutrition provides insufficient minerals…insufficient minerals make us respond to stress more easily….and stress depletes our minerals…and the cycle goes on!
Stress can also release the hormones cortisol and adrenalin. The effect of adrenalin is to cause an alarm-like state that we usually associate with anxiety and the feeling of nervousness. Prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol and adrenalin (from stress) will eventually result in abnormal function in the nervous system resulting in numerous other conditions. Cortisol protects the body from the effects of stress by inhibiting excess inflammation and tissue damage. The problem is that excess cortisol will suppress the immune system, which can increase the risk of infections and allergies.
Hormonal (metabolic) imbalances.
Here’s another potential vicious cycle. Hormonal imbalance can create stress…yet stress can create hormonal imbalance (a classic case of what comes first – the chicken or the egg). Testosterone and DHEA (adrenal hormones) are responsible for calming down the nervous system but those hormones are often reduced during times of stress. Thyroid hormones are increased during acute stress to aid in the ‘fight or flight’ response. However during long term stress, raised levels of cortisol eventually leads to depleted thyroid hormones resulting in low thyroid activity.
So where does the immune system come in here? Hormones from the adrenal glands (cortisol and adrenalin) reduce antibody production, thyroxine increases T cell activation, but when in low levels, the T cells are suppressed. Oestrogen and progesterone can aid in a balanced immune system, but if the levels are unbalanced then the immune system will be unbalanced.
Your gastrointestinal tract naturally harbours about five hundred different species of bacteria and these number in the billions. Although these bacteria are essential for health (remember the T3 cells), they can become very toxic if the wrong ones start to overgrow. This may happen due to poor digestion, antibiotics, gut infection, or when we get stressed. We also consume and absorb many toxins from our external environment such as chemicals and heavy metals, the foods we eat, the air we breath, the water we drink, and the materials we surround ourselves with e.g. clothing and building materials. The gut and liver protect the body against disease by eliminating and detoxifying toxic compounds and waste products, which can cause inflammation and immune dysfunction. A gut/liver detoxification program will help correct digestion, normalise gut bacteria flora, repair a damaged gut wall and improve the detoxifying capacity of the liver and kidneys. As these organs start to function better the toxic load on the immune system is reduced thereby allowing Th1 and Th2 to become balanced.
The importance of a periodic detoxification program becomes more obvious when considering these factors. The detox can take many forms such as an alkaline diet over a period of time, various fasting programs, saunas, exercise and colonic irrigation. There are various choices to suit the individual’s lifestyle and preferences.
Herbs and nutritionals to support good immune function
Some herbs and nutrients will increase Th1 and reduce Th2, however some can decrease Th1 and increase Th2. Because this is a complex issue, I suggest you speak to a qualified practitioner (experienced with dealing with immune system dysregulation) about the best choice of herbs and/or nutrients to support T cell balance.
However, the best herb I know of that can balance the immune system is Astragalus Membranaceus. Numerous research articles show this herb improves the immune system. It is best used when the more acute symptoms of infection settle i.e. post infection, or to help support other immune functions. Another excellent balancer is the reiishi mushroom which is usually found as an extract or in the dried form. Bromelain (enzyme found in pineapple) is also a good food to balance the immune system. Lactobacillus from probiotic formulations and natural yoghurt are the best gut (Th3) immune support.
The word ‘balance’ appears frequently in this article. To help strengthen your immune system, possibly the best advice I can give you is to ensure your life is ‘in balance’. Eat sensibly, drink plenty of water, avoid or reduce stress, exercise regularly and focus on the positive.
Good health…it’s mostly up to you!
Here & Now Magazine May 2005