A couple months ago, in connection with the newsletter on intravenous hydrogen peroxide, I mentioned that years ago emphasis on health was all placed on simply “boosting the immune system.” Now we look at other factors, one of which I mentioned was telomere length.
In this newsletter I’d like to focus on some of the complexities of our immune system. It’s a much more complicated thing than what was known about it when I was in medical school, and much more complicated than I will even try to delve into here. Just “boosting the immune system” is not entirely an accurate way to achieve health. So let’s look at some simple facts.
You know that if you want to avoid infection, you need a strong immune system. It has been proposed for years that fending off cancer also requires a strong immune system, although currently there is a lot of new research showing the situation is MUCH more complicated than simply a “strong immune system.” If you are curious, check into information on the trophoblastic theory of cancer. There are cancers in which the NK (natural killer) cells, one of the main cancer defense cell types, are actually routinely elevated and seem to have no effect on the progression of the cancer. Breast cancer is one of these, where NK cells are frequently elevated. Clearly just boosting the immune system to get more NK cells is not the whole answer.
The immune system and cancer is too complicated for this newsletter, so let’s look at some other facts. What is it that goes haywire in hay fever? It’s the immune system – being over responsive to things that shouldn’t require such a strong response. What is it that goes haywire in auto-immune disease? It’s the immune system, reacting to the body’s own tissues. What is it that is deadly in bird flu? This one may surprise you. It’s the immune system – a much, much too strong inflammatory arm of the immune system destroys not just the virus but also the lung tissue.
The immune system has several branches. The most basic branch is the T-cell immune system as opposed to the B-cell immune system. B cells are responsible for making antibodies to foreign substances, the immunoglobulins. There are four different immunoglobulins that can be studied with laboratory testing. IgG complexes with germs, making them a better target for the attacks of the T-cells. This is the immune globulin that can mistakenly decide certain food proteins are actually germs, and complex with the food fragments in the blood stream, or in the lining of the gut itself, confusing the heck out of the rest of the immune system, and causing a huge variety of health adverse symptoms.
IgM is a very active antibody created by the B cells, and is very good at killing germs. It will rise in the blood stream when there is an acute infection.
IgE is actually supposed to react to and protect against parasites, and will rise enormously when there is parasitic infection. A misguided B cell in the face of pollen and other allergens will create a huge amount of IgE, and create hay fever and the classic allergy symptoms. The amount of IgE goes up in the blood stream of allergic people.
IgA concentrates in saliva, tears, and the mucus that lines the gut, and respiratory system, guarding the gateways to the body with its antibody producing ability.
The other type of white blood cell involved in the immune system is the T-cells, which mature in the thymus. The T-cells react in various ways to the information presented to them by the B-cells, which is what lets them distinguish between what is foreign and worth attacking, and what should be left alone as neutral. This is where the discussion of the immune system gets thoroughly complex. I’m going to keep it relatively simple. The T cells are told by the B-cells what to attack or not, and then they organize a very complex response. That response can be simplified into the Th-1 type of cells, which produce a great deal of inflammation, and produce pro-inflammatory chemicals (including peroxide) to blast the dickens out of the invader.
If the Th-1, pro-inflammatory response gets out of hand, it can produce enormous amounts of damage to our own surrounding cells and tissues. That’s what happens in bird flu. The virus congregates in the lungs and then the Th-1 defense becomes so vicious that it destroys the lung tissue to get at the virus. Sounds like a very bad time in a war-zone where there is a high death toll amongst innocent civilians.
As things should be, after a while of the Th-1 system getting a handle on the “war” then the Th-2 system activates. Our Th-2 immune system is anti-inflammatory. It more or less “puts out the fire” that the Th-1 system left behind. It is still not entirely clear how our innate immune system switches itself over to the Th-2 portion, but it is obviously very important that it do so. For anyone interested in far more detail on balancing the Th-1 and Th2 systems, a presentation from Dr. Cheney, who is a premier researcher on CFIDS and FMS, is available (transcribed from lecture material) at http://www.anapsid.org/cnd/diagnosis/cheneyis.html.
The key word here, as you see, is balance. We don’t want to just “boost the immune system,” we need to have it in balance, with the B-cells feeding the correct information to the T-cells, and the T-cells acting in proper coordination and with Th-1 and Th-2 systems in balance. We don’t want rogue T-cells misreading “self” as if it were an enemy. In a well balanced immune system there is actually a mechanism whereby T cells are intermittently tested in their reactivity to “self” and those which over-react are invited to undergo apoptosis (cell death).
The obvious next question is: What can we do to help balance the immune system?
Modest activity and exercise will increase the Th-2 system. An extremely hard workout actually diminishes the entire immune system for about two hours, which does not make hard workouts wrong, just makes it important to stay away from infected people, wash your hands, and take precautions against infection for about two hours. I remember having done extremely hard exercise in the past, only to be wiped out by some severe bronchial infection the next day. Now I understand what was going on better, and might have been able to take some prevention measures, even to the point of dosing myself with nano-particle silver immediately after, or even before, the strenuous exercise.
Of course diet matters, with alcohol and sugar deactivating the immune system overall for hours after ingestion. Mercury, as a toxic heavy metal, depletes glutathione which actually moves toward a Th-2 dominance (out of balance) making infection more highly possible. Some of the drugs which reduce the pro-inflammatory (Th-1) part of the immune system also increase the risk of infection.
On the other hand, plant sterols, melatonin, progesterone, selenium and zinc promote balance. Omega 3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory, have been tested and their anti-inflammatory mechanism does not involve Th1/Th-2 balance. Probiotics are highly helpful. Bifida in particular, and Lactobacillus to a lesser degree, plus many others that are still being researched actually release into the body small peptide molecules that “talk” to our immune system. These are called second messenger molecules, and while these are very complex and incompletely understood, the overall effect is a balancing of the immune system. When the beneficial bacteria in the gut are disturbed through antibiotic use, stress or any of a huge variety of factors, it is hard for the immune system to be healthy.
Herbal medicine to balance immunity is extremely complex, and most herbs have multiple actions. Astragalus for instance is known as an immune booster, and it is also directly anti-viral. It is known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as making some colds worse, which may be because it actually reduces Th-2 dominance. Therefore, the pro-inflammatory Th-1 activity may make the symptoms of some colds worse. In treating cancer, Th-2 dominance is not a good thing, so astragalus is being tested in cancer treatment. You can see, I hope, just from that paragraph about astragalus how very complicated herbal medicine can be. I still love herbal medicine, however, because most of the time the herbs contain a multiple bunch of active substances that give the herb an overall benefit in a particular arena. Astragalus definitely has an overall benefit in the immune system arena.
Of course, we know about Echinacea, cat’s claw, garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Each of these has its immune system benefits and each is as complex as astragalus in its actions.
Of great interest and new to me is the herb Tinospora cordifolia. It seems to have very few side effects or dangers, so it is one to try, even before all the information is collected. It is a standard in Ayurvedic medicine, where it is used to boost the immune system’s ability to fight disease, malaria and even cancer, but it also reduces hay fever and allergy symptoms, alleviates arthritis, and helps auto-immune diabetes. Tests show that it lowers eosinophils (associated with allergy and parasitic disease), and neutrophils (the white blood cells that fight infection), reduces the incidence of sepsis in certain specifically studied situations. The NK cell response is elevated, as is B-cell activity, and T-cell activity. It is, at the same time, a potent antioxidant. This herb has all the features so far of the perfect immune system balancer. It is known as Guduchi in Ayurvedic medicine. It is available from several sources. I would tend to go with Life Extension Foundation’s product, or with a well established Ayurvedic supply house. I have not found a lot about dose recommendations. To read the complete Life Extension Foundation article on this herb, go to http://www.lef.org and look for the May 2013 issue of their magazine. You do not have to be a member to access this. The article has the words “Boost Immune Function” contained within the title, so you will have no trouble recognizing it.
Well, that’s all for this time. The next email should contain more information about the yoga and tai chi classes, and then next month I’ll tackle the very interesting issue of telomere length and longevity.
Until then, be well.
Alice R. Laule, M.D.