The Immune Miracle
The all-natural approach for better health, increased energy, & improved mood.
Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN
Immunity and Disease
First – let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with a proper definition of the “Immune System.” An immune system is a network of biological structures and processes within an organism that protects against disease by identifying and killing pathogens and tumor cells. It detects a wide variety of agents, from viruses to parasitic worms, and needs to distinguish them from the organism’s own healthy cells and tissues in order to function properly.
The key part of that definition is the word “network,” because a properly-functioning immune system encompasses “barriers” such as skin and membranes that block the entry of pathogens into our bodies, as well as a vast array of cells, enzymes, hormones, and other aspects of biochemistry that serve as signals and messengers to identify and destroy invaders. If any part of this complex and coordinated network breaks down, we’re more susceptible to infections, more likely to catch a cold, and even more likely to develop cancer.
The last time we experienced flu pandemic occurred more than forty years ago (1968) – but many experts feel that we’re very close to experiencing an even worse pandemic in the very near future. Whether its the risk of a swine flu epidemic (H1N1) or an avian (bird) flu epidemic (H5N1), our risk for a global flu pandemic has risen steadily over the years for many reasons – including the ease of international travel, the emergence of drug-resistant and rapidly mutating virus strains, and the presence of greater numbers of environmental toxins and stressors in today’s world.
Every year in the United States, influenza results in more than 200,000 hospitalizations and nearly 40,000 deaths (representing more than $10 billion in medical costs). Since nobody wants to get sick – never mind not wanting to be hospitalized or dead – the entire category of “immune support” products is enjoying a significant level of sales growth. Americans spend more than $300 million on non-prescription cold remedies every year. BUT, most of these products tend to base their claims of “immune support” on levels of nutrients such as vitamins A & C and minerals such as zinc & selenium. While these nutrients are certainly needed at proper levels for normal immune system function, they are unlikely to do much of anything towards truly bolstering the immune system when it’s challenged by a pathogen such as influenza or other viruses.
Let’s look at some of the more ridiculous products claiming immune “boosting” capabilities lately. There is the popular Airborne dietary supplement (“formulated by a teacher!”) that paid $30 million to settle a false claims lawsuit, though it remains on the market with similar “boost immune function” claims. Another well-known product Crystal Light drink mix (owned by Kraft) claimed it would help “maintain a healthy immune system” based on a dusting of vitamins A, C, & E, and Green Giant Immunity Boost (a blend of broccoli, carrots, and peppers from General Mills). There are dozens of other silly examples – but how is a consumer to know which (if any) of these foods or dietary supplements really holds any promise for truly helping them to maintain immune function when they need it the most (such as when exposed to a virus, when under stress, or when our defenses are depleted)?
Immunity and Vigor
It’s pretty logical to understand that if your immune system is suppressed in some way, it’s less likely to protect you from pathogens, and you’re more likely to get sick. What many people do NOT understand is that a properly-functioning immune system is also associated with a general feeling of well-being; conversely, a suppressed immune system is one of the primary reasons for feeling fatigued and depressed. Chapter 3 covers the relationship between chronic stress, cortisol (a stress hormone), immune suppression, and low vigor in greater detail.
Vigor is a term from psychology research that measures a combination of physical energy, mental acuity, and emotional well-being (vigor is the opposite of “burnout” or physical and mental exhaustion). When your vigor is low, you not only lack energy and may even be depressed, you also lack the necessary motivation to get up and accomplish the things that you’d like to do. When your immune system is suppressed, your vigor is low — BUT, when you bring your immune system back to optimal levels of functioning, your vigor improves… and you feel great again. This “priming” of immune system activity is covered in detail in Chapter 4.
There are basically three “tiers” to consider when it comes to effective immune system support: Protect – Prime – Promote.
This first tier is where you do whatever you can to protect yourself from exposure to pathogens. Steps like eating a healthy diet, supplementing with a balanced multivitamin, consuming enough antioxidants, consuming yogurt as a source of pre- and pro-biotics (beneficial bacteria), frequent hand-washing, getting enough sleep, and avoiding or reducing stress all come into play. For example, overexposure to stressful events or sleep loss increases cortisol (the stress hormone) in our bodies; this will dramatically suppress immune system function – as will underexposure to dietary antioxidants (A, C, E, carotenoids, flavonoids, etc).
It’s important to eat a healthy diet, rich in brightly colored fruits & vegetables and yogurt for its immune-active pre- and pro-biotics (beneficial bacteria). Yet, we also must consider bolstering (or “priming,” but NOT “stimulating”) immune vigilance. Especially during periods of elevated stress (environmental, emotional, physical), the immune system needs to maintain its primary function of protecting the body from harmful invaders. Numerous human research trials of several “immune support” types of dietary supplements have shown that “priming” key immune system cells (macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells), helps them to quickly identify, ward off, and defeat foreign challenges. Research studies show that people with properly primed immune systems have fewer cold/flu symptoms and better indices of well-being, vigor, energy, and mood. The more stress you’re under, the more you can expect your immune system also to be “stressed” (and suppressed), the more likely you are to benefit from a daily regimen of immune system priming.
This is your last resort – after you’ve tried the first two tiers and you’re down for the count with an established infection (i.e. you have a cold or the flu). The best approach to temporarily promoting or stimulating immune system activity above normal levels is to start consuming higher levels of vitamin C at the first sign of a sore throat or related cold symptom. You can drink more orange juice, eat lots of strawberries, or get an inexpensive chewable vitamin C tablet — and shoot for an intake of 500mg every 3-4 hours (up to 3,000mg/day for 4-7 days). This simple, safe, and inexpensive approach is a good way to help your immune system get a jump on the infection; it might reduce your symptoms by a couple of days.
Avoid Antibiotics and Immune Stimulants
If you can help it – DO NOT assume that you need an antibiotic drug to treat your symptoms (antibiotics only work against bacterial infections, NOT against viral infections like colds or the flu). As many as HALF of the 100 million antibiotic prescriptions written each year are given to people who have viral upper respiratory infections. This is a leading cause for the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms like E. Coli H157 and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus)! Also consider that side effects of antibiotics (such as allergic reactions) result in more than 140,000 emergency room visits annually. Think of antibiotics this way: you probably do not need one; they only work on bacterial infections, and they are highly likely to make you sick (or at least give you diarrhea due to destruction of beneficial gut bacteria). Skip them unless you’re on your deathbed.
The vast majority of the herbal immune “boosters” on the market are plant extracts containing a combination of polysaccharides that “irritate” the immune system into action. This is a clumsy approach that may certainly “ramp up” immune activity – but it’s is really an old-fashioned shotgun approach that makes little sense when we can scientifically prime our immune activity when we need it (vs. when we don’t want it). Supplements such as Arabinogalactan (Larch tree extract), Echinacea, Ginseng, and some medicinal mushroom extracts (Reishi, Maitake, AHCC, etc.) all show evidence for reducing the duration and severity of URTIs (upper respiratory tract infections). However, direct-stimulation of immune activity is an approach that you only want to employ infrequently, because too-frequent stimulation of immune activity is likely to lead to allergies (ragweed, seasonal), autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease, thyroiditis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, and other problems associated with over-activity of the immune system (such as chronic inflammatory conditions).
The immune system is one of the most complex body networks – but, maintaining its proper balance and optimal function doesn’t have to be complicated. Protect your immune function with a healthy diet (antioxidants from fruits/veggies and probiotics from yogurt). Maintain balanced immune function, especially during times of stress with proper Priming, and Promote immune activity above normal only as a last resort (and then only for a short period of time).
The chapters that follow in The Immune Miracle will take you step-by-step toward an understanding of how the immune system works, how stress interferes with immune function and leads to low vigor, and how a properly primed immune system can protect you from disease while helping you to feel better than you’ve ever felt before.