Immune Health; A Holistic Approach
By Mark J Kaylor
Two primary issues or impediments to effective immune health come to mind. The first revolves around what we consider our immune system to be. When you think of immune health what do you picture? Most folks envision some imagery related to your body’s defenses, various immune cells, like macrophage and natural killer cells. In some form or another it’s an image of your body doing battle against the invaders. Maybe you are a “big-picture” sort of person and think of the whole body because as many of us are aware that things like emotions, stress, diet play a big role in our immune systems health. Now what if I said these are both correct but still only part of the picture. Consider for a moment the impact on our immune system that the air we breathe, the quality of our relationships, career satisfaction, chemicals in our water and soil, and how our food is grown and processed has on our immune health. The list goes on and on since virtually everything we do, say, think, feel, consume, and interact with in one way or another impacts our immune system. In light of this I’d like to propose a picture of our immune system that is fully and completely clinically relevant; one that encompasses all the factors and variables that impact our immunity. It must include all the cells within us, all our body’s systems and organs, all the way up to the world in which we live. This means it requires a truly holistic approach.
Here are a couple of research-based tidbits that support this approach:
• Laughter has been shown to increase the number of NK cells that attack tumors and viruses.
• Doing things that make you feel good or happy increase levels of endorphins and the feel-good hormone, dopamine, that can lead to increased immune function.
The Ostrich Approach to Immune Health
The second obstacle to maximizing our immunity is that we really only give it needed attention when something goes wrong, such as catching a cold or flu or even worse confronting cancer. We know it’s there but basically we operate by keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that it is doing its job. It’s easy to overlook one’s immune system when not experiencing an issue, but this doesn’t mean the battle is not constantly raging on.
Our immune system is active 24/7, and thankfully so. It’s time we give it the attention it deserves. The world is full of tiny microbes, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa that would love access to our warm bodies or, as in a virus, to take over control of our very own cells. A virus can be so small that 230 million could sit inside the period at the end of the sentence. And just one virus can make 1,000 copies of itself with just one infected cell, while bacteria can double their numbers every 20 minutes. They have declared war on you, so isn’t it time to wake up and fight back. On top of this the “head in the sand” approach is clearly not the most efficient, let alone healthiest approach to take. When it comes to immune health there is no doubt that the most effective “cures” lie in PREVENTION. For these reasons we will start off exploring a number of, let’s call them, lifestyle adjustments, along with several immune tonics that can maximize our health and vitality while hopefully preventing the problems from occurring in the first place. So let’s get to it.
It All Starts With Choices And Lifestyle
We so often hear the latest news report about how this food was shown to benefit one disease or another. You can easily find a wide range of lists and charts of foods that various authors think are useful in this regard.
One may say peppers and citrus are good due to their vitamin C or fish and nuts for their omega-3 or onions and apples for their quercetin. All are useful healthy, helpful foods, but this too narrow of a focus can distract us from the whole, from what is the healthiest. It often gets us overly focused on a limited number of foods. A second concern is that our immune system is too complex and involves so many nutrients that it requires a big picture perspective. So again taking a holistic perspective here are some basic (and simple) guidelines:
• Eat a plant-based diet
• Enjoy a variety of foods
• Eat whole and unprocessed
• Eat organic as often as you can
• Cut back, or better yet, eliminate refined sugars and carbohydrates.
(Refined carbohydrates act as a double-edged sword to our immune system; sugar suppresses immune function by decreasing numbers and activity of immune cells, and feeds pathogenic bacteria, yeasts, and fungi.)
Sleep, most of us have been reminded since we were children of the importance of getting our rest, and by now, you’ve probably heard it over and over how important sleep is. Well it’s not important; it’s essential, especially for immune health. Sleep is antiviral. Sleep is anticancer. Operating with insufficient sleep leads to poorer immune function and may put us at greater risk for not only colds and flu but cancer as well.
There are literally hundreds of healing allies that have demonstrated a range of actions and benefits for immune health that nature provides us. So how is one to choose? My favorites, of course, are tonics that operate in a holistically supportive manner, boosting our immune responses all the while supporting relevant actions and systems in our body. A good example of this are the adaptogenic herbs that support our immunity while helping the body deal with the consequences of out-of-control stress. Since stress has such a significant impact on our immune health it is a good idea to include remedies that act on both, like Ashwagandha, Reishi, and Eleuthero.
Stress suppresses T-cell activity, delays production of antibodies in response to influenza infection, decreases resistance to bacterial infection, and suppresses overall immune function.
Ashwagandha – used for thousands of years in Ayurveda, this herb is anti-inflammatory, increases red and white blood cells, while studies suggest possible benefits with cancer and the ability to reduce side effects from chemo. A good remedy for those lacking energy, feeling stressed, and in need of immune support.
Reishi – another stress lowering healing ally with thousands of years of traditional use. What makes Reishi so special among the immune tonics is all the other wonderful things it does for our body and health. Reishi supports brain and CNS, heart and cardiovascular system, respiratory system, liver, and adrenals while improving sleep quality, reducing inflammation, and supporting emotional health. Its immune actions include enhancing NK cells & leukocytes, stimulating IL1 & IL2, increasing phagocytosis, supporting T cells, increasing the weight of the thymus (which decreases in size as we age) and stimulating gamma interferon. Antitumor actions include reducing proliferation and inhibiting tumor necrosis factor. Reishi is also antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral.
Astragalus – in traditional Chinese medicine is said to build Wei Qi – the protective life force. It also strengthens the energy of the lungs and protects the liver. Astragalus improves overall immune function while increasing numbers and activity of immune cells. An added holistic benefit is its ability to support our digestive system, which is at the root of all health and healing, by improving metabolism and assimilation.
Probiotics – not traditionally thought of as a tonic the rapidly growing amount of research over the last few years suggests that probiotics are fundamental to whole body health, certainly key to immune health. In fact, the gut is the largest immune organ in the body. It accounts for roughly 50% of our body’s immune response. We also need to take into consideration that one of the most frequent entrées into our body is through the gut maximizing the intestinal flora is absolutely necessary. So you can see why gut health and balance is so important. Probiotics are responsible for maintaining gut health and balance as they battle against a myriad of opportunistic bacteria. One new study found that if you give your kids probiotics than they don’t get colds and flu as often. It was also found that the colds were shortened and duration, antibiotic prescriptions went down, and fewer schooldays were missed.
Maitake D-Fraction – if you’re looking for what may be the strongest and most effective natural immune booster available, look no further. This Maitake extract significantly increases numbers and activity of numerous types of immune cells while improving overall function and communication within the immune system. Widely used as a cancer preventative, as well as an adjunct therapy, recent research has shown that this extract may induce breast cancer cell apoptosis. If you are a dog lover as I am, you may be interested to know that there is positive research for its use with dogs in their battle against cancer.
I want to make brief but special mention of Rhodiola and Propolis. Rhodiola is and excellent immune tonic for athletes; it enhances overall health and vitality, increases energy, and recent research supports its traditional use for treating colds and flu’s, especially for athletes. Propolis is a waxy resin collected by bees that is responsible for making the beehive one of the cleanest places on earth. It is possibly natures most potent and broadly acting antimicrobial, killing bacterial, viral, yeast, and fungal invaders. Research has shown that it is effective even against a number of drug resistant germs. While acting directly against these microbes Propolis also supports overall immune health while reducing inflammation as well.
The Moral of Our Story
It often seems like we have to learn our lessons the hard way in life – and this may be doubly true with regards to our immune health. If you are anything like me, when I am in the death throes of a bad cold or flu it feels like the world is going to end. At these moments I am full of promises to “start taking care of myself”, eating right, and doing all things good for me. Regretfully I must admit I don’t always fully comply with these promises. The obvious lesson here is to listen to what your body is telling you, often over and over, and practice the art of prevention. So when is the best time to be attentive to our immune health? The answer is a resounding NOW! Don’t wait for things to break, please began walking the path of prevention today.