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Strengthening Our Immune Systems Through Better Dietary Habits

Immune Systems: How They Work, How to Strengthen Them

            The immune system is an amazing collection of cells, proteins, and organs in the body. It is responsible for protecting us against infection by outside organisms, as well as toxins and certain other substances. All parts of the immune system need to work together for optimal defense against outside invaders. When parts of the immune system are compromise or damaged, illness can and will result. When microorganism invaders enter the body, they will soon be recognized by general immune cells that send signals to more specialized immune cells. The general immune cells also release chemicals that dilate blood vessels in order to help the more specialized immune cells enter the infected area. This is why there is usually swelling and redness during an infection. The immune system also can help the body in other ways, including fighting certain cancers.

            One of the main invaders of the body are the viruses. Most viral infections usually last one or two weeks, during which time the immune system is successfully fighting the invading viruses. After the infection, the certain special immune cells, called memory cells, remember certain characteristics of the virus, so that the next time the virus invades the body, the rest of the immune system will be more than ready to fight it. This is called building immunity to a particular invading organism, and it is also the basis for most vaccines. The average vaccine has either parts of a virus or bacterium, or the whole killed microorganism, that is injected into a person. If everything goes well, the person injected will mount a small immune response against the components of the vaccine. If they ever encounter the real microorganism in the outside world, their immune systems will then be ready to destroy the invader before the person becomes seriously ill.

            Unfortunately, some viruses constantly change their outside coating, in order to help them evade the immune system. The viruses that cause the common cold and flu both use this “chameleon” mechanism to frustrate our immune systems. This is why a vaccine against the common cold cannot be made, and the current vaccines against influenza may not work, depending on what flu strain is most active that season. In addition, some viruses combine their DNA into the person’s own DNA, thus staying with the person for life. The virus may lay dormant for years or even decades before coming out again and challenging our immune systems. Examples of viruses that integrate into our own DNA include the herpies virus family and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). There are also other ways for microorganisms to fool the immune system. Certain bacteria and small parasites can hide in some areas of the body, escaping immune detection, where they multiply and prepare to come out and do battle later with our immune systems. Antibiotics and other drugs may have to be used to deal with these crafty invaders.

            However, there is more to the immune system than simply fighting invading organisms from outside the body. The underlying basis of the immune system is that the immune cells are able to distinguish your body from foreign substances, such as chemicals or invading organisms. This is also called distinguishing self from nonself. Sometimes this recognition breaks down, and someone’s immune system ends up thinking certain molecules and tissues of the person are foreign and it attempts to destroy them. This is termed autoimmune disease. Also, some immune system may mistake otherwise innocent substances, like foods, pollen, animal dander, etc. as a threat, and mounts an immune response against them. This is the basis for allergic reactions to otherwise harmless substances in our environment. Another factor that can disrupt the immune system is stress. Stress causes the release of a steroid hormone called cortisol, which suppresses the immune system. A suppressed immune system is an invitation for infection by other organisms.

            As mentioned above, the immune system can attack its own body, or it could also not respond to foreign substances and invaders. Why is this? There is a very broad spectrum of immune function as pertains to proper and improper immune response. At one end of the spectrum are immune systems that are overstimulated, which can contribute to diseases like Lupus. Another condition in which the immune system is overstimulated is asthma. Severe, life-threatening allergic reactions are also a condion of immune system overstimulation. Not quite so overstimulated are immune-based mild to moderate allergies and sensitivities, like hayfever and sensitivity to cigarette smoke. A normal immune system is not over- or understimulated (immunosuppressed or immunodepressed). It handles both internal and external substances correctly, accurately identifying what is harmless and what is harmful.

            On the other side of the spectrum is understimulation, as mentioned above. Understimulated, or immunodepressed, immune systems cannot fight many infections properly. At the extreme of this scale would be the Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Somewhat less immunodepression occurs with otherwise normal people who are on immunodepressive drugs like corticosteroids. Mildly immunodepressed immune systems are very common, and a good example would be people under constant environmental stress. This constant stress will often elevate naturally-produced steroid hormones, such as cortisol, which is a well-known immunodepressant. Below are examples of certain foods and supplements that can affect the immune system in various ways.

Immune stimulating factors: beta-carotene, vitamin A (under 25,000 IU/day), manganese, L-taurine, moderate doses of selenium (under 200 ug/day), and coenzyme Q10.

Immune modulating (moderating) factors: vitamin C, beta-carotene, fish oil and fish oil combined with a low-fat diet, moderate amounts of dietary protein, and L-arginine.

Immune depressing factors: alcohol, high fat diet, vitamin E intakes over 600 IU/day, low dietary intake of iron, excess intake of selenium (over 200 ug/day), excessive zinc intake (100 mg/day or more), L-glutamine deficiency, vitamin A deficiency, vitamin B1 deficiency, vitamin E deficiency, zinc deficiency, magnesium deficiency, folic acid deficiency, riboflavin (vitamin B2) deficiency, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) deficiency, vitamin B6 deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency, vitamin C deficiency, vitamin D deficiency, and iodine deficiency.

            Some supplements deserve further mention for their beneficial effects on the immune system. Fish oil has potent anti-inflammatory effects. In one study, supplementation of at least 1.8 grams of fish oil per day for six weeks resulted in a 37% reduction of a major inflammatory molecule, arachidonic acid. The authors of the study suggest that certain immune cells called neutrophils are responsible for the reduction of arachidonic acid levels. Vitamin E supplementation of 200 IU/day appears to be the ideal dose for immune system health. As mentioned elsewhere in this article, megadosing of vitamin E at 600 IU/day or more may suppress the immune system. In one study, elderly hospital patients that supplemented with vitamins A, C and E for four weeks showed immune system improvement.

            Below are a few general tips on strengthening immune function, and also some advice about certain supplements that affect the immune system. Always drink purified water or spring water. Do not drink distilled water for more then a few months at a time---it leaches out both good and bad minerals from the body and should only be used as a temporary detoxification therapy. Eat only organically grown, pesticide and antibiotic-free meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fish oil and vitamin E should not be used with blood thinners such as aspirin, NSAIDs (ex. Ibuprofen), and Coumadin. Iron supplements should not be used in people with liver problems. The immune system is a very complicated part of us, but with patience and education, any person can help their immunity normalize. If you would like more information on helping your immune system, you can contact Dr. Jensen at 1-800-390-5365, or e-mail at drjensen@individualizednutrition.com.

Dr. Jensen provides science-based holistic health care and guidance. He can advise you on specific problems you are experiencing, or help you create a comprehensive health care plan for optimum health.

Dr. Jensen will provide you with a free initial consultation to discuss your situation and suggest a course of action.

Contact Dr. Jensen at 1-800-390-5365 or use the contact form.

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