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Optimizing Our Immune Response by Terry Wingo, RPh

There are a few people in every office, every classroom that never seem to succumb to the passing stream of maladies everyone else freely shares.  If that’s you, congratulations!  However, if you find yourself in the communal loop for the bug-of-the-month or have difficulty overcoming the lingering cough or fatigue following last week’s cold, you’re certainly not alone.  You are not powerless, though- you can significantly improve your ability to shrug off all the little nasties with a few basic dietary and lifestyle changes.  There are no magic bullets or latest miracle breakthroughs required, just the desire to feel better every day, the willingness to accept responsibility for your health, and the will to follow through with whatever changes your body requires to achieve optimum health.

A little medical history first…we were all taught something about the work of Louis Pasteur and his development of the germ theory of disease.  Pasteur and other scientists of his day, using early microscopes, were able to identify the presence of microorganisms previously unseen, and he correctly postulated a correlation between these microorganisms and disease process.  His work was widely hailed and led to very significant changes in medical practice, such as physicians washing their hands between patients.  Modern antibiotics were developed as a direct result of Pasteur’s work and many lives have been saved due to his discoveries. 

Germ theory alone, however, doesn’t explain why one person gets sick and another doesn’t even though they share the same exposure; why a major flu epidemic may kill thousands yet the majority of the population never slows down.  Claude Bernard had an answer, but history has largely forgotten his name.  A contemporary of Pasteur, he proposed the terrain theory of disease, and the two scientists debated throughout Europe.  Bernard felt that the microorganisms were unimportant; that the terrain, or internal environment we maintain, was all that mattered.  I think it should be obvious that in some ways both men were right, but equally obvious that if we place enough emphasis on controlling Bernard’s internal environment we’ll have far less need for Pasteur’s antibiotics.

Let’s talk about the basics: adequate rest balanced with adequate physical activity, proper hygiene habits, and most importantly a healthy diet.   Studies have shown a direct correlation between sleep and illness, generally indicating a minimum of seven hours sleep needed each day to allow time for the body to repair.  Poor sleep habits impair our ability to rebuild and suppress immune responses.  Similarly, it has been demonstrated that regular moderate exercise boosts overall immunity, while a sedentary lifestyle reduces our immune capacity.  Workaholics, watch out- overworking our body also reduces our immune response.  And some of the simplest habits, like hand washing, have profound effects.  Our hands constantly come into contact with bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms and easily transfer those agents into our bodies when we touch our mouth, our nose, our eyes, or by handling the food we ingest.  Wash hands frequently, especially before eating, or use a hand cleaner like Purell if you don’t have hand washing access.

The most critical of the basic areas involved in maintaining immune response is our diet.  Biochemically we must support energy processes, functional needs, and structural repair; we must keep the motor running smoothly while we rebuild it, all day, every day.  Our standard American diet (the SAD diet) provides significant excesses in areas that impair immune response yet allows ongoing deficiencies of nutrients that strengthen our immune system.  We require adequate quality protein to provide the amino acids necessary for tissue repair and normal function, and protein deficiency has been well documented as a cause of reduced immune capacity.  We tend to ingest excessive amounts of refined, high glycemic carbohydrates (grains, starches, other refined foods) which impair normal immune response through mechanisms related to blood glucose, insulin, and cortisol, an adrenal stress hormone.  And we often lack adequate micronutrients- the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carotenoids and flavonoids we require for efficient function of this human machine.

One major intervention we should make is to eliminate sugar in all forms from our diet.  In the 1970s a Dr. Emanuel Cheraskin from the University of Alabama published extensive studies showing the impact of sugar on our immune system.  A major finding- a single teaspoonful of sugar was shown to reduce white blood cell phagocytic activity up to 50% for two hours after ingestion.  Similarly, later studies have shown that 8 ounces of orange juice or soda slows white blood cell response for up to four hours. 

Even the water we drink is suspect.  Although many of us don’t drink enough water for complete cellular hydration, necessary for efficient biochemical activity of all systems, the water we do drink may in some cases lower immune capacity.  Municipal water systems add chlorine and other agents to kill disease causing bacteria, but these same chemical additives have been implicated in killing the bacteria normally living in the human gut.  These beneficial bacteria play a significant role in our overall immune response, and imbalances are linked to immune impairment.

In the next article in this series, I’ll describe more specifically how different systems in the body work together to maintain immune efficiency as well as discuss some of the nutritional agents used to maintain or improve our immune response.  Until then, sleep well, drink plenty of (pure) water, eat lots of fresh vegetables, whole fruits, and healthy protein, and put down that sugar.  Hmm, maybe Mama was right after all…