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Optimizing Our Immune Response by Terry Wingo, RPh

In our previous discussion we considered the basics of immune response, such as adequate rest, physical activity, and a healthy diet.  We recognized that our diet is a major factor in determining how well our immune system is able to respond and explored the extremely negative effects of sugars in our diet.  We looked briefly at the value of micronutrients in maintaining immune strength.   In this article we will explore further the value of micronutrients and take a closer look at how different functional systems in our bodies overlap in providing healthy immune defenses.

The first area we will explore is not usually considered part of our primary immune system, but may be the most critical function to support in order to maintain healthy immune responses.   Our digestive system is critical to all areas of human health, but we should also recognize that probably 50% of our direct immune system resides in or around the gut.  Proper secretion of digestive agents and adequate absorption of micronutrients depends on healthy cells of the mucosal tissues lining the gastrointestinal tract.  This is important when we recognize that sub clinical or marginal nutrient deficiencies are considered the most frequent cause of depressed immune response.  Studies have repeatedly shown that supplementation with a multivitamin/multimineral combination increases immune response in elderly patients, who almost universally have decreased digestive capacity.  Normal immune responses are further impaired by the development of food allergies or food sensitivities.  These inappropriate responses are due to our inability or failure to completely break certain food proteins down into their component amino acids, leading to immune globulin activation towards the undigested peptide fractions.

An integral part of our gastrointestinal function is the approximately three pounds of beneficial microorganisms we harbor within.  These normal gut flora are critical for normal immune response, actively managing levels of pathogenic microorganisms, improving digestion and elimination, and even manufacturing some of our required B vitamins.  Antibiotics, although targeted towards specific pathogens, wreak havoc on these beneficial organisms as well, allowing overgrowth of yeasts, pathogenic bacteria, monilial agents, and other parasites.  Numerous medical journal studies have reported on improper antibiotic usage, with estimates from 20% to 70% of prescribed antibiotics identified as inappropriate.  Additionally, we face significant secondary antibiotic exposure, with twenty times more antibiotics (by weight) fed to food animals than are prescribed for all the people in the United States.

Our endocrine system is critically intertwined in immune response as well.  The effects of stress on adrenal function are recognized, including impaired regulation of blood glucose levels, decreased conversion of thyroid hormone into its most active form, and reduced production of several hormones.  Thyroid hormone regulates metabolic rate within cells; reduced utilization of thyroid hormone, which may occur even with normal levels, reduces efficiency of all biochemical function in the body (including immune responses).

Direct immune system elements include the various types of white blood cells which police our system, attacking, destroying, and devouring invaders; our thymus gland, which stores and regulates the release of white cells; and several immune globulins, which identify and attach to foreign protein, whether invading bacteria or peptides from poor digestion, so that these “invaders” may be more easily destroyed or cleared from our bodies.  We need to remember the effects of dietary sugars in reducing both white cell response time and degree of phagocytic activity, and as well should recognize that any micronutrient deficiency can be linked to reduction in immune capacity.  With that in mind, let’s look more closely at some of the supplements that have been shown to boost immune response.

Studies show many specific nutrients have benefit well beyond restoring normal function and thus may serve therapeutic purpose.  The most basic, or course, is to start with a therapeutic multivitamin and mutimineral to strengthen basic function.  Digestive aids including various digestive enzymes and betaine HCl have been shown to improve immune response.  Vitamin A has demonstrated direct antiviral activity as well as being required for overall immune system function.  Vitamin C may be the most important single nutrient for immune responses, and the medical literature contains literally thousands of articles reporting on research demonstrating specific therapeutic uses for this vital nutrient.  Linus Pauling received two unshared Nobel prizes for his work identifying the critical role vitamin C plays in human health, including a significant delineation of its role in our immune responses.  The B vitamin family is necessary for energy processes in cells and is directly involved in immune strength.  Vitamin E and essential fatty acids, especially the omega-3 fatty acids, are necessary for cell wall flexibility and permeability and have been shown to be beneficial in boosting immune system function.  Zinc is a necessary cofactor for over 200 different enzyme reactions including several involved in immune response; deficiency of selenium is directly related to impaired immunity.  Many herbals have been studied and identified as highly beneficial in immune regulation including echinacea, astragalus, garlic, cat’s claw, and olive leaf extract. 

A stronger immune system is well within our reach and within our control.  Dietary and lifestyle choices are ours to make, basic nutrients are available as supplements for all to take.  Seek a knowledgeable professional to assist you or check out professional texts such as Textbook of Natural Medicine or Textbook of Nutritional Medicine and you’ll be well on your way.  Before you know it, your friends or coworkers will be asking you “What’s your secret?  You never get sick!”  See you in good health…