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Lifestyle and the Immune System

Man and His Son Carrying Their Cycles Over Rocks on Hiking Trail --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisThe immune system is one of the most complex and fascinating parts of the human body. As science continually explores this factor in our body’s lifesaving ability and its protective measures against our environment, we come to new understandings as to how precariously we live our lives. Whether or not you believe in the germ theory, with the rising onset of immune deficient diseases such as AIDS, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome and numerous autoimmune disorders, not to mention disease-causing bacteria and viruses that are resistant to our wonder drug antibiotics, it becomes increasingly important to understand how we can influence our immune systems in positive ways.

Literally every cell is part of the immune system. We call this cellular immunity. Vessels, glands and organs are involved in this complex system, which also consists of lymphatic vessels, the thymus gland, the spleen, tonsils, adenoids, lymph nodes, specialized white cells and the liver. All of these work intricately to keep us healthy. The thymus gland, located behind the breastbone, is the major gland of our immune system. Its function is to produce T-cells that number T1-T8. Each of these cells has specific capabilities in how they regulate and affect immunity. The T-cells fight bacteria, viruses and cancer. The thymus also produces several hormones that regulate immunity functions. Low levels of hormonal activity are associated with decreased immune function and susceptibility to infection.

The lymph vessels and nodes run parallel to arteries and veins, draining waste material from tissues and transporting it to the nodes for filtering. Exercise is very important for these functions since the lymph system doesn’t have a pump like our circulatory system.

The spleen is the largest mass of lymph tissue. It produces lymphocytes and engulfs and destroys bacteria and cellular debris. It also destroys worn out blood cells and platelets and serves as a blood reservoir. The blood from the spleen goes to the liver for further detoxification.

The liver is not considered a lymphatic organ, but it produces the majority of lymph in the body. Kupffer cells (specialized white cells) filter bacteria, yeast and toxic compounds entering from the intestines. Because lifestyle is do important for the factors that influence immune functions:

  • Improper nutrition: Protein malnutrition affects cell-mediated immunity. It is usually accompanied with vitamin and mineral deficiency. Toxins (pesticides, herbicides and additives) and overly processed foods also affect us negatively.
  • Sugar: Refined and excess natural sugars have shown to suppress specific T-cell activity. Considering that most Americans ingest approximately 5 ounces of sugar daily, our immune systems are being suppressed regularly.
  • High cholesterol: Increased blood cholesterol, triglycerides and bile acids inhibit much immune cell activity, thereby suppressing our ability to fight simple bacteria.
  • Alcohol: It has been shown to suppress immune activity specifically with infections.
  • Antibiotics: Pharmaceutical antibiotics have shown to suppress our bodies’ own ability to fight. Remember, antibiotics kill bacteria and do nothing for viruses. Residues are found in most animal foods: meat, eggs, dairy, etc.
  • Lack of exercise: Contributes to improper lymph drainage.
  • Emotional stress: Affects our total immune function by affecting hormone regulation.

What are some of the nutrients and herbs that help support a healthy immune system?

  • Beta carotene: Supports interferon production, protects the thymus gland, boosts anti-tumor activity and improves natural killer cell activity.
  • Vitamin C: Both an anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Improves host resistance by increasing interferon levels, antibody response, secretion of thymic hormone, and integrity of connective tissues. It is important to take them with bioflavaniods for better utilization by the body.
  • Zinc: Critical for the immune system. Improves cell mediated immunity and thymus functions. Low zinc levels lead to lower T-cell and hormone production. The elderly and young children are more susceptible to lower zinc levels.
  • Selenium: Important for immune function in that it helps protect us from tumor growth. A potent antioxidant.
  • B-complex, particularly B6: A lack reduces the quality and quantity of antibodies produced and has been known to shrink lymphatic tissues, including the thymus gland.

There are numerous botanicals that aid our body’s immunity. Some of the most common are echinacea, goldenseal, astragalus, garlic, reishi and shitake mushrooms, usnea, licorice root and pau d’arco. There has been extensive research on these plants and how they affect our immune system.

  • Echinacea: Otherwise known as purple cone flower, it is a perennial that has been used for more than 200 years. It has a long history of use in all types of infections and has been shown to activate the T3-T4 NK cells, which produce interferon.
  • Goldenseal: One of my favorites when it comes to infections, particularly sinusitis. It works to shrink the mucous membranes and allows better drainage of tissues. It is considered immunostimulatory and has been to kill staph, strep, salmonella, candida and numerous other bacteria. This is not an herb to take in high doses for long periods of time. Always consult an authoritative source when considering herbal products.
  • Licorice root: Scientific evidence supports its use in treating infections and stimulating macrophage activity. It also has demonstrated antiviral activity.
  • Garlic: Antiviral and antibacterial properties. It is good for the common cold and lung infections. I recommend eating a clove of raw garlic at the first sign of cold or flu. Of course, it is strong and you will smell it for awhile.
  • St. John’s Wort: Also has antiviral properties and is being used in trials for HIV and AIDS.
  • Mushrooms such as shitake and reishi are being studied for their anti-tumor and immune stimulating actions.

The study of the immune system is fascinating. I urge each of you to research on your own this natural approach to improving immunity. The amount of available research is vast, but once you understand the importance of lifestyle and balance, you will only benefit from it. Before you run out for the quick fix, study prevention of disease and infection.

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