- Alternative & Natural Medicine
Immune Deficiency - A Natural Approach
The Immune System
As a first step, I will note that various inherited disorders and diseases (both infectious and otherwise) can lead to a deficient immune system, sometimes drastically so. Someone with AIDS, for example, should be under close medical supervision and the usefulness of any natural approaches will be limited although some of these approaches might help somewhat. Accordingly, this article is not about such drastic problems as that.
The body’s immune system is its defence against harmful agents of one sort or another. These can be chemical agents such as airborne dust and inhaled solvent fumes, other living and semi-living organisms such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, worms and viruses, and lastly rogue elements of its own tissue; the body’s own cells that have gone out of control, which is basically what constitutes cancer.
The immune system is a multi-layered defence. For external threats, the first line of defence is the body’s outside surface, in other words the skin and the mucous membranes. The latter refers to the moist membranes that line the lungs, eyelids and digestive tract; also the urogenital tract (the bladder and reproductive organs). The skin is impervious or nearly so to most potential problems; the mucous membranes are less so but usually only admit simple nutrients such as sugars, small peptides and amino acids, and fatty acids - and also oxygen in the case of the lungs.
It might be useful and interesting to note that the intestinal contents, for example, are actually outside the body.
The next line of defence is the various cells of the immune system. Some people would say that the liver, in its function of detoxifying harmful chemicals, is part of the immune system; however, liver protection is a subject in itself. For the moment, it is worth noting that if the liver is put under strain by having to detoxifying large amounts of foreign chemicals, then nothing else in the body will work all that well. Probably the most common agent for causing this problem is alcohol; a close second in aggregate is drugs, whether prescription or otherwise and legal or illegal.
As the skin and mucous membranes are the first barrier to incoming threats, if they are in poor condition then infections are more likely. As an example, skin suffering from eczema (basically, extreme dryness) is far more likely to become infected with various bacteria.
However, skin and mucous membranes cannot keep everything out. Firstly, either can become damaged allowing pathogens to enter. Secondly, mucous membranes are not completely efficient at keeping out viruses - probably because viruses are very small, and also because the cells of the mucous membranes themselves can become infected; this is basically what, for example, a cold is.
This means that the immune system sometimes needs to attack invading pathogens. Of course, there is also the issue of internal enemies such as cancer cells; and a lesser-known problem is that some types of virus are impossible to completely eradicate. The reason for this is that the immune system’s main method of killing viruses is to kill the cells they are in; the problem with this is that some tissues are not replaceable, for example the cells of the central nervous system - and are protected from the immune system. Some viruses, notably the herpes-class ones such as the viruses of glandular fever and chickenpox along with cold sores, have evolved to exploit this fact by hiding in the central nervous system and coming out when the immune system is otherwise stressed. This is probably why cold sores were given their name; they tend to appear when someone has a cold or when the area of the lips is damaged by extreme cold.
As most people are exposed to various herpes viruses at a very early age, this means that the immune system always has work to do suppressing them.
Causes of Immune Deficiency
The various components of the immune system need a fairly large number of nutrients for optimum efficiency, and the integrity of the skin and mucous membranes needs a few more. This means that anyone with virtually any nutritional deficiency, even a borderline one, is likely to suffer more infections.
Two more things that can impair the body’s main defences are very dry or polluted air, which damage the mucous membranes, and very high stress levels. There are two reasons for the latter; firstly stress causes release of cortisol, which suppresses the immune system, and secondly very intense exercise depletes glutamine, which is needed in large quantities for both immune response and mucous membrane repair. I’m told that it is common knowledge among long-distance runners (normally quite fit and healthy, obviously) that within a week after a competitive 10,000 metres or marathon it is very likely that you will become ill. Intake of large amounts of easily-absorbed carbohydrate such as sugar also suppresses the immune system for many hours.
Another possible reason for a below-par immune system is physical damage. This can be caused in various ways. One is bone marrow damage caused as an inevitable side-effect of some medical treatments such as cancer chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Large amounts of ionising radiation from other sources (such as being caught in a nuclear reactor leak or some such accident) also cause this damage, but obviously this is rather uncommon to say the least.
Another type of physical damage is physical removal of parts of the immune system. The adenoids, tonsils and spleen have been known for many years to be important parts of the immune system, and they are reasonably commonly removed for various good reasons. Less well known as a part of the immune system is the appendix. This means that anyone missing any of these organs, particularly the spleen, is likely to have an immune system that doesn’t work as well as normal.
Lastly, like all other parts of the body the immune system declines as one gets older. This is one of the reasons why it is often recommended that elderly people get yearly flu vaccinations. Unfortunately, in this particular case the jab doesn’t last long because the flu virus has the nasty habit of mutating quite frequently; this means that last year’s flu jab is unlikely to protect you much.
Natural Approaches to Improving Immunity
Usual suspects here for any natural therapy. But to set it out clearly; a healthy diet is essential for proper immune function as it is for many other aspects of health. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit of various colours (which means consuming a large variety of natural antioxidants), fish (particularly oily fish), seeds, nuts and whole grains; reduce or eliminate highly processed foods, sugars, alcohol and particularly tobacco. As a rule of thumb, if the packet that you would buy it in has twenty different ingredients on the label half of which you don’t recognise, don’t buy it.
Vitamin A (both as retinol and as beta-carotene), zinc, vitamin C, various B vitamins and antioxidants such as vitamin E and selenium are all needed for optimum immune system function. Most of this will be covered by a high-quality, high-strength multiple formula from a reputable manufacturer; the exceptions are vitamin C, which is needed in quantities much greater (2000mg or more per day) than a multiple can supply, and selenium which is needed in larger quantities than most multiples supply - even the good ones - for some reason. The necessary amount of supplemental selenium is 100-200 micrograms per day, in the form of selenomethionine. You might get lucky and get this amount in a multiple, but you usually won’t.
L-glutamine supplementation may help if your immune system is depressed by stress or heavy exercise. For this purpose it needs to be taken on an empty stomach, and the amount needed is 5-10 grams per day usually as powder, dissolved in liquid. Fortunately, L-glutamine has very little taste and what taste it does have isn’t too bad.
Herbals and Botanicals
Various herbs stimulate or modulate the immune system. Some are only useful for a temporary boost, for example Echinacea which is normally only recommended by herbalists for a period of no more than 6 weeks. However, various other herbs provide a weaker boost but can be used indefinitely. Some examples are cat’s claw, schisandra and various other herbs more normally regarded as adaptogens such as ginseng, Siberian ginseng, ashwaghanda and Rhodiola rosea.
Elderberry is very useful specifically against viruses, particularly those of colds and flu. It works by preventing the viruses entering cells, and can be taken indefinitely but can also be used when a cold or flu actually occurs. For the latter purpose, elderberry should probably be kept in stock as it is ideally used within 24 hours of onset.
This class of herbs includes the fairly well known goldenseal and Oregon grape, and also various others. Berberine and the other compounds normally found with it act against virtually all pathogens and have some effect against protozoa and worms. These herbs should be used with care, as to varying degrees they put a strain on the liver, and are probably not all that useful for prolonged use. An unrelated but not insignificant fact is that extracts of these herbs, particularly extracts of goldenseal, are quite highly coloured and may stain clothing.