Our immune system is complex beyond our understanding. Our knowledge of its function is continuously evolving. We will limit the scope of our discussion to concepts that are useful to our goal of maintaining immunologic balance.
Balanced immune function is essential to health and well being. The immune system protects us from infections from bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites. Immunologic reactions are involved in most chronic disease processes including arteriosclerosis (diseases of the heart and vessels) arthritis, cancer, endocrine diseases and the aging process in general. Maintaining immunologic balance is one of the functional bases upon which we build our health and recover from illness.
Our immune system recognizes self from non-self at a molecular level. That which is perceived as self is tolerated and left alone. That which is perceived as non-self is attacked, destroyed and eliminated by a variety of immunologic and inflammatory processes.
We survive infectious diseases because our immune system identifies the infecting agent (bacteria, virus, fungus or parasite) as foreign and creates a defense system to contain the infection. In addition, our immune system has a memory. Once we survive an infection we develop a resistance to re-infection because of the memory system.
We are constantly creating cancer cells in our bodies. This can occur as a result of genetic predisposition. However, in most cases, cancer cell induction is a complex process that involves genetic predisposition and environmental stimulation. Our immune system recognizes these abnormal cells and destroys them. Cancer is considered to be an immune deficiency disease when the immune system fails to recognize cancer cells as foreign and destroy them.
Autoimmune diseases arise when the immune system mistakenly perceives our own tissue as foreign. Examples of autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, systemic Lupus Erythematosis, ulcerative colitis and Thyroiditis.
Classical allergic illnesses such as allergic rhinitis and asthma are a result of an over exuberant immunologic reaction to allergens from the environment.
There is a decline in immunologic function/balance with aging and in individuals with chronic diseases. This results in an increased incidence of chronic and acute infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases and cancer.
We can divide immunologic functions into two main groups: cell mediated immunity and humoral immunity. Special cells called T- helper lymphocytes modulate the immune reaction.
TH1 cells modulate cell-mediated immunity. Cell mediated immunity involves the direct action of specialized cells in attacking infectious agents, foreign materials and cancer cells.
An inadequacy of TH1 cell function might result in problems such as chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic fungal and yeast infections, chronic viral infections, chronic sinusitis and cancer.
When TH1 function is excessive, certain autoimmune diseases may develop. We might see diseases such as Type 1 Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Crohn’s Disease and Chronic Lyme Disease.
TH2 cells modulate humoral immunity. This means that specialized immune cells make antibodies that attack specific targets. Vaccination is a practice that stimulates humoral immune action against a specific infectious agent. A vaccination helps our immune system to create a memory for certain molecular characteristics of the infectious agent. When the bacteria or virus challenges us we generate antibodies to destroy it.
A TH2 deficient condition can occur because of hereditary immune deficiency, stress, malnutrition, chronic illness and aging. A TH2 deficient patient may be more prone to bacterial infections and less able to fight them.
A TH2 dominant condition may decrease cellular immunity and increase humoral immunity. Examples of diseases associated with TH2 excess include allergies, chronic sinusitis, Eczema, Asthma, Systemic Autoimmune Diseases (Lupus) and ulcerative colitis.
General strategies to optimize immune balance include tending to the Foundation Issues of Health and Healing such as good diet, moderate exercise, adequate sleep and stress reduction through psychological balance, the maintenance of healthy relationships and cultivating our spiritual life.
Diet: Immune cell function is impaired for hours after sugar ingestion. Inadequate protein intake is a common cause for immune dysfunction. A balanced vitamin and mineral supplement has been shown to improve immune function in elderly people.
Exercise: Regular exercise enhances immune function. Gentle aerobic exercise is known to improve immune function. Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Gong are exercise and meditative disciplines from Asia that have been demonstrated to improve immune function.
Sleep and Restorative Rest: Chronic sleep disturbance is linked to an increased susceptibility to infection and cancer.
Stress and Immune Function: Psychoneuroimmunology is a field of medicine that has developed over the last 30 years. It has begun to document the incredible relationship between immunologic function and social issues such as nurturing, community support, self-esteem and abusive relationships.
In The Functional Basis for Health and Healing, we have discussed the importance of gastrointestinal function, hepatic function, toxic load and hormonal balance. There is a close relationship between immunologic balance and each of these related functional areas.
Gastrointestinal Function: Two thirds of our immune cells reside in and around our gastrointestinal tract. These cells protect us from the toxic content of our gut. They allow us to receive the benefit of the food we ingest without being injured by the contaminants of the food.
The immune cells in our intestinal tract interact with the immune cells throughout our bodies via chemical messages. Gastrointestinal health is a key component of immunologic balance.
Hepatic Function: The liver provides a secondary barrier function after the gastrointestinal tract. Improper liver function will result in the accumulation of toxins that impair immunologic balance.
Toxic Load: The accumulation of foreign chemicals in our body will result in immunologic impairment. Heavy metals are particularly problematic in this regard. Reduction of total toxic load is an important component of restoring immunologic balance.
Hormonal Balance: Hormonal balance is critical to immunologic balance. As we age there is an excess of the catabolic hormones (cortisone and insulin) and a relative deficiency of the anabolic hormones (DHEA, sex hormones, growth hormone). This imbalance creates a tendency to suppression of the TH1 system with an increase in autoimmune disease, infectious disease and cancer. Sleep deprivation impairs melatonin production from the pineal gland. Melatonin is important in the TH1 immune cell function. Thyroid deficiency impairs immunologic balance. Diabetes is associated with an increase risk to infectious diseases, arteriosclerosis and cancer.
Products that support general balance include probiotics (Culturelle, HLC Saccharomyces), enzymes (Wobenzyme), Colostrum (Beyond Whey), essential fatty acids (Beyond Essential Fats), trace minerals (selenium) and plant sterols (Cholestepure).
TH1 Deficient states might result in problems such as chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic fungal and yeast infections, chronic viral infections, chronic sinusitis and cancer. TH1 deficient states commonly arise with the aging process.
Diagnosis of TH1 Deficient State:
Conventional medicine does not give this problem adequate attention. The exception is the field of oncology, which is beginning to recognize that adequate immune function is an important component of our ability to resist cancer. This realization has not filtered down into common clinical practices.
There are excellent ways to determine the quality of the TH1 state. While not comprehensive these tests provide a valuable insight that can lead to therapeutic action. Natural Killer Cells (NK cells) are a group of specialized white cells from the TH1 group. These cells survey the body. The NK cells will attack and destroy virus and cancer cells in the body. We can measure the activity of these cells with a test known as the Natural Killer Cell Cytotoxic Activity Test. This test can be used as a proxy for TH1 activity in general.
When NK cell activity is low we can support normal function with supplements such as Immucare I and Immucare II. It has also been shown that Vitamin C supplementation will improve NK cell function.
Strategies that improve autoimmune problems include Autosanguis therapy, constitutional hydrotherapy, diet therapy and oxidation therapy.
TH2 dominant processes mediate type 1 allergic diseases. The classic examples of disease from this type of immune imbalance include allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis, eczema and hives (Urticaria).
Conventional medicine strategies for diagnosis include: patient history and physical exam, allergy skin testing, and RAST serum testing.
Conventional medicine strategies for managing these conditions include: avoidance of the allergenic substances, immune therapy (allergy shots), over the counter and prescription anti-histamines, nasal corticosteroids and systemic corticosteroids (Cortisone shots and or pills).
Integrative medicine strategies for restoring immune balance in people with this type of problems include: returning to our foundation strategies for health and healing, supporting healthy gastro-intestinal and liver function and reducing total load.
Integrative medicine practitioners have used sub-lingual desensitization techniques successfully for many years.
There are a variety of supplements that may prove helpful in restoring immune balance in these conditions.
Probiotics such as HLC and Culturelle have been studied and found useful in reducing symptoms of chronic allergic skin conditions, allergic respiratory problems and gastrointestinal problems.
Vitamin C in doses ranging from 1-4 grams twice daily may be helpful.
Quercetin and N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC) have been found helpful in restoring immune balance in patients with chronic upper respiratory allergies as well as asthma.
T. Ashmatica Plus is a product that has been particularly useful in supporting immune balance and normal respiratory function in people with asthma and chronic bronchitis.
Low potency homeopathic preparations have been helpful in treating allergy symptoms in my patients. These include Sinusin nasal spray.
Balanced immunologic function is essential to good health. When we address the foundation issues of health and healing and the functional basis for health and healing we create immunologic balance. Our understanding of how to diagnose immunologic imbalance is improving rapidly. We are making great strides in our ability to support immunologic balance with appropriate use of supplements. It is important to realize that maintaining immunologic balance and restoring it requires an integrated approach.