The immune system is not only involved in defending the body against infections, viruses, cancer cells, fungi and other parasites. An unhealthy immune system speeds up the ageing process and is a major factor in fatigue, chronic inflammation and allergies.
Modern medicine is based on the theory that germs cause illness. But there are a significant number of experts, scientists amongst them, who believe that germs are not the primary cause of illness. If this were true, how can we explain the fact that out of three people exposed to a respiratory germ, only one will get pneumonia, the second person will get minor cold symptoms whilst the third person remains unaffected? This is because our internal body environment influences whether or not the germ becomes disease causing. Even Louis Pasteur, the father of the germ theory, recognized this when he said:
“The germ is nothing, the terrain everything”.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is a highly complex defence system which protects us from the potentially massive threat from invaders both from within the body and outside in our environment. The system is not concentrated in one particular location but is distributed throughout the body.
- The first line of defence against the external environment is the barrier of the mouth, nose, throat, intestines, skin and lungs. Strong barriers prevent infection causing pathogens gaining entry and activating the immune system. Allergies and intolerances are also less likely to occur. A major factor in healthy barriers is good flora which should form a thick protective layer over these barriers preventing the entry of harmful organisms.
- A huge percentage (70%) of the immune system resides in the gut. Healthy acid loving probiotic bacteria should be concentrated here in large amounts. Not only do they benefit bowel function directly by improving stool quality and easing transit through the colon, they enhance the absorption of minerals, especially iron and calcium, manufacture some B vitamins and produce substances which kill off yeast, viruses and disease causing bacteria. If you drink alcohol regularly, take the contraceptive pill, antibiotics, acid suppressing medications or anti inflammatory medicine, these factors particularly affect the flora negatively and will necessitate regular repopulation of the good bacteria.
- The inner army consists of circulating immune cells spread throughout the blood and a substance called lymph. The lymphatic system is an important part of the immune system as it is continuously cleansing the cells of wastes and toxins. Lymph transports these substances through a network of lymphatic vessels all over the body and through the lymph nodes to be filtered and purified. The purified lymph then flows back into the blood circulation. These nodes are concentrated in the neck, chest and groin and when there is a lot of immune activity going on, these areas will swell. The thymus gland (at the top of the breast bone), spleen and tonsils are important lymph organs and the small intestine contains lymphatic tissue (known as Peyer’s patches).
- The adrenal glands, which are activated under stress, are part of the defence system in that they are responsible for helping the body adapt to stress, change and infection.
- The liver plays a role in immunity as it contains many cells called macrophages which eat invaders. It is also responsible for detoxifying the body of chemicals and toxins
- The mouth is a major entry point for bugs. A simple old fashioned gargle is an inexpensive and powerful means of preventing the spread of an initial infection, which can stay in the throat and nose for up to 3 days before proliferating and causing symptoms. Any gargle will do – my favourite is tea tree oil which is plant based and has strong anti bacterial & anti viral properties. Add a few drops to a quarter glass of water and gargle for one minute. Leave your toothbrush, which is a focus for germs, soaking in a tea tree solution overnight.
- Change your diet and if appropriate, enhance it with supplements relevant to your needs. A good place to start is a personalised nutritional wellness plan (email firstname.lastname@example.org to book an appointment).
- The best way to assess the state of the flora is to look at the stools! A healthy stool should be cylindrical in shape, not at all sticky, break up easily when flushed and have no odour.
- Since such a large proportion of the immune system is in the gut, keeping the intestines clean will help resistance against ‘flu viruses and infections. A good diet will help in this respect and the occasional colonic or herbal enema.
- You can test to see if you have a leaky gut barrier. This is not a test that the NHS will carry out. It is a simple home procedure involving a stool or urine sample. A leaky gut allows small partially digested particles of food and toxins into the blood triggering immune reactions and making allergies more likely.
- An important factor to consider is to the acid/alkaline balance of your diet. Excess acidity goes hand in hand with chronic diseases and will weaken your defences. Diet changes need to be handled carefully in order to obtain enough protein as well as to avoid overloading with fibre which can upset digestion and cause bloating and other uncomfortable symptoms.
- Vitamin D is vitally important for immune function. It is now recognized that deficiency of this vitamin is much more widespread across the whole population than was previously thought. The body will make vitamin D but it needs sunlight to do so. Advice to cover up and use high factor sun protection creams as well as the fact that we aren’t overwhelmed with sunshine in the UK, makes us vulnerable to low vitamin D. You can test your vitamin D levels through an inexpensive home blood test using a finger prick test kit. Unfortunately most GP surgeries are now operating on too tight a budget to offer vitamin D testing on the NHS. The best food source of vitamin D is oily fish. For more information on vitamin D click here.
- Vitamin B12 along with folic acid is needed to fuel the cells that destroy bacteria and to keep up adequate levels of the immune cells called lymphocytes. Signs and symptoms of B12 deficiency can be tingling in the limbs, anaemia that is not responsive to iron, fatigue, mouth ulcers and digestive problems to name a few. Swallowing tablets is not an effective way to take B12 as it is not absorbed properly.
- Zinc is vital for a healthy immune system. The production and function of immune cells and immune related hormones are all dependent on adequate zinc levels. Zinc is not found abundantly in the average diet. Deficiency signs include white spots on the nails and hair loss.
- Vitamin A strengthens the delicate outer membranes of the barriers and deficiency of this vitamin increases the risk of infection. Vitamin A proper (retinol, the animal form) is found mainly in dairy foods, liver and oily fish. You can also use butter very sparingly (buy organic, unsalted). Beta carotene, the vegetable form of vitamin A has immune building properties of its own (it is particularly good for strengthening the lungs) and is found in orange and yellow fruit and vegetables, especially carrots, squash, mangoes & apricots. In fact, apricots have 30% more vitamin A than carrots! It is also found in green leafy vegetables e.g. watercress, broccoli, cabbage. Beta carotene is converted into vitamin A by the body but not everyone is very efficient at doing this, particularly people with an underactive thyroid gland.
- Remember to relax! Stress will interfere with barrier repair because it alters the pH (acid/alkaline balance) in favour of a medium which encourages unhealthy bacteria. Additionally stress stimulates enzymes that eat away at the gut lining. Try CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), which is available on the NHS and/or meditation to clear negative mental states which are now known to weaken immunity. The field of psychoneuroimmunology is showing clear links in this area. Tai Chi has been found to improve T-lymphocyte count by 40%. Yoga encourages a state of deep relaxation in which the immune system works best.
- Move about as much as possible during the day. Unlike the blood circulation which is constantly activated by the heart, the lymph has no pump. Lymph is dependent on physical movement for its flow. So exercising regularly (and skin brushing with a natural bristle brush) is important for good immunity.
Please note the information in this article is not a substitute for medical advice. If you have a medical condition and/or are taking medication, check with your GP and a qualified nutritional therapist, before changing your diet/taking supplements.
© Copyright Penny Crowther 2011