The immune system is key in both health and disease
What is the Immune System?
The immune system is the collective army of a trillion white blood cells, bone marrow, antibodies, cytokines and the thymus gland that help to identify and destroy the millions of microbes (i.e. bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi) that penetrate our bodies every day, and the thousands of our own cells that have become genetically abnormal or cancerous. In fact, the immune system is considered every bit as complex as our nervous system, and is not only able to produce a matching antibody for every one of the millions of different infective agents, but is able to remember how to produce these agents decades later. Key to immune function is the activity of the white blood cells, such as NK, T and B cells, which form the backbone of the immune system.
How does Immune System strength determine health?
The strength of our immune system determines our body's ability to resist infection and the growth of abnormal (cancerous) cells. If it is below its optimum level, we are much more prone to illness, both from infections and cncers. Without an immune system at all, we would not survive very long in the outside world (children born without an immune system have to be kept in an artificial environment or “bubble”).
If our immune system is maintained at optimum level, our incidence of disease is less, and we are less likely to develop abnormal cell growths. Also, when we do become ill or have a physical injury, a healthy immune system can ensure the fastest possible recovery. In some serious cases, for example with cancer, immune system strength can literally mean the difference between life and death. Without a healthy immune system, the body and mind languish in a state of ill health, greatly prolonging the journey back to vitality.
A good indicator of the level of our immune system is how energized or alive we feel. If we feel low or weak, our immune system is probably low and weak. We are intuitively aware of this which is why we use expressions such as being "below par", "feeling low" or being "under the weather" when we are feeling unwell. Usually we try to compensate for these “low” feelings by drinking more caffeinated drinks, eating more sugar and watching action movies — anything that gives us a chemical “buzz”. Whilst this might give temporary relief, it is a dangerous long-term solution as we will find ourselves having to take more and more of these quick fixes just to maintain normal functioning energy. That is why, for example, so many of us NEED that cup of coffee in the morning to get going — our systems have been conditioned by an unhealthy lifestyle to tick over too slowly. So a strong immune system not only determines how healthy our bodies are, but our mental state as well.
It is of fundamental importance to both body and mind, therefore, for everyone to maintain optimum immune system health.
How does the Immune System become weak?
There are several factors that reduce the strength of the immune system:
1) Poor nutrition: the modern diet is depleted of many of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutritive factors that are essential to the body to maintain a healthy immune system. Supermarket fruit is often picked green before the nutrients have a chance to develop; the vegetables are often grown in depleted soils (if the soil is depleted anything that grows in it is obviously does not have the full range of nutrients); and the meat comes from cattle that not only eat a depleted diet, but are often injected with hormones and steroids. Food that isn't fresh is often processed to prolong shelf life — great for the supermarket shelf life but maybe not the best thing for optimum health. The immune system NEEDS optimum nutrition in our diets in order to function well. If just a few vitamins or minerals vital to its processes are not available in adequate amounts, our immune system will be compromised.
2) A polluted environment: as our environment becomes more polluted, our bodies have to cope with a greater "toxic load". This comes into the body through the food we eat, our lungs and our skin, and also from over exposure to sunlight and electrical equipment. When the toxic load rises, the immune system has to work harder to identify and detoxify these pollutants — lowering its efficiency. Some toxins and chemicals can even cause abnormalities in cell growth and reproduction, leading to the development of cancer cells. These are occurring every day, not only through the action of certain environmental pollutants, but also through occasional mistakes being make in normal cellular division. It is the immune system's job to destroy these abnormal cells before they have a chance to proliferate, but if the load is too great, its neutralisation ability is severely strained.
3) Stress: when we are stressed, evolution has designed our bodies to get ready for action (fight or flight) by diverting all resources to the muscles. Bodily functions considered unnecessary in an emergency situation are temporarily closed down such as digestion, repair mechanisms and immune function. Whilst this was fine during most of human history, when stress invariably involved a danger such as a lion that would quickly pass, modern living often involves situations in which we are chronically stressed, and this means that our repair mechanisms and immune response are continually impaired. This can be greatly compounded by lack of sufficient sleep -- the main chance the body has to repair and recover. Over time stress and lack of sleep degrade our system making us prone to disease and premature ageing.
4) Drugs: both medicinal and recreational drugs can substantially lower the immune system. For example, antibiotics destroy the healthy bacteria in our stomachs which are essential for healthy digestion. Immune system depletion is also an unfortunate side-effect of some of today's modern treatments (for example in chemotherapy and radiotherapy) which can decimate immune resilience. Whilst powerful medicines might be necessary for short-term survival, the long-term view must include the healing of the body's natural defence systems.
What can we do to strengthen the immune system?
The best way to strengthen the immune system is to minimise as much as possible these four factors:
1) Get Better Nutrition: To increase our nutritional intake we need to choose the healthiest food we can find, preferably organic and local-grown fruits and vegetables. Drink plenty of clean water (and that does not mean tap water with fluoride and/or chlorine!). Also avoid anti-nutrients that end up actually using the body's nutrient store to metabolize it, rather than contributing to this store in the first place. Such anti-nutrients are sugar, white bread, white rice, alcohol (over a very moderate amount), chocolate (sugar content), biscuits, soda drinks, fast-food and dairy products (milk is not the best thing for health… despite all those advertisements by the milk marketing companies). It is also a complete fallacy that a well-balanced diet can give our bodies sufficient nutrients to function optimally. In fact, anybody who advises not only displays his or her nutritional ignorance, but actually damages public health. It is imperative to add food supplements to the diet, especially antioxidants which help to neutralize free radical attack and cellular damage. Everyone is advised to make sure they are getting adequate Vitamin C (at least 1000mg a day), Vitamin B-complex (all the B vitamins are very important so choose a strong one), Vitamin A (15000IU), Vitamin E (200IUs), Selenium (100mcg), Zinc (20mg) and magnesium (100mg). One can also try herbs such as Echinacea and Cat's Claw. These giving the body a helping hand to deal with an environment very different from the one in which humankind has evolved for millions of years.
2) Minimise Pollutants: Eat organic food and don't smoke. There are doctors around who will not even take on a patient if they refuse to stop smoking as this is a sure sign that they don't really want health. It is imperative to drink plenty of clean water (at least 1.5 litres a day) so that we are able to flush our bodies of toxins that have accumulated. (Occasional fasts and colonic irrigation can also help to detoxify the body and therefore increase immune health.) The sun and other sources of electromagnetic radiation are also factors that use up much of the bodies immune resources and so should be minimized (a little bit of sunlight is actually strengthening for the immune system… but only a small amount). Don't sit too close to the television or the computer monitor (or get a flat screen if you can afford it). It goes without saying that drugs of any kind are a serious pollutant to the body and so these should be minimized whenever possible (see 4).
3) Reduce Stress: It is amazing what a holiday can do for the immune system! It is important, therefore, to pace ourselves in life as much as possible. Stress really isn't worth the higher exam grade or the money bonus because it sets in motion a terrible habit that will cause us serious health problems in the future. There are so many stories of people with serious health conditions that miraculously melted away when they started to let go and relax. We can help this relaxation process by getting enough sleep (at least 7 hours for most of us), choosing not to be around situations that make us angry, depressed and frustrated, and doing gentle to moderate exercise, the short term exertion of which paradoxically helps us to relax. We might also consider such activities as meditation, prayer, Tai Chi or yoga as a means to increase our relaxation levels and the feeling that we are in control of life — the feeling of being a victim in life, of being out of control, can be very stressful. (Remember however that strenuous exercise such as long-distance running, cycling etc. should be avoided as it tends to last too long, reducing immune health).
4) Minimise Drugs: If there is a natural product we can take instead of the drug your doctor wants to prescribe us, we should take the natural one (provided our doctor is in agreement… if he or she doesn't like the idea of you taking responsibility for your own health, you are with the wrong doctor). Doctors today are very busy and tend to focus almost entirely on fast-to-prescribe drug remedies (“magic bullets”) to everyday complaints. Few know very much about nutrition or alternative remedies so you might have to challenge your doctor — not a pleasant thing to do but certainly good for your health! Always choose lifestyle changes if you can, and use medical drugs, whenever possible, as a last resort (especially drugs such as antibiotics). As for recreation drugs, minimize these as much as possible, and when you must take them, make sure you get plenty of rest both before and after and also up the supplements to help to compensate for their immune-lowering effect.
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There are always times when the above is just not enough to cope with a severely depleted immune system. Perhaps we are unwilling or unable to optimise our immune health (for example, we might be on a course of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or live in the middle of a dirty city) and in such instances we might consider something more powerful such as arabinoxylan supplements, the most effective being a supplement from Japan called BioBran. This natural food supplement is made from the action of Shitake mushroom enzymes on rice bran, and the resulting hemicellulous compound is so potent and safe to take that it has now become the leading serious immune system supplement in both Japan and the United States, and more recently Europe.