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How to boost your immune system

Dr Paul Clayton 2014

Maintaining a healthy immune system is a priority, as the dangers of a weakened immune system are very real. More people die each year from systemic bacterial infections than from breast, colorectal and pancreatic cancer combined – and the antibiotics we have routinely used to treat infections are rapidly becoming ineffective.

Your immune system protects against invasion by the bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that live on and around us. It is also one of the body’s defences against cancer.

A weakened immune system, therefore, leaves your body vulnerable to disease. Indeed the weakening of immune systems is implicated in the significantly increased incidence of cancer that has occurred in the last century.

But can you actually strengthen your immune system? Do vitamins or herbals help enhance the immune system? There are six proven ways to enhance your immune system – but first some essential background.

What weakens the immune system?
Many things can weaken the immune system, such as chronic or long term stress, depression (which causes hormonal changes very similar to those caused by stress), a less than optimum diet, lack of sleep, and long-haul flights.

Certain medications such as steroids also weaken the immune system as does HIV. The immune system is also depleted in the winter months when vitamin D levels fall, inconveniently just when adverse weather conditions keep many at home, and in closer contact with others.

Ironically there appears to be another reason we have less effective immune systems than we used to. We have over-sanitised our environment!

Our over-sanitised environment – the “hygiene hypothesis”
Humans evolved in a dirty environment. During most of our time on this planet, our environment was full of bacterial and viral hazards, and our immune systems were constantly challenged. Our immune systems up-regulated, responded and we survived and multiplied.

In today’s over-sterilised environment our immune systems are unexposed to yeasts or moulds, which contain compounds (1-3, 1-6 beta glucans) that prime the innate immune system. This leaves our immune systems less functional and less able to neutralise new and unexpected threats. So, when we travel to parts of the world where sanitation standards are lower than ours, we routinely fall victim to pathogens that locals have no problems with, resulting in ‘Montezuma’s revenge’, ‘Delhi belly’ and other travellers’ ills.

The absence of priming by yeasts in today’s hygiene-obsessed world has also left our immune systems less able to cope with normally harmless substances such as pollen. This is thought to have contributed to the explosion in the numbers of people with asthma and allergy.

This so-called ‘hygiene hypothesis’ probably explains why children who live on farms or with pets have a reduced risk of asthma and allergy.

Age is a factor
There is evidence that the aging process leads to a reduction of immune response capability, which in turn contributes to more vulnerability to infections, more inflammatory diseases, and more cancer. It may be related to a decreased production of T cells in the thymus, and it probably also reflects declining nutritional standards.

Transmission is easy in crowded transport systems
Millions of us have to commute on local transport systems that are overheated, overcrowded, and constitute ideal conditions for the transmission of bacteria and viruses.

Moreover, rapid global travel means that on any one day, a single passenger can contract a virus or bacterium on one continent and arrive in another before the first symptoms of illness emerge, thus avoiding early detection. And that passenger can be importing more pathogens than there are humans on the planet!

We are running out of effective antibiotics
Unfortunately, we cannot continue to rely on antibiotics to save us. The rise of ‘super-bugs’ like MRSA , C. difficile, and Multiple Drug Resistant Tuberculosis indicates that many antibiotics are losing their effectiveness. Why? Because we have been over-using and mis-using antibiotics. Some folk demand antibiotics to combat a virus, although antibiotics only work against bacteria.

Bacteria have a far shorter life cycle than ours, so they continually and rapidly evolve. If a patient with a bacterial infection is given the right antibiotic, the vast majority of the bacteria die; leaving a few that the patient’s immune system – if it is strong enough – can finish off.

However, if the antibiotic is given at too low a dose, or the course is not finished by the patient (a common problem), those bacteria which were slightly more resistant to the antibiotic survive in larger numbers. Within a surprisingly short period of time, these resistant strains dominate and full-blown resistance can emerge.

The threat is real. Both the UK Lancet and the Journal of American Medicine recently used similar language:

“Drug-resistant superbugs represent one of the gravest threats in the history of medicine.” LANCET

“The effectiveness of these lifesaving antibiotics is at risk. Many medical advances that physicians and patients take for granted—including cancer treatment, surgery, transplantation, and neonatal care—are endangered by increasing antibiotic resistance and a distressing decline in the antibiotic research and development pipeline.” JAMA

Your TWO immune systems – innate and acquired
We talk of ‘an’ immune system, but in fact you have two distinct, but inter-connected, immune systems; the innate immune system and the acquired or adaptive immune system.

The acquired immune system is that part of the immune system with ‘memory’. You have an infection – or a vaccination – and your acquired immune system remembers the enemy’s characteristics. On a second exposure to the threat, the memory cells recognise it, and generate an immune response involving highly specific weapons such as antibodies. That’s why it is very unusual to catch measles or the same cold twice.

The acquired immune system is powerful, but is only able to respond if you have already encountered the threat previously. Even small mutations in a virus — and some viruses, like the flu virus, mutate very rapidly — may be enough to ‘fool’ the immune system. That is one reason why it is only our second line of defence.

Our first line of defence is the innate immune system. It consists of cells such as macrophages, neutrophils and Natural Killer (NK) cells. If macrophages and neutrophils spot a bacterium, they swallow it and try to digest it. If NK cells recognise a virally infected cell they will kill it to prevent further viral replication, and if they encounter a cancer cell (and recognise it as cancerous) they will kill it to prevent tumour growth and spread.

All this makes the innate immune system very important indeed.

6 proven ways to boost your immune system

You can boost the effectiveness of your innate immune system. You can do this through diet, certain nutritional supplements and the yeast-derived food compound 1-3,1-6 beta glucans.

1. Diet and nutrition

A large body of evidence indicates that the ‘Mediterranean Diet’, which contains high levels of flavonoids, anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients, not only lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, but also supports good immune function.

This diet is high in fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, beans and other legumes, olive oil, nuts and seeds, garlic, oily fish and a moderate intake of red wine.

Following this diet can really help boost your immune system. And I also recommend that anyone over the age of 45-50 takes a comprehensive daily nutritional supplement.

It should include optimum levels of the A-Z vitamins and minerals — as opposed to merely levels that prevent deficiencies like scurvy or rickets! Of particular importance are vitamin D3 – (800 IU a day), selenium (150 mcg a day) and zinc (10mg a day). Iron is also important but only if there is evidence of iron depletion or deficiency.

Vitamin A deficiency is associated with impaired immunity and increased risk of infectious disease, but it is better to supplement with beta carotene (which gets converted to vitamin A as needed) because it is important not to exceed the RDA for vitamin A.

If you are low in vitamin D, fewer Natural Killer cells (NK-cells) are formed, and your innate immune defences against viruses and bacteria become impaired. As the other function of NK-cells is to kill tumour cells, D-depletion probably increases our risk of cancer also. Vitamin D depletion and deficiency are both common in the Northern latitudes due to lower exposure to sunlight. So take advantage of sensible exposure to the sun.

But a narrow focus on vitamins D, E, selenium and zinc – or even just vitamin C, which some swear by – is not enough. An effective immune-enhancing health supplement must also include polyphenols, flavonoids and carotenoids (derived from fruits and vegetables). Ensure it also includes Omega 3 fatty acids from fish.

I indicated above that a comprehensive supplement is advisable for the over 50s. My opinion is that it virtually ESSENTIAL in the elderly who tend to eat less and often have less variety in their diets. They commonly face what researchers call “multiple micronutrient malnutrition”, aka depletion in many or most of the essential vitamins and trace minerals. This kind of malnutrition leads to less effective immune systems, a higher risk of infection, and slower healing.

2. Sleep

Getting enough sleep is essential for health generally. Lack of sleep is perceived by the body as a form of stress — and stress reduces the immune response.

3. Exercise
Exercise is an effective boost for your immune system, and important for health generally. Being unfit is as dangerous as smoking 20 cigarettes a day! A programme of regular, moderate exercise relieves stress and makes it easier for you to sleep at night. It may further contribute by promoting good circulation and a better metabolic profile.

4. 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans

As outlined above, our human and pre-human ancestors evolved in a less sanitised environment than ours. In particular, their innate immune systems learned to recognise molecules called 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans, which are present in the cell walls of fungus, moulds and yeasts.

Those immune systems then responded by mounting a strong counter-attack. Over the millennia the innate immune systems of all higher life forms became dependent on the presence of the 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans to work effectively.

In an age before fungicides were routinely sprayed onto every food crop, almost everything we ate would have been contaminated with yeasts, fungi and moulds and this was, paradoxically, one of the main factors keeping our innate immune systems at peak capacity.

Today, changes in food technology have effectively removed these beta glucans (also called gluco-polysaccharides) from fermented products such as bread and beer; while the widespread use of fungicides in modern agriculture and the progressive closing of the food chain have removed them from most other foods.

I am not advocating returning to a dirty environment – but $300 million of research by a company called Biothera has shown that low-level and controlled priming with a beta glucan supplement leads to significantly improved immune function.

The supplement is proven to increase the number and effectiveness of neutrophils, the main defensive element in the innate immune system. When the Canadian Department of Defence tested some 300 ‘immuno-enhancers’, the 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans emerged as the most effective immune booster of all.

Biothera’s patented 1,3 1,6 beta glucan ingredient Wellmune WGP is available in the UK in ImmunoShield – www.immunoshield.com.

5. Pre- and probiotics

There are hundreds of different types of bacteria in your digestive tract. There is evidence that some of these — so-called probiotic ‘friendly’ species like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium — may have a positive effect on immune health. Taking PREbiotic fibres such as inulin, present in onions and chicory for example, stimulate the production of PRObiotics by the body.

6. Reduce stress

Keeping stress under control is essential for a healthy immune system. In chronic or long term stress, our adrenal glands secrete a hormone known as cortisol. When cortisol output is high, the immune system is suppressed. Reducing stress is easy enough in theory, but often not so easy to do! But walking, yoga, meditation techniques, making love, gardening – and a warm bath – are understandable favourites.

Can Herbals help?
You’ll notice no mention of the popular herbal Echinacea. A study at the University of Washington in Seattle on 400 children with colds found no difference in clear-up rates, duration or severity of cold symptoms between Echinacea and a placebo. Most experts do not recommend taking Echinacea on a long term basis. Nor do they recommend Astragalus.

But what about garlic? Laboratory research shows it may have some infection-fighting properties, but human trials are inconclusive. It is a wonderful flavour enhancer, a good addition to many recipes and won’t do any harm!

The next flu pandemic?
A final concern – and why you should take these steps to boost your immune system. At the end of 2004 the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a stark warning of a pending flu global epidemic. Said spokesperson Klaus Stohr of the WHO Global Influenza Programme:

“There WILL be another pandemic. In the best case we expect billions to fall ill, with 2 to 7 million deaths — but it could be far worse.”

Stohr and colleagues like him are convinced that there will be a global spread because history shows that flu pandemics occur every 30 years or so. After this time, the genetic makeup of a flu virus has changed so much that people have little or no immunity built up from previous strains.

There were three pandemics in the 20th century; all spread worldwide within a year of being detected. The Spanish Flu in 1918-19 killed up to 50 million people. In the 1950s the Asian Flu pandemic killed a million, and in 1968 Hong Kong Flu killed another million or so. That was 41 years ago, so we’re overdue for the next one. The recent outbreaks of bird and swine flu are concerning, and experts have found new viral strains which are beginning to look decidedly dangerous.

The lesson from this article is simple. There are things you can do to boost your immune system. It’s increasingly important to do so.