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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Physical and Emotional Balance, the Basic Building Blocks of Immunity

Feb 24, 2011 05:50PM ● By Susan Rzucidlo, ND

Part I: Basics and Nutritional Support

The immune system is our body’s ultimate defense against infectious agents. This complex system contains many interacting blood cells, proteins and chemicals. Immune cells react to potential pathogens, either inhibiting them or working to destroy them in the body. In a compromised immune system, these components are imbalanced and unable to protect the body against harmful agents. The most common invaders to the immune systems are rhinoviruses and influenza viruses. There are 100 known rhinoviruses, with new ones still being discovered. In the colder seasons, we worry about the colds and flu that seem to be everywhere. Yet, these can occur year-round. Whether we can win the fight against them turns on the strength of our immune system.

Our immune system not only contends with assaults from these outside invaders, but is affected by our own actions. Poor nutrition, excess sugars, reduced exercise, enclosed spaces, stresses, sleep deprivation and unhealthy environmental factors further compromise our wellness. To sustain peak immune system performance, you should support it with diet, supplements (when necessary), healthful lifestyle and habits, and the right mindset.

Preventing unnecessary exposure is fundamental to keeping well. Mom was right. Basic hygiene such as washing hands can significantly protect against viruses and bacteria. Children and adults should wash their hands at key moments -- after nose-wiping, after toileting, before food preparation and eating. To get the most thorough and sanitary cleaning, wet hands with warm water, apply soap and rub them together for 20 seconds. Rinse away the soap residue and dry with a single paper towel. Use that towel to turn off the faucet and open the bathroom door. Avoid rubbing your eyes, touching your mouth, and sharing drinks with people, whether or not they appear to be sick.

In addition to these hygiene basics, it is important to avoid unnecessary antibiotics. The longer people use antibiotics, the likelier they are to get sick in the future with lasting, stubborn infections caused by more resistant organisms. The common cold is usually of viral origin and will not be affected by antibiotics.

As little as one tablespoon of refined sugar
can suppress circulating white blood cells for hours.

 

Diet also affects immune system function. Avoiding refined sugars and processed foods can make a significant difference. As little as one tablespoon of refined sugar can suppress circulating white blood cells for hours. Neutrophils, a special type of white blood cell that engulfs and destroys cold viruses and other foreign invaders, become lethargic when you eat sweets. Therefore, it is wise to stay away from sweets when you have a cold and also as a preventive strategy during flu season. At critical times such as cold and flu season, or after coming in close contact with someone who is ill, an added boost from nutriceuticals and herbs such as zinc, vitamin C, mushroom extracts, larch arabinogalactans, echinacea and astragalus can be helpful. The benefits of vitamin C are well known. At the first signs of cold or flu, supplementing with extra vitamin C can supercharge white blood cells that fight viruses. An average dose can be between 1500 mg to 3000 mg during the acute period of a sickness.

The importance of zinc as an immune booster is less well-known than vitamin C, but no less important. Zinc stimulates the immune system by generating new white blood cells and “whipping them into shape” to battle viruses. If you have too little zinc, your production of white blood cells may drop, increasing your risk of catching a cold, flu, or other upper respiratory infection. One study found that children who got 10 milligrams of zinc daily for 60 days were much less likely to get respiratory infections than those given less. In fact, the children who got enough zinc were 70 percent less likely to have fevers, 48 percent less likely to have coughs, and 28 percent less likely to have mucus buildup.

Astragalus is an herb commonly used for chronic viral infections. It increases phagocytic activity (which helps fight infection) and antibody levels, works well as a long-term immune stimulant, and may be used safely for a prolonged period. The body can develop a tolerance to these types of herbs. For maximum effects alternate the use of astragalus with other immune-boosting herbs. 

Mushroom extracts made from reishi, maitake and coryceps mushrooms are also excellent for long term immune stimulation. They have not only been seen to strengthen the immune system, but also aid in metabolism, hormonal balance and transport of nutrients and oxygen. These extracts are commonly used with cancer patients for such effects, as well as their ability to prevent metastasis and slow tumor growth. Traditional Asian healers have used mushrooms for centuries to strengthen the immune system and promote longevity. 

Arabinogalactan is a polysaccharide found in the cell walls of woody plants. The inner bark of the larch tree is a good source for arabinogalactan. Larch arabinogalactan is powerful and an extremely versatile immune stimulant. It can be taken in powder form and is tasteless. For this reason it is a good and safe choice for children.

Echinacea is the most common of the immune stimulants. First employed by the Native Americans, it has been used for hundreds of years without toxicity or side effects (except in very rare cases). Echinacea is best used as an acute immune stimulant because it acts for five to seven days. At the first sign of illness, it should be taken often (4-6 times/day). For maximum effect, it should be taken in liquid form as an alcohol based tincture containing a 5:1 concentration. Studies have shown that echinacea reduces the severity and duration if taken at the first sign of cold or flu. During the cold and flu season, take echinacea in one- or two-week rotations with other immune-stimulating herbs, such as astragalus and the reishi and maitake mushrooms. Such a rotation may help prevent a flu infection from happening altogether.

Part 2: The Mind-Body Connection

To be in the best condition, all aspects of a person need to be balanced. Healthiness involves physical, as well as emotional well-being. The body and mind are mutually connected in a dynamic exchange. Physical issues often lead to an emotional response in the same way that emotions provoke a physiological reaction. Poor emotional health can weaken your body's immune system even with the best nutritional intervention. A diminished immune system can be triggered by stress, fear, sadness or even negative outlook. Our approach to life can make a significant difference in our vitality. The way we respond to stress can factor into our susceptibility to infection. Stress can trigger a sudden increase in the body's hormone levels, resulting in a fight or flight response. A short term fight or flight response is normal, one the body is capable of dealing with, but when it occurs too often, or for a prolonged period of time, it produces problems. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol cause elevated heart and respiratory rates, and blood pressure, as well as an increase in blood sugar and heightened awareness. A prolonged stress state will result in your system’s inability to return to its normal functions, staying stuck in this pattern, which ultimately leads to decreased immune function. Natural Killer cells (NK cells) work to destroy tumor cells, diseased tissue or invading viruses/bacteria. Psychological stress reduces our NK cells and can increase disease severity. The levels of NK cells are considered indicative of immune strength. 

A person's ability to actively handle stress in every day life
can increase the effectiveness of the immune system.  

 

Mood also seems to play a role in wellness. Having a positive attitude correlates with increased immune system function. In fact, the quantity of lymphocytes in patients corresponds to that person's level of optimism. One study of patients showed that those who exhibited fear before a surgery had longer healing and recovery times. Optimism does not mean suppression of feelings. In fact, inhibition of emotions is another stress factor that negatively affects well-being. Individuals who disclosed a tragic event to another had an elevated immune response and were generally healthier than those who inhibited expression of emotions. When mental attitude was studied as an additional prognostic factor among breast cancer patients, it suggested that those who displayed a proactive approach or active coping style survived longer than those who had hopeless and helpless attitudes.

Many people have a regular health routine such as consistent exercise or taking certain nutrients to balance potential deficiencies. It can be equally important to have daily mental exercises and strategies, which help keep your emotional health in balance. Studies indicate that the method of stress coping strategies makes a difference in immune response. Cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) have been shown to be an effective means of reducing tension. CBT uses specific techniques to help identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior. The ability to actively handle stress in every day life can turn off the constant activation of the endocrine system, thereby increasing the effectiveness of the immune system. Biofeedback, mindfulness meditation, deep breathing with guided visualization, and positive affirmations are techniques proven to effectively manage the body’s stress response.
Fighting off and healing from disease requires a strong immune system and balanced emotions. Because the mind and body are essentially one, relieving stress, letting go of anger, and finding productive ways to cope with the difficulties of life may be as important to our health as nutrition, exercise, and all the other steps we take to keep our bodies healthy.

Dr. Susan Rzucidlo is a naturopathic physician and director of The Center for Naturopathic Medicine in Stratford, CT. Call 203.377.1525 or visit ListeningAndCaringND.com for more information.

Additional references:

1. The immune system and happiness – Y Barak - Autoimmunity Reviews, 2006 – Elsevier
2. Psychoneuroimmunology: Psychological influences on immune function and health. from osumc.edu - JK Kiecolt-Glaser, L McGuire - Journal of Consulting , 2002.
3. Dispositional optimism and stress-induced changes in immunity and negative mood from nih.gov - L Brydon, C Walker, AJ Wawrzyniak, H Chart- Brain, Behavior, 2009 - Elsevier
4. Optimism and resources: Effects on each other and on health over 10 years - SC Segerstrom - Journal of research in personality, 2007 – Elsevier