Graham Butler, BSc, CNPA, RH
Our immune system is an exceptionally complicated mechanism with numerous component parts including organs, glands, specialized cells, and even symbiotic organisms. Its importance with respect to promoting health and combating illness can't be overstated, particularly in our high-stress and often toxic 21st century environment..
Our immune system is an exceptionally complicated mechanism with numerous component parts including organs, glands, specialized cells, and even symbiotic organisms. Its importance with respect to promoting health and combating illness can't be overstated, particularly in our high-stress and often toxic 21st century environment. Although it's been front and centre in the public mind for nearly a decade, most of us have a poor grasp off its needs and the means to effectively enhance our immune system.
Many recommendations have focused on strengthening our immune system through the use of stimulant-based products. After all, stronger and faster should be better - right? What's been largely ignored though is the need to regulate and nourish. For discussion, I've divided a representative selection of herbs, nutrients, enzymes etc. into three groups (summarized in the accompanying table): Group I (stimulants): compounds that actively stimulate some part of the immune system; Group II (regulators): compounds that assist the immune system; and Group III (nutrients or nutritional supports): the nutritional building blocks to a healthy immune system. In addition Lorna Vanderhaeghe's books The Immune System Cure and Healthy Immunity are recommended for those wishing to investigate this topic further.
Stimulants: Group I
By far the most popular immune system stimulant is echinacea; fresh herb extracts have proven to be effective remedies for colds and flu. Combinations with zinc, vitamins A, B6, and C, as well as garlic, golden seal, and propolis, none being stimulants other than propolis, are also popular. Stimulants are not suitable for those with autoimmune diseases such as MS, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus etc. Their use can cause progression in these disorders. A better choice would be a homeopathic product, products such as Oscillococcinum (flu), Homeococcinum (flu and colds), or olive leaf extract.
Research at Arizona State University has found that an extract of the larrea plant (Vitalstatin) is particularly effective in inhibiting herpes viruses e.g. cold sores, cankers etc. Larrea extract is marketed under the trade name Vitalstatin as the product Virox. Japanese research indicates that medicinal mushrooms such as maitake, reishi, and shitake display antiviral and anti-tumour properties. Mushroom extracts combined with IP-6 (inositol hexaphosphate - Group II) marketed as MGN3 have been found to inhibit cancer cell growth.
Regulating the Immune System: Group II
The immune system is in some ways like a very complex piece of machinery with many parts acting independently but working toward a common goal. Making one part go faster than the whole is unwise - balance is very important. Autoimmune diseases, a virtual modern plague, are characterized by imbalance. Sterols and sterolins (unrelated to steroids) have been found to inhibit the type of hyperactive immune system responses associated with MS and rheumatoid arthritis. MSM (methyl sulfanyl methane), a source of organic sulphur, reduces allergy symptoms and inflammation. Quercetin, a bioflavonoid, is a natural antihistamine, as are extracts of or oil of perilla. Olive leaf extract destroys a host of pathogens, including yeast, without harming healthy cells.
Adaptogenic herbs such as Siberian ginseng and suma (Brazilian ginseng) are characterized by their ability to restore the body's vital processes, possibly including the immune system function. Some adaptogenic herbs, including many of the medicinal mushrooms, also have stimulant characteristics.
Nutrition: Group III
Our digestive system is in many ways the first line of defense for our immune systems. Sound digestion with the ability to breakdown and absorb nutrients combined with good nutrition and proper elimination are the principle building block of a healthy immune system. Foods rich in antioxidants, vitamins A, B6, C, and E, as well as magnesium, selenium, and zinc are of particular importance. Digestive enzymes, probiotics such as lactobacillus and bifidus, colostrum, and proper fibre intake all contribute to better digestion.