The immune system is a complex network of cells and proteins that defends the body against infection. A poor immune system may be acquired as a result of poor dietary and lifestyle choices, increased stress, nutrient deficiency and an imbalance of the digestive microbiome. Disease causing viruses or bacteria can enter your body simply by breathing or eating! Fortunately, only a few of these, particularly viral ‘pathogens’ result in a cold or flu because you are equipped with an immune system specifically designed to fight off unwanted invaders. That said, are you one of the many people, for whom a string of colds and flu is a way of life in winter? Perhaps getting rid of the seemingly endless sniffles, sneezing and sore throats seems like an unachievable ideal.
Chinese Medicine and Immunity
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, the immune system relates to the Lung and Large Intestine (Metal) organ systems. These organs govern the skin, pores and the circulation of our protective energy called “Wei Qi” that protects our body from illness and determines our resistance. Illness can arise from both interior and exterior causes. When Wei Qi is strong it is able to ‘ward off’ exterior influences such as climatic or environmental factors. It is like wearing a warm, thick coat, gloves, scarves and hat when you leave the house and go out into the cold or wet wintery weather. When it is ‘weakened’, external and internal illnesses may occur. This is like not having enough clothing on and feeling a cold wind chilling you all the way to the bone. The chill may just bring on a nasty cold (an external illness) or could lead to digestive issues (internal illness).
It is the job of the Spleen and Stomach (the Earth element relates to Digestion – assimilation of food and drink) to provide the nourishment for Wei Qi to be formulated. Our digestion can be compromised through any of the following separately or in combination: climate, environment, emotion, constitution, diet and lifestyle choices.
Fortunately, it is possible to improve your immune system function and reduce the frequency and severity of those nasty winter lurgies with a bit of awareness and some simple strategies:
- Complex carbohydrates and highly processed sugary foods are the worst culprits in compromising digestive integrity, reducing beneficial intestinal flora and setting the stage for acute and chronic health conditions. Grains such as millet, rye, oats, barley, amaranth and quinoa all benefit the health of the digestive system. If sprouted, their beneficial properties are greatly enhanced. Aduki beans in particular ‘dry damp’ and mung beans ‘detoxify’. The outer ‘shell’ of grains, like our body, contains the most potent immune enhancing energies therefore grains in their ‘whole form’ are the most beneficial.
- Fermented foods such as miso, soy sauce, tempeh, sauerkraut and garlic eliminate Damp. For further information read our article on “Fermented Foods”
- Chlorophyll rich foods are important to detoxify and reduce the spread of bacteria, fungi and micro-organisms and promote intestinal flora. Parsley, kale, chard, watercress, cabbage, spirulina, barley grass are all Chlorophyll rich foods.
- Organic meats are not exposed to low levels of antibiotics, therefore are an essential choice when it comes to eating meat. Research has shown antibiotics effect our intestinal microbiome. This can cause yeast, toxins and parasites to accumulate and cause damage to the intestinal wall producing poor intestinal health. Healthful bacteria found in probiotics and certain foods coat the intestinal wall and contribute to maintaining optimal intestinal health.
- Regularly wash your hands – simple soap and warm water helps reduce cross-contamination with unwell people.
- Exercise – too little exercise reduces muscle tone, too much reduces our energy reserves. A balanced amount of movement, activity and rest for each individual benefits immune health.
- Healthy emotion – in true Chinese medicine practice, health is a result of all aspects of balance. Emotions that are out of balance; fear, worry, resentment, lack of joy, will impact the immunity. Practices of selflessness help to promote balance as do things like mindfulness that help emotions to flow through rather than getting stuck and causing emotional pain.
- The oral contraceptive pill can contribute to ‘Dampness’ and poor functioning of the ‘Spleen and Stomach” (resulting in an imbalanced gut microbiome). Women who are currently taking the pill or have been on the pill for long periods should use measures to support their intestinal health.
- Taking the time to rest and recuperate reduces the risk of spreading the infection to your colleagues and helps you to recover sooner. The lifestyle prescription when you are unwell is sleep, sleep and more sleep! Resist the temptation to check your work emails. Instead, focus your efforts on restoring your energy levels with warm, nourishing foods such as soups; drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost as you blow your nose repeatedly; and avoid mucus-promoting, inflammatory foods such as dairy and processed foods.
Healthy gut – healthy immune system!
Did you know that approximately 70% of your immune system is located in your digestive system? This emphasises how important it is to also look after your gut health. Many people are aware that certain probiotics can support digestion, but did you know there are specific probiotics that support a healthy immune system? The beneficial strains, Lactobacillus Plantarum HEAL 9, Lactobacillus paracasei 8700:2 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG®) all help enhance immune system function, making this combination a valuable aid to winter wellness. As a healthy immune system is supported by the right microbial balance in your gut, speak to our Practitioners about which probiotic combination is the most appropriate, to help overcome your immune system concerns.
Natural Medicines to Prevent and Treat Symptoms
There are many Natural Medicines that are beneficial in preventing, treating and shortening the duration of colds and flus. These agents can boost your immune system as well as provide the necessary tools to help you fight against infection. Look out for these immune boosters:
- Zinc: Optimal levels of zinc in the body have been found to inhibit the common cold and influenza viruses.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C supports healthy immune function by enhancing the activity of your immune defence army of white blood cells; also reducing severity and duration of symptoms.
Marvellous medicinal mushrooms
If you are one of those people that experience recurrent infection’s then your immune system could benefit from some more specific additional support. The advantage of natural medicine is that it is not just to treat illness, but it also improves your own natural immune defences. For example, the immune-boosting medicinal mushrooms include cordyceps, coriolus, shiitake and reishi – four, not only traditionally used but widely-studied and clinically proven mushrooms available. Individually, each species of mushroom has demonstrated remarkable effectiveness in immune enhancement, to help resolve chronic, and/or recurrent infectious conditions. What’s more, this combination of mushrooms provides symptomatic relief of upper respiratory tract infections, including reducing mucus congestion.
If you tend to catch colds often or easily having acupuncture may help. Some studies have shown that acupuncture helps the brain increase the body’s level of T-cells; (white blood cells) which destroy bacteria and harmful viruses in the body. Shiatsu and Bowen Therapy may also work by reducing stress and strengthening the body’s resistance to disease.
It may be difficult to achieve everything you are ‘meant’ to do, which is where our Practitioners can help.
With access to quality natural medicines and health building programs, they can make a lasting difference to your health and vitality.
An overactive immune system
Perhaps you or someone you know has been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition. But what does this really mean? ‘Auto’ is the Latin word for ‘self’ and ‘autoimmune’ essentially means that your body mounts an immune response against itself. This is characterised by inflammation and destruction of body tissues by the body’s own immune system – commonly experienced as pain, swelling and a wide variety of symptoms depending upon what areas of the body are affected. Some common autoimmune conditions include Rheumatoid arthritis; Lupus (SLE); Psoriasis; Crohn’s disease; Ulcerative colitis; and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Why does the body attack itself? Autoimmune conditions are thought to be the result of an unregulated, therefore unbalanced immune system. From a Western medicine perspective, the role of your immune system is to protect you from potentially harmful invaders such as bacteria, viruses, toxins and allergens. In response to such invaders, your immune system sends out T cells (your main infection-fighting cells) to help destroy the invading cells. T regulatory cells are special cells that act as traffic controllers – they oversee how many and what type of T cells are released and help keep your immune system in check.
When there is a lack of correctly-functioning T regulatory cells, your immune system cannot tell the difference between invading cells and healthy body tissue, and hence destroys it – causing inflammation, and leading to the common symptoms of pain and fatigue. In addition, inflammation results in further local tissue damage, which can affect the functioning of specific organs. For example, in ulcerative colitis, the gut lining is attacked and damaged, resulting in poor digestive function and abdominal pain.
Since the majority of the immune system is housed in the gut, a healthy balance of beneficial microbiota (bacteria) in your digestive system is important for a well-regulated immune system. Poor diet, stress and some medications can lead to imbalances in gut bacteria, which is a common feature in people with autoimmune conditions. Beneficial bacteria, in the form of probiotics, can help reeducate the immune system by restoring the balance of microbes that influence the immune response.
The specific probiotic strains Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG®) and Lactobacillus paracasei (LP-33™) work together to encourage the growth of other beneficial bacteria in the gut; and increase the numbers of T regulatory cells that encourage a healthy immune response, leading to an improvement in symptoms. For example, the use of probiotics in cases of ulcerative colitis can reduce local gut pain and inflammation, improve digestive function, and ultimately reduce the number of “flare ups” experienced.
Never overlook nutrients to help restore immune balance:
- Vitamin D – a fundamental nutrient for autoimmunity, as it is required for the production of healthy T regulatory cells. Correcting vitamin D deficiency can help support an appropriate immune response, thereby reducing the number of symptom ‘flare ups’.
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA – found in fish oils, these act as an ‘off’ switch to help resolve unchecked inflammation. Fish oils may provide not only symptomatic relief of pain, but can also help reduce inflammation-driven tissue damage; allowing the affected organs to return to normal functioning.
Give the clinic a call to see how we can bring your immune system into balance!