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Your Immune System

Updated and revised 05/15/14

It has only been in the last three to four decades that research into the workings of the immune system has really taken off. Prior to this, the immune system was not completely ignored by the established medical community; it was used as an indicator of one’s health status. Remember your "white count" tests? A high white blood cell count told the physician that your body was fighting an infection. Beyond that, it pretty much was not only ignored, but it was abused, especially considering the innumerable medical procedures and drug therapies that suppress the immune system—some procedures actually decimate it.

Oh, and by the way. A high white count is no longer just an indication of an infection; it also is a measure of stress. Our immune system is an amazing mechanism.

In the fifties, tonsillectomies (removals of tonsils) were standard procedure. The tonsils happen to be one of the first line of defenses against disease and they are your only defense against the poliomyelitis virus. In the nineties the medical community began to admit, though not too loudly, that the polio epidemic of the fifties was iatrogenic (caused by physician intervention).

Another medical procedure responsible for suppressing the immune system is the appendectomy (removal of the appendix). Did you know that the appendix is part of your immune system? Did you know there are natural ways of reversing an appendicitis attack? Did you know that an appendicitis attack is actually a warning of something even bigger amiss?

Removing inflamed tonsils or an inflamed appendix is equivalent to tossing out your smoke detector because it’s making too much noise. Immunologists tell us that the tonsils are not to be removed under any circumstance, yet every year over a million tonsillectomies are performed in America, and in some states, removing the appendix is required by law if the lower abdomen is opened. Fortunately our bodies know more than doctors and 20% of the time we actually grow back tonsils and appendices (the plural of appendix) after they’ve been removed.

All surgeries depresses the immune system. The greatest cause of death following a successful surgery is a secondary, or nosocomial infection (one picked up as a result of the hospital stay). With a depressed immune system, secondary infections are deadly. Antibiotics depress the immune system by taking over its job. Antibiotics also deplete the "good" bacteria (probiotics) needed for cleansing toxins from your system. Corticosteroids, hormones that are naturally created in the body, have been (are still) administered abundantly because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Over the counter strengths are now available and their use is wide spread. As with most hormonal therapies, the use of corticosteroids are a double edged sword: they suppress the initial inflammatory response to injury or illness, and they suppress the immune system.

Our purpose here is to let you in on the workings of your immune system, its suppressors, triggers, boosters, and modulators. We are not going to turn you into immunologists, but rather teach you some of the basics.

One of the reasons it has taken science so long to get a grip on the immune system is that its parts and interconnectedness are not readily perceivable. We have the digestive system, the circulatory system, the nervous system, and the respiratory system to name a few systems. These systems are easily described because they are physically connected. The immune system, on the other hand, consists of, ostensibly, unrelated parts and pieces, and much of what connects the whole thing together is molecular.

The immune system is action and reaction. It has an intelligence of its own, though primitive, working like a mouse in a Skinner Box: the product of stimulus and response. For example, if a microscopic piece of an organ gets into the blood stream either through disease or by injury, the immune system will respond to it as if it were a foreign body, and having done so, the immune system is now trained to attack the original organ. The suppressor T-cells have to stop this attack or we have the beginning of an autoimmune response (lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system actually attacks the person’s own body).

When referring to the immune system’s physical parts, we call the collection of these parts the lymphatic system, though the entire immune system, on a molecular level, goes much further, for even the tiniest cell in our bodies can create chemicals to aid in the defense of the entire system.

The lymphatic system consists of two parts, the primary and secondary organs. Top

Primary Organs: thymus gland (located beneath the breast bone and functioning at its peak during adolescence) and the bone marrow (producing specialized lymphocytes—T-cells and B-cells and dispatching them through the lymph vessels to the secondary organs.

Secondary Organs: the lymph nodes, the spleen, tonsils, Peyer’s patches in the small intestines, the liver, and the appendix to name a few. These are the locations where the molecular parts of the immune system gather in readiness to do battle with germs, viruses, and allergens (those things causing allergic responses). Top

The thymus gland is the central organ in the development of immune power. Within its cortex, the bone marrow lymphocytes mature into T-cells helped by thymosin, a hormone secreted by the thymus gland.

The main job of bone marrow is to produce blood cells, both red and white (leukocytes and lymphocytes). It is the soft tissue located in the cavities of the bones. It is the source of stem cells which differentiate (change into) leukocytes and lymphocytes.

To sum up things so far: the bone marrow creates the stem cells which become the cells of the immune system. From the bone marrow lymphocytes are sent to the thymus gland to mature and are then stored in the secondary organs of the lymph system and in the blood stream. The bone marrow also sends leukocytes into the blood stream on sentry duty. Everything stands in a "combat ready" state.

Now let’s look at the cellular components of the system. There are two major cell type of immune system cells: phagocytes and lymphocytes. As you can guess, lymphocytes have something to do with the lymph system. They are small white cells found in lymphoid tissues (the secondary organs of the lymph system) and present also in the blood. They get to the blood stream from the lymph nodes which are small pea sized organs distributed throughout the body. The lymph nodes trap antigens (substances that trigger an immune response) and filter them out of the lymph fluid. The lymph fluid is actually tissue fluids that have been collected from throughout the body for cleaning, and then are returned to the blood stream via lymphatic vessels. Top

Lymphocytes

There are two types of lymphocytes: T-cells and B-cells. T-cells are the master regulators of the immune system. There are three main types of T-cells: helper T-cells (their quantity being a CD4 count), suppressor T-cells (their quantity being a CD8 count), and effector T-cells (sometimes referred to as natural killer, or NK, cells). B-cells have a relatively short life span compared to T-cells. As B-cells mature, they turn into antibody-producing plasma cells found in lymph nodes and in the spleen. Once the B-cells have created a specific antibody to attack a specific pathogen, their primitive intelligence remembers this information and will know it later should they run up against the same pathogen. This is called "building resistance."

You should note that sulfur-containing amino acids are necessary in your diet for the formation of antibodies. These are cysteine, methionine, taurine and homocysteine. Cystein is found in a variety of foods including poultry, yogurt, egg yolks, red peppers, garlic, onions, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, oats, and wheat germ. Taurine is found in eggs, fish, meat, and milk. Taurine is also found in some plant foods like seaweeds, but present in very low levels. It is highly present in sea foods such as clam, squid, octopus, and oyster. Methionine is found in animal products, and is important to control fat levels in the liver and the arteries. Plant foods that contain methionine are beans, seeds, onions, peanuts, lentils, and some grains. Methionine is also one of the amino acids in Bragg Liquid Aminos.

Ironically, homocysteine levels in most Americans are way too high which results in cardiovascular disease. Homocysteine is formed by the breakdown of methionine. We need a good B-Complex Vitamin to lower these levels, and sometimes that's not enough, and Betaine and Choline must be used.

High homocysteine levels have been associated with depression too. For more information on this read Depression and Nutrition.

Below are some supplements that can lower your homocysteine levels, with a short note below each of them.

NOW B-100 Caps, 250 Capsules
This is the B-Complex I take daily. If you have poor digestion, you might have to take extra acid with your meals to fully assimilate your B vitamins.
NOW Choline & Inositol, 100 Capsules
Both of these together battle forms of depression and lower homocysteine levels dramatically.
Country Life Betaine Hydrochloride, 250 Tablets
This is a form of Betaine that not only helps to lower homocysteine levels but adds acid to your stomach should you need it for proper digestion.
NOW TMG, 100 Tablets
This is a form of Betaine that does not add acid to your system, lowers homocysteine levels, and helps with depression.

NK Cell Activity

We have to stop here to take a look at NK Cell Activity, for it is the primary criteria determining the overall strength and health of your immune system. NK cells are not, like white blood cells, measured by their number, for their number stays constant, approximately 15% the number of your white blood cells. NK cells provide the first line of defense in dealing with any invasion to your body once they invaders have passed the sentries in your mucus membranes and the tonsils. Each NK cell contains several small granules that act like explosive charges: when a cancer cell is recognized, the NK cell attaches itself to the cancer cell and injects these granules into the cancer cell and they explode, destroying the cancer cell within five minutes. The NK cell then moves on to another invader. Healthy NK cells have been know to attack two or more invaders or infected cells at once.

It is now accepted that individuals with low NK cell activity are more susceptible to Chronic Fatigue, autoimmune diseases, cancerous tumors and viral infections. There is a test to determine you NK cell activity, called the 4 hour 51Chromium-release assay. If you are dealing with one of the disorders listed above, this test might be a good idea.

For ways to increase your NK Cell Activity naturally, see Your Immune System: The Rest of the Story, the next article in this series. 

T-cells

Helper T-cells stimulate B-cell production and augment production of more helper cells and effector cells (natural killer cells). Suppressor T-cells act to diminish helper T-cell activity, for let’s face it, when the battle is over, we don’t want the immune system to keep on fighting.

Normally there are about twice as many helper T-cells as suppressor T-cells. In immune deficiency diseases, such as AIDS, you will often hear about the CD4 count falling below the CD8 count. What they are talking about is the helper/suppressor ratio getting out of whack. When this occurs, the body is ripe for an "opportunistic infection."

Since we’ve mentioned antibodies, let’s discuss them here (we’ll get back to the phagocytes shortly). Antibodies are protein molecules (called immunoglobulins—Ig) produced by the B-cells. There are five classes of antibodies: IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG, and IgM. IgA and IgE are referred to as secretory antibodies because they are found in our secretions. IgA is found abundantly in saliva and in the mucous membranes of your lungs, intestinal track, and genitals. It is the first line of defense against invading bacteria. Laboratory studies show increases in IgA output in people enjoying themselves during exercise, laughter, and love making. Laughter is the best medicine.

IgE is our first defense against allergies and parasites. It is thought that as many as half a million IgE molecules can bind to a single mast cell. Mast cells act as sentinels. They trigger a quick response to an invasion of allergens and parasites, and it is the immunoglobulin E that triggers the release of histamines (those things we take antihistamines to suppress). Histamines increase immune response and blood flow. Taking an antihistamine reduces symptoms, but allows the dis-ease can get out of hand. One of the best ways to relieve the pressures brought on by histamine production (whether in the lungs during an asthma attack or in the sinuses) is to increase you consumption of clean, pure, room temperature water.

Antibodies do not destroy the enemy by themselves, but call in complements. Antibodies are Y-shaped and travel through the bloodstream seeking invading bacteria, viruses, and microbes. When an invader is discovered, the antibody seizes it with one of the upper branches of the its Y and calls in the complements.

Complements, C1 through C9, are complex blood proteins containing carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. When called, they line up, C1 through C9, and attack in a linear fashion, one at a time, and when all eight are in place, they pierce the enemy’s coating causing the insides to spill out and then signal the macrophages and neutrophils to come and clean up the mess. Complements have the ability to bind to B-cells and certain immunoglobulins.  

Phagocytes

Phagocytes (leukocytes) are the second type of immune system cells; lymphocytes are the other. They ingest other cells, microbes, and foreign particles in a process of phagocytosis (an ability of only a few types of phagocytes). They move like tiny amoebas through the blood stream to the site of an injury where they either destroy the invader themselves, or produce antibodies that can. Please note that phagocytes cannot destroy viruses.

There are four major steps in phagocytosis:

1. Chemotaxis is the capacity to be attracted to a target and the ability to get there (motility). Vitamin C enhances motility, but excess zinc levels can suppress it.

2. Opsonization is the capacity to adhere to its target.

3. Engulfment is the capacity of the phagocyte to ingest its target.

4. Cidal capacity is the capacity to destroy the target.

In some cases, such as over-colonization by Candida albicans (yeast), phagocytes can perform the first three steps, but cannot perform the last and destroy its target.

The actual destruction of a phagocyte’s target is carried out by the phagocyte releasing strong free radicals (those things that age us that we battle with antioxidants), such as hydrogen peroxide and superoxide anion. Interestingly enough, the phagocyte must contain enough antioxidants to protect itself against its release of free radicals, or each attack will be a Kamikaze attack. Phagocytes store the antioxidants Vitamin C and the amino acid glutathione as protection, though it has been discovered that, in some scenarios, excessive amounts of vitamin C can suppress its cidal capacity (since the free radicals released to destroy a pathogen are quickly cleaned up before they can do their job). Thus, this tiny cell must regulate its own generation of antioxidants and free radicals to enable it to do its job and survive the battle.

There are many types of phagocytes, broken into two groups: myeloid cells (granulocytes) and monocytes. The granulocytes are cells filled with granules of toxic chemicals that digest the invaders. Examples of granulocytes are basophils, neutrophils, eosinophils, and mast cells. Monocytes are short-lived phagocytes that become various macrophages found throughout the body whose task it is to clean up the waste produced by the immune system as well as destroy pathogens (disease causing substances). Macrophages (literally "big eaters" in Latin), eventually die (after eating their fill) producing the mucus and pus we find as the result of an infection. When you are all stuffed up and coughing up phlegm as the result of a cold, these cold symptoms (coughing) are the result of your immune system battling the cold virus (phlegm is dead immune cells). You should note that macrophages require the amino acid L-arginine to create the nitric oxide they use to destroy bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. (Tumors protect themselves by producing the enzyme arginase that breaks down L-arginine; thus supplementing a cancer diet with L-arginine, according to studies in England, seems to be helpful. [Alternatives, November 1994; 5:17])

It has been discovered that every cell in our bodies has receptors, a spot where chemicals can attach themselves to the cells. Harvard researchers discovered that our immune system cells have neuropeptide receptors. Neuropeptides are the chemicals released by the brain when we feel good (from loving and being loved) and when we feel bad (from anger and frustration). The conclusion is very simple: our immune system is listening to and is affected by our emotional dialog. Remember this, for we will explore this even deeper in the next article in this series: Your Immune System: The Rest of the Story.

Now if you’ve made it to here and think you’ve learned all there is to know about the immune system, you’ve forgotten our foreshadowing at the beginning of this article: every cell in your body participates in the immune system at some level.

Interferon, which is produced during viral infections, has been touted as the cancer cure of the century. However, tests show that sometimes it works like a magic bullet, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. And the side effects, at times, can do you in.

Interferon is now synthesized in laboratories and sold at skyrocketing costs, but did you know that any viral infected cell can create it? There are many types of interferons, and their name derives from their function: the ability to interfere with viral infections. When a cell is attacked by a virus, though it cannot save itself, it can create an interferon that will warn other cells of an impending infection. Having been warned, the uninfected cells arm themselves with antiviral substances that keep the virus from replicating (reproducing themselves) in the uninfected cells. Top

Interleukins are hormones that carry messages between the immune cells to orchestrate the entire battle. One interleukin attracts T-cells to their targets and alert them to create interferon (if needed) and create another interleukin to create helper T-cells to kick the immune system into high gear and call in the natural killer cells and stimulate B-cells to produce antibodies. Interleukins have been widely used in cancer therapies, though not very effectively, and if the side effects don’t kill you, the cost might. But did you know there is a way to create millions of dollars of Interleukins naturally? Your body creates these wonderful chemicals whenever you do something the excites you, enthralls you, rings all your bells. If Magic Mountain in Disneyland is something that deeply excites you, one ride can be worth millions. Horse back riding, making love for hours, racing cars, watching a beautiful sunset: your key to a powerful immune system is the same key that turns your crank, so have fun!

Interferon and interleukin are classified as lymphokines, the substance (hormone) that infected cells and T-cells create to stimulate other cells in the immune system. Studies have shown that natural interferons and interleukins are extremely effective and have no side effects; as opposed to those that medical science introduces to fight disease, and this has the medical community baffled. It could take years to untie this knot.

Another recent discovery is TNF, or Tumor Necrosis Factor, a chemical produced by the macrophages to destroy tumors. In cancer patients, this can be a good thing, but studies have shown that over a long period of time, high TNF levels can lead to wasting and eventually death. This, according to some research we’ve uncovered, is one of the causes of the wasting syndrome in people with AIDS. TNF has been synthesized in the laboratory, and testing has begun on new therapies using TNF for cancer.

Finally we should mention hybridoma, a hybrid cell created when a lymphocyte fuses to a cancer cell and secretes either a lymphokine or an antibody specific for just one antigen. Hybridomas are currently being studied in laboratories that use stem cell assay, a process where a biopsy of cancerous tissue is cloned and experimented on. Once it is discovered which antibody the patient’s own immune system wants to create to fight the cancer, that antibody can be injected in large doses back into the patient to battle the cancer. Tests, however, are still incomplete.

Now, I have a couple of things to tell you about the preceding discussion of your immune system: the true workings of the immune system are still not fully known, and what is known would take up over a thousand pages of very fine print (in other words, this was only an introduction); secondly, this description is, like all western science, a bit too mechanistic and materialistic, at least for me, and I’ll tell you why, using acupuncture as an example: Though acupuncture has worked for six thousand years, our western medical community refused to accept it till they understood its workings (the mechanics behind it). This after witnessing a lung resection using only acupuncture as the anaesthetic! Additionally, the meridian system was not accepted until modern medical science, using high tech instruments and western methodologies actually "discovered" it. This is the materialism of the West: if you can’t count it, taste it, see it, it doesn’t exist. Our western scientists eventually discovered these meridians. The Chinese discovered them over six thousand years ago without the use of high tech.

When it comes to the immune system, auditing its mechanics and materials can be overkill, for as you will learn in the next article on the immune system, developing a powerful immune system can be as easy as asking.

A Special Note to my Friends with Cancer

Most of the medical community view cancer as a local, specific disease. However, because of a paradigm shift (brought on by impinging views from the holistic medical community), many now feel that cancer is not the disease, but rather it is only a symptom of a disease; an outrageous symptom, but still only a symptom. Conventional medicine loves to treat symptoms. Today, naturopaths have their patients learn to treat the cause of the disease, because it is your disease, and not your oncologist's. And if you have cancer symptoms, what is the disease? A dysfunctional and overburdened immune system.

As of this writing (11/13/1998), your author is quite sick. My immune system is shot. Though I've tried (not always successful) to live a clean healthy life, eating organic foods whenever possible, I've just been diagnosed with pesticide poisoning. How could that be? I live in a farming community. When they spray, I cannot stop breathing. Therefore, I am about to undergo a rigorous detoxication program. For more info on how you too can detoxify your bodies and rebuild your immune system, be sure to read Cleaning House, the correct way to detox. Top

References and Further Reading

Friedlander, Mark P., and Terry Phillips. Winning the War Within. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, Inc., 1986. (Out of print; but there were a few left for one cent plus shipping if you click the link supplied.)

Heumer, Richard P. The Roots of Molecular Medicine. New York: W.H. Freeman & Company, 1986. (Out of print. A very technical book of papers presented at the Linus Pauling Institute. Not for the weak of heart, but filled with fascinating information by leading researchers of the workings of the immune system and Linus Pauling himself.)


Principles of Molecular Medicine (Hardcover), by Marschall S. Runge (Editor), Cam Patterson (Editor)

Marchetti, Albert, M.D. Beating the Odds. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. (Out of print, though there are copies available at the link supplied. Check your local library.)

Wade, Carlson. Immune Power Boosters. West Nyack, New York: Parker Publishing Company, 1990. (Out of print, though Barnes & Noble has one copy as of this writing. Check your local library.)

Links to More Books


Immunobiology: The Immune System in Health & Disease


Ten Best Tools to Boost Your Immune System (On last look, this book is on sale for just one cent plus shipping.)

The Body at War: The Story of Our Immune System

 

On Sugar and the Immune System

Sanchez A, et al. Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. American Journal of Clinical  Nutrition 1973; 26: 1180-84

Ringsdorf WM jr, Cheraskin E and Ramsey RR jr. Sucrose, Neutrophilic Phagocytosis, and Resistance to Disease. Dent Surv 1976; 52 (12): 46-48


Sugar Blues, by Wm Dufty

 

 

Cancer and Hair Dyes

NCI research revealed that women who used hair dyes (the permanent type and darker colors seem to be the worst) had a 50% higher risk of developing Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. However, no link to cancer was found in those who went blond. [American Journal of Public Health, 1992;82: 7] Top

 

Carcinogenic Coffee

Styrofoam: did you know it’s biodegradable? If you wait six billion years! Did you know that any hot liquid poured into Styrofoam releases small amounts of the carcinogens and toxins from Styrofoam into the hot liquid? This has been known for years. Personally, I use paper cups. Top

 

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