Strengthening Immunity (October 7, 2014)
The first two years of chiropractic college and the first two years of medical school have almost identical curricula, so the immune system was something I had to study in some detail. It was by far the most complicated subject of the entire four years. That is because the immune system has a humongous number of different components that perform their own individual functions, and then coordinate those functions with the other components in various combinations, and then THOSE endless variations interact with every aspect of physiology you can think of. It’s dizzying.
Consequently, even if we somehow manage to pin down how one part of the immune system is affected by some external influence, we usually can't follow that change down to the end result of knowing how it influences health or illness. So when we talk about immunity, we’re usually speaking about one of two things: 1) how a mineral or herb or lifestyle change affects a specific part of the immune system without knowing the ultimate effect, or 2) whether someone who does or takes one thing or another gets sick more or less often, without really understanding the mechanism of how it happens. This imprecision in the evidence makes people very vulnerable to claims about "improving your immunity" that sound great but are mostly just guesswork.
To start with, you cannot actually “strengthen” your immunity. By that I mean that there are no special substances, foods, techniques, or anything else that will enhance or supercharge your ability to fight off disease IF YOU ARE ALREADY HEALTHY. If you’re truly healthy, your immune system is already functioning at its peak level and that cannot be improved upon. I am not splitting hairs here, I am trying to make an important point. Most of the “problems” that people have with their immunity are because they expect to be healthy while all the while continuing unhealthy behaviors. There is no royal road to avoiding health problems or magic bullet to stay well if you refuse to give up at least most of your bad habits. (You can usually keep one and get away with it. One.) Even acupuncture and herbs won't work for long in the face of a truly damaging behavior.
However, now that we are past today’s scolding, there are definitely some common habits and nutritional deficiencies that compromise the function of the immune system. Plus there are a very few substances that seem to be of special benefit. Today I just want to look at some general lifestyle factors.
Not getting enough sleep (for a normal adult, that's 7 to 9 hours a night) suppresses immunity. It’s not clear HOW it does that – maybe through either the increase in stress hormone levels or possibly through the general increase in inflammation that both occur with insufficient sleep. Or it might be through the production of fewer antibodies that occurs with sleep deprivation. Or maybe some other way entirely. We don’t know HOW it happens – we only know that it DOES.
People who exercise regularly (moderately, like a daily 30-minute easy walk, is quite enough for this purpose) get fewer colds. Plus, a light workout when you feel the first effects of a cold or flu coming on sometimes actually helps to fight it off. Again we don’t know the mechanism.
And in this season, protect yourself properly from the cold, damp and wind. I’m switching gears here a little because this advice is from Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, which theorizes that colds and flus come from environmental factors that get past the body's protective surface qi/energy and not just give you acute illnesses but, if not then handled properly, will lodge in your body and cause no end of problems, painful and otherwise, down the road.
[By the way, despite how you feel about classical TCM theory, acupuncture and Chinese herbal formulas are both great for colds and flus, and I am pleased to see them finally starting to get some attention in the mass media. If you tend to get an unusual number of colds and/or flus, or are having a lot of trouble shaking one that's already got you, look for help in this direction.]
--dr. diane holmes
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