Immunity & Immune System Health

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Finding a good herbalist

Much of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

Immunity - the armed force

We humans have developed astonishingly good immune systems because we had to in order to survive! We regularly come in contact with many thousands of different kinds of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites and likewise we are constantly exposed to many thousands of different kinds of chemicals, some of them toxic, from our food, air and water. We have spread out into more parts of the world, deal with a wider range of substances, and expose ourselves to more stressors of every imaginable type than any other creature on the planet.  

Our immune systems do an incredible job of protecting us, 24 hours a day, every day, and our immune system is aptly described as an armed 'force' within our body that requires the production of approximately 100 billion new 'troops' (white blood cells) every day, much more if we get sick. This force conducts a constant battle within every part of the body to protect self (friend) against not-self (foe). Consequently there can be terrible problems when things go wrong with our immune health and the detailed information that follows is because I want to share those natural strategies that I see most reliably lifting a depressed or a malfunctioning immune system back to good health...

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Measuring Immune Health

You may already be in no doubt that some kind of weakening or imbalance in your immune system is the core issue to your health right now. For example, either recurrent infections or a slow recovery from wounds or injuries is pretty much a guarantee that all is not well with your immunity. Likewise, any illness that involves allergies or auto-immunity (the immune system reacting against the body in some way) is a sure sign that this is where the problem lies.

However, there are many other common health problems where the issue is just as much hinging on the health of the immune system but it is not so obvious. Lab tests that measure the number of white blood cells tell you nothing about the quality of those cells -- and for many it is exactly that quality which is what is making all the difference between a recovery and continued sickness. Early in my practice, seeing how important this area was, I began to use microscopes that were powerful enough to see the insides of white blood cells in order to give me a truly objective measure of immune health.

For many thousands of patients, I have been able to literally look at their immune systems. The white blood cells stay alive long after you take the sample and in good health they will have strong walls and they literally glisten (a shimmering effect coming from something called 'cytoplasmic streaming'.) When people have a weakened immune system their numbers of white blood cells may be low but, even more importantly, they don't look healthy; the walls gets fragmented and break open and, instead of shimmering, they look dull and lifeless. When people have an overactive or allergic immune system the white blood cell numbers may be higher than usual but, instead of an intact border, they look especially fragmented and reactive.

I realise that my reader is unlikely to have a microscope at home to self-test their blood but the reason I mention all this is because I want to explain how this approach has been of enormous help to me in finding out exactly what works best to restore a weakened, depressed or imbalanced immune system. A great many before and after tests have shown me what truly helps the most and, based on these actual results, I can categorically say that the best thing, by far, to aid our body's armed force when it is in trouble is the confident use of one or more extraordinarily helpful herbs...


Two white blood cells amongst red cells under the microscope

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Nature's Immune Tonics

Echinacea & Astragalus

If you have a weakened or imbalanced immune system then, before you do anything else, start by getting help from Nature and the two herbs that I personally feel have the most overall benefit to a weakened immune system are Echinacea root from the American plains Indians (much more detail about it here) and Astragalus root from the great Chinese system of herbal medicine (more details here.) These two herbs form the cornerstone of the majority of my immune health programs and I have a great deal of confidence in their ability to restore even the most depressed immunity to much better health in quick order; you typically begin to see significant benefits within mere days of use...


Echinacea angustifolia

Panax Ginseng & Withania

If Echinacea and Astragalus are the best of the immune tonics, then Ginseng and Withania are the best of the energy tonics. I will very often use these two herbs at the same time if there is any reason to worry about the level of vitality in my patient. People who get run down and over-tired are the ones who most often get a depressed immunity and there is a tremendous amount of value in doing that which lifts their general energy in order to restore good immune health - hence the frequent use of tonics. I've already somewhat made this point in the side-note above but I want to add here that Ginseng in particular is notoriously compromised by adulteration and inaccurate labelling - do get it from a trusted source. For those who want to get to know these old allies in more depth there is a detailed article about Ginseng here and another on Withania here.


Panax Ginseng

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Garlic

I have to make special mention of Garlic. It is such a revered immune medicine in all the old cultures of medicine for good reason - because it works! Garlic has numerous ways of helping us and in the write up on it you will see practical instructions on how to use it for ear infections, thrush, parasites and fungal infections; it's here.

Reishi & Cordyceps

Reishi & Cordyceps are two of the great mushroom medicines. I don't use these herbs for all my patients with immune health problems but, especially when the immune system has become imbalanced with reacting against self (auto-immune conditions) I find Reishi to be fantastic at helping shift back the balance; more info on it here - and Cordyceps, as weird as it is, can be superb at helping a person with very weakened defences, especially in their lungs; more here.

St John's wort

Lastly I have to mention the great St John's wort . This herb has become popularised and rather pigeon-holed as a kind of natural antidepressant and that is a sort of mixed blessing because it is so much more than that. St John's can be thought of as a kind of 'nerve-food'. If my patient knows that at least a part of the reason for their immune system problems comes from stress then St John's will often be in their treatment program as it such a reliable tonic to both the mood and the nerves. When people feel better their immune systems work better. Immunity is so intricately linked to our general health that you cannot think of it as being separate to you, it's not! More info on St John's here.


sHypericum perforatum (St John's wort)

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Treat the Cause

The number one rule of medicine is to 'firstly do no harm'. The second law of medicine is to 'treat the cause' and the third law is all about 'the healing force of Nature'. There is a short article that goes a little further into this subject here.

When it comes to immunity I strongly suggest you start with letting Nature take the first step and then attend to whatever it might be that has been lowering your immunity. Yes, it most definitely is absolutely vital to address the cause of any health problem in order to achieve a cure but, at least in my own experience, the people I work with have complex causes to their immune health issues and these are not often problems that have quick fixes. By getting the right kind of help to start with you safely allow yourself the time and give yourself the energy to do the deeper work.

What follows are the main reasons I see people getting chronic or severe problems with their immune systems along with some suggestions on what I see best working to address those causes.

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Post-viral Syndrome

I have met a great many people in my work who, when telling the story of their health problems, have an extremely important answer to the vital question 'how did it all begin?' They talk about having had a severe infectious illness, in some cases a very long time ago, from after which their health has never been quite right since...

It is highly possible that such a person is suffering from what can be called the 'post-viral syndrome' but may have been told they have 'adrenal-fatigue' or 'chronic fatigue syndrome' which can be dangerously misleading diagnoses if the focus needs to be squarely on immune health but instead is diluted and misdirected elsewhere.

The classic picture of the post-viral syndrome is an infectious event at the origin of the troubles and then a cycle of relapsing symptoms since that time that typically include advanced levels of fatigue, aches and pains, swollen glands and, in some but not all cases, signs that the body is trying to mount a fever to rid itself of what, in effect, has become a chronic infection. These signs typically include feelings of being chilled, suffering from night-sweats and getting an increase in pain or aching in the body.

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Diaphoresis (also known as Sweating therapy)

This last point about feeling chilled etc. is a key one to grasp in successfully treating the post-viral syndrome because one of the most effective therapeutic strategies we can bring to this problem is to work with nature and help the body do what it is trying but failing to achieve; i.e. to mount a fever! Fevers are widely feared and misunderstood in modern medicine, they are seen as an undesirable side-effects of illnesses which should be squashed as quickly as possible with drugs such as paracetamol or aspirin but, in many cases, nothing could be further from the truth!

There is a place for all drugs at some point in time but nature, and evolution, are not stupid, we have developed the ability to mount a fever simply because it is the fastest and most powerful way to activate an immune system to fight against whatever invader it has detected. Each degree your temperature rises the activity of your immune system practically doubles!

If I have a patient who has clear signs of the post-viral syndrome I will usually employ diaphoresis aka sweating-therapy as a front-line approach to help get the condition improving as quickly as possible. We will often begin with them doing a therapeutic sweat at home on the first day of their treatment along with taking immune herbs etc. and then, if needed, we repeat the diaphoresis once or twice a week until they are clearly very much better. This whole process is outlined in practical detail here.

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Immune Formula

I talked about Echinacea and Astragalus earlier. Boneset (more on it here) and the famous Elder berry (more here) also have excellent effects on the immune system of a person who is struggling with a viral infection now or from an unresolved viral infection in the past. To demonstrate how I might typically combine and use these herbs this is the kind of formula I put together in such cases:

Echinacea 60mls
Astragalus 60mls
Elder berry 30mls
Boneset 20mls
Licorice root 20mls
Thyme 10mls

Dosage is a crucial key to the success of herbal medicine, too little won't help and too much can overdo what the body can use to its best potential. This formula makes up 200mls of liquid herbal extracts/tinctures. In our own case we make up these extracts in our clinic from the raw material of dried organic herbs and our own brewed and distilled ethanol and water. Many herbalists likewise do their own manufacturing and many get their tinctures etc. ready-made so there can be quite a lot of variability as to what kind of amounts different herbalists will use according to the materials they are using, amongst other factors. In our practice the dose of the above formula for an adult could range from 5mls twice a day (a three-week course) all the way up to 7mls three times a day (a 10 day course) a child's dose might be half or less than that.

You can see I have put some Licorice root in this formula (more details on it here), this is because it is also a great anti-vital herb in its own right but also because it makes the formula a great deal more palatable and easy to take. Lastly a small but adequate dose of Thyme (more on it here) is there because it is one of the best of all herbs to disinfect an area where the bad bugs love to play hide and seek - the respiratory system!

In practice I will commonly use a formula like the above, along with some sweating therapy as described above, along with some of the dietary, detoxification or vitamin strategies as described below! You have to be prepared to do some real work with a person who has been chronically sick for any great length of time but when we regain our health and vitality it always seems entirely worth the effort!


Sambucus nigra (Elder berry)

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Vitamin Deficiency

The extraordinary machine of the human body is utterly dependent on a raft of nutrients in order to function properly throughout life and there are two vitamins in particular which are especially vital to the healthy functioning of the immune system.

Vitamin D

The first is the sunshine vitamin -- vit D. In recent years there's been an explosion of scientific studies proving beyond any doubt what we all instinctively feel, that getting sunlight on your skin when you are sick helps you get better faster. These studies have actually produced some fascinating insights into exactly how this happens -- through vitamin D.

I think it is best to assume you will benefit from plenty of vitamin D if you have a weakened immunity and in which case by far the best way to improve your vitamin D levels is by getting plenty of your skin exposed to the sun for a safe period of time between the hours of 10am and 2pm. This time is when the UVB waves that help you to make the best kind of vitamin D from the sun are at their highest.

For a light skinned person, the best amount of time is typically around just 10 to 20 minutes or until your skin colours up just one shade from where it normally is. A darker skinned person needs longer but again can use their skin tone to tell when the sun has done its job. Obviously you must avoid burning your skin in any instance but this regular, moderate exposure to mid-day sunlight can be of great help.

Testing
If you can get a vitamin D test to get an exact measure of how much you might need, then try to make sure that you are getting the test that is called 25(OH)D (its full name is 25-hydroxyvitamin D). If you have a low immune system then I recommend you get your levels up to at least 60 ng/ml and preferably even higher into the 70s or 80s (100 ng/ml is the upper safe limit but you really have to be getting above 200 ng/ml to be running any real danger of toxicity and it is extremely rare to get even close to those levels)

If you cannot get good sun exposure because of where you live or because of the time of year or because your levels are just too heinously low to begin with then you should eat plenty of vit D rich foods (pictured below) and/or get a vitamin D3 supplement and use enough of a dose of it to get the result you need.

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Vitamin C

The second on the list is vitamin C. The fact is that we are one of a tiny handful of creatures in nature that do not make our own vitamin C and it is an observable phenomenon that people with depressed immune systems need more than the average (you get a loose bowel when you have too much vit C so there is a rough way to measure when a person has reached their limit)

Vitamin C is proven to:
~ Improve white blood cell response and function
~ Increase interferon (a factor that fights viral infection and cancer)
~ Strengthen the mucous membranes that provide immune defences
~ Increase thymus gland secretions (the thymus is the main immune gland)

You can see how I prescribe much of the vitamin C that I give to my own patients by having a look at a product that we make up in the clinic called Life Greens (described here.) Life Greens is something that I also widely use as an immune tonic and, whilst I cannot sell it online, there are similar kinds of products in the marketplace that should likewise make a positive difference to immune health. Look for Greens, vitamin C and good bacteria, they all work well together. Likewise, if you eat plenty of one or more of the foods pictured below you will be doing a lot to ensure you have ample vitamin C for good immune health.


Top food sources for Vit C

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Mineral Deficiency

Minerals are equally as important to the well-functioning of the body as are vitamins though one key difference is that you can get away with not ingesting them quite so often as they are generally better able to be stored up (conversely we can get a lot lower in minerals that we can in vitamins and still not know about it)

Again I do somewhat rely on blood analysis to tell me if a person is likely to be low in minerals (they have higher than usual fragility of their cell membranes) but it can also be of much value to simply study the nails of the hand. The nails (and hair) are good barometers of mineral health so, unless there is a physical reason such as excess immersion in water or chemicals, if they are weak, broken, brittle, spotty etc. there may be good reason to explore ways to improve mineral health in general and key immune nutrients such as zinc and selenium in particular.

Supplements do have a place, especially over the short term to correct a deficiency. If in doubt it may be wise to simply take multi-vitamin/mineral to be sure you are not lacking something essential right now. That said, if you have poor nail health that cannot be explained by your work or environment, or if in any case if you would score yourself below 7 out of 10 for how healthy is your diet, then I recommend you treat this problem at its cause and start by reading the article on excellent nutrition here.

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Excess Sugar

The one 'nutrient' that clearly damages the immune system, especially when it is already under stress, is sugar. In fact, one of the most compelling arguments for the marked increase in immune related illness in our society is the huge amount of sugar we eat in modern life.

Studies have shown that consuming 100 grams of sugar can cause up to a 50% reduction in the ability of white blood cells to destroy foreign particles for over 5 hours! It is actually not at all hard to consume a 100grams of sugar in the modern diet - have a look at this picture here if you need convincing but if you are a great lover of pasta be warned; content may disturb!

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Excess Toxins

When looking at the increases in immune related health problems in general and cancer in particular many researchers are compelled to conclude that environmental factors may be the driving force behind some worsening statistics. We are all breathing, drinking and eating from the same world into which we are pouring mega-tons of new, weird and in many cases toxic chemicals, year after year.

Tongue analysis
In this area I rely on looking at the tongue just as much as whether the plasma of the blood contains an unusually high amount of debris. The tongue is the beginning of the digestive tract and can give much insight into what is happening further down below. A thick and coloured coating on the tongue may be all the evidence required to consider toxicity is one of the key causes to a depressed or malfunctioning immune system.

Detoxification is an area that is rife with myths and misunderstandings so if you think that this is an area that may need attention in your life, then start by reading the article called 'what is detoxification' here. An approach that I have found to be consistently helpful in this area time and again is to simply use a cleansing diet along with two particularly potent herbs. The cleansing diet is written up here, the most potent herb I know to clean the blood through the kidneys is Juniper, more here, and the most potent herb I know to clean the blood through the liver is Celandine, more here. The simple, effective & economic way to use these two herbs together is described here.

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Food Allergy or Intolerance

Food allergy and intolerance are clearly a huge part of the cause for immune system depression and disorder in many individuals. I have met a great many people, especially young ones, over the years for whom sorting out the one or more foods in their diet that they were reacting against made a world of difference to their repeatedly getting sick or having a chronic immune related health problem.

Food allergy and intolerancs are real, common and entirely treatable. Note that whilst we can say it may be that you should explore this subject if you have an immune health problem, it can be said that you definitely should be exploring it further if you also have a history of bowel problems, eczema, asthma or migraines or if you feel notably bloated after certain foods.

Allergy and intolerance are such important subjects with so many myths and misconceptions that I don't want to try to briefly summarise them on this page but will rather recommend anyone who needs to understand this topic in more depth to read a detailed article here.

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Chronic Infection in the Gut

Chronic infection in the gut (also called Dysbiosis) can look a lot like food intolerance but it tends to produce just as many symptoms away from food as directly after it and there are usually considerable ongoing disturbances in bowel function at the same time.

How you might know that this could be a key issue for you is that it most typically shows up in a person who used to be quite well in their health but, after contracting a particularly nasty gut infection, usually marked by vomiting and/or diarrhoea, has never been right since. When I hear something like that in a patient's health history then I will want to rule out 'dysbiosis' pretty much before anything else.

In the olden days this problem was always thought to be one of worms but modern microbiology shows us that much smaller organisms are much more commonly the culprits. Nevertheless, the old ways such as the confident use of Garlic and Wormwood (written up here) are still extremely effective in dealing with dysbiosis. Again this is a big subject that is best not to gloss over so, if needed, I recommend you read its in-depth article here

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Stress, Anxiety & Depression

Stress, anxiety and depression are all, of course, also huge subjects in themselves. It must be understood that everyone who gets a depressed immune system over any length of time will eventually feel tense, tired and blue and so it can be seen that many people become uncertain as to which came first -- their low immune system or their low mood...

I suggest that it is not necessarily that helpful to decide which was the chicken or the egg in this matter but rather that a holistic approach that is able to give attention to more than one area is by far more likely to yield a good result. I personally don't pretend that I can gauge how much my patient's mental health can be impacting on their immunity and I wouldn't want to put myself in the position of judging them in this matter even if I could. The far better approach is just to ask a person openly how much they think their mental health is impacting on their physical. They live in their body and know themselves better than anyone. I encourage you to take the same approach and so, if you know within yourself that this is truly a key area, then most certainly give it the attention it needs (not forgetting the first step of using the tonics from Nature etc.)

Tension & Anxiety
If you know in yourself that you are too tense and anxious and you belive that this may have impacted negatively on your immune system then I strongly recommend you to study and implement the practical advice given in my detailed article on this important subject here.

Depression
If you think that you may be depressed and that it is not merely a result of a low immunity but that your mood may have been low before you became sick then certainly give your attention to some very well-proven strategies that are known to help because this is problem that can always be improved, more here.

Sleeping
Lastly I think that everyone who is reading this will have experienced a heinous cold or flu that seemed like it was never going to shift only to find that they suddenly turned the corner after getting a good night's sleep. Sleep is the ultimate relaxation and is surely the very best time for our immune systems to fight and win their battles. If you are not sleeping well, then as a matter of the first priority I urge you to give your attention to the strategies in my article on insomnia discussed here.


Withania somnifera

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Children & Immune health

There is no doubt that parenting has many ups and downs but there is surely nothing worse than seeing your child get sick, especially if it is not just the normal and occasional sickness but something that becomes chronic or recurrent. All the steps discussed in this article, the immune tonics and treating the causes of problem etc. apply just as much to children as any adults but there is some more specific information on how to approach their most common illnesses in an article on children's health here.

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Constitutional Health Note

You might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general as well as that of your immune system. Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences and, to demonstrate how it works in this area, if you are a hot & dry constitution (an Eagle) then allergies and the post-viral syndrome are the problems that will come up the most for you and you will be especially responsive to Reishi mushroom & St John's wort. If you are a cool & dry constitution (an Elephant/Butterfly) then vitamin & mineral deficiencies are a common problem for you plus you have to be very careful with your nervous system health but you do particularly well on Garlic, Withania & Ginseng. If you are a hot & damp constitution (a Tiger) then excess toxins, sugars and/or gut infections are things that frequently affect you and treatments such as the sweating therapy and an intense burst of immune tonics can rapidly turn things around. Lastly if you are a cool & damp constitution (a Bear) then you are especially prone to troubles with a low immunity and need to carefully rule out things like allergies, toxicity, stress etc. but it is notable how much better you can do on immune tonics such as Echinacea & Astragalus. There is a brief introduction to this great subject here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd