Immunity has become a seasonal discussion, reserved for fall and winter when colds and flus are most prevalent.
While this is an excellent starting point, building a strong immune system should not be an occasional effort. In addition to destroying the viruses and germs that we’re more vulnerable to in the winter, immune defenses also handle toxins, allergens, abnormal cells and other internal maintenance. For the body, immunity is more than a full time job. It’s a constant state of vigilance.
Can the immune system be our personal firewall against colds and flus? Absolutely. But immunity is also a highly complex system of intricate biological mechanisms that scientists still don’t completely understand. However, in integrative medicine, we do know this: Immunity must be protected and nurtured throughout the year. This can be achieved by following a healthy, whole foods diet, receiving adequate rest and hydration, practicing healthy stress relief, and supplementing with powerful immune-boosting herbs and nutrients. The more we do to support immunity, the stronger it will be when we need it most.
Nourishing the system
The immune system is an excellent example of the inter-relatedness of different biological mechanisms. Immune cells need nourishment to thrive. However, it’s not enough to eat the right foods and supplements — the body also needs optimal digestion to absorb the nutrients, and a strong circulatory system to deliver nutrition to immune cells. Sluggish circulation can have other detrimental effects, such as poor tissue oxygenation, termed hypoxia. Oxygen-depleted, hypoxic tissue boosts inflammation and oxidative damage, creating a fertile environment for acute and chronic illnesses including cancer growth.
Circulation is just one example of how the body’s systems work together. Cell-to-cell communication is another. Poor cellular communication, hindered by sluggish circulation, chronic inflammation and other factors, can impair the immune system’s ability to adequately respond. If the alarm is muted, the different “soldiers” that comprise immunity will take longer to react.
The immune system is made up of many different cell types, each one performing specific protective tasks, like soldiers in an army.
- Lymphocytes are white blood cells that destroy foreign particles and microbes and produce cytokines — signaling molecules that control other immune cells.
- Our first line of defense, macrophages, are immune cells that engulf and digest foreign particles and abnormal cells. They also communicate danger by activating T-cells.
- T-cells, also called T-lymphocytes, handle a wide variety of immune system tasks, including attacking diseased cells, communicating with other immune components and bridging innate and acquired immunity.
- Natural Killer (NK) cells attach to microbes or tumor cells and inject them with chemicals that destroy them.
- Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cells. Among other things, they respond to bacterial infection, migrating toward the inflammation.
- Cytokines are proteins that carry intercellular communications, reacting to infection or foreign bodies.
In some respects, a strong immune system is like a finely tuned automobile: the car becomes an extension of the driver, responding to the continual changes in the road. While a sluggish vehicle is an obvious danger, so is an over-responsive one. Similarly, we rely on the immune system to quickly attack invaders and abnormal cells, but we also count on it to protect healthy cells. When the immune system can’t distinguish between friend or foe — between healthy cells and harmful invaders — autoimmune diseases develop. Immunity goes “rogue” and as such, conventional treatments rely on drugs which suppress immune response. As is typical in allopathic medicine, this approach can mitigate short term damage, but does not address the root of the disease.
In integrative medicine, on the other hand, we use complementary therapies to help “retrain” the immune system. Certain natural botanicals, herbs and nutrients, as well as dietary and lifestyle changes, can modulate and balance the immune system so that it can respond appropriately. Medicinal mushrooms are an excellent ally in this holistic approach.
The remarkable power of medicinal mushrooms
While medicinal mushrooms are known for their ability to boost the immune system, that’s only part of the story. Essentially, numerous species of medicinal mushrooms function to modulate the immune system and train it to respond appropriately. Whether the risk is a microbe, a foreign body or an unhealthy cell, immune response must be highly discriminating and many medicinal mushrooms aid in this selectivity.
One of the key active ingredients in mushrooms is a group of complex carbohydrates called beta-glucans, which nourish macrophages, neutrophils and other immune cells. Beta-glucans attach to immune cells and significantly increase their functionality and force against any possible threats.
Medicinal mushrooms also work to enhance communications between cells, which is essential in coordinating attacks against invaders. They also protect immune cells from some of these same harmful invaders and support other aspects of immunity and overall health. From a holistic perspective, mushrooms educate and empower the entire immune system, not just the aspects that protect us from cold and flu.
In addition to providing sophisticated immune support, extensive research demonstrates that medicinal mushrooms offer a great number of other beneficial health effects. They offer antioxidant protection, lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol, modulate blood sugar, protect vital organs, remove toxins, aid digestion, fight inflammation and protect against radiation damage, among other proven benefits.
There are more than 270 varieties of medicinal mushrooms. In particular, I recommend a formula that combines the following mushroom species: Coriolus, Ganoderma, Agaricus, Cordyceps, Umbellatus and Maitake. These species of mushrooms provide comprehensive immune support and other powerful health benefits. Also, when selecting mushrooms, make sure they are grown in a carefully controlled indoor environment, as fungi are known to absorb toxins. However, they also absorb beneficial compounds, so look for mushrooms that are cultivated on a blend of immune-enhancing herbs. MycoPhyto Complex is a good example of a mushroom formula that meets these requirements and has been shown in published research to support immunity.
Modified citrus pectin
We tend to think of orange skins as waste — the stuff we throw away once we’ve gotten to the fruit. Most of us don’t realize that the peel contains an abundance of citrus pectin, a complex carbohydrate with many potential health benefits. But because citrus pectin is such a large molecule, it is nearly impossible to absorb into the circulation. Modified Citrus Pectin (MCP), on the other hand, is citrus pectin that has been enzymatically modified to allow maximum absorption and bioactivity throughout the body. The specific molecular characteristics of MCP give it multiple therapeutic properties, including a profound impact on immunity and other aspects of long-term health. Published research on MCP shows that it dramatically increased T-cytotoxic and NK cell activation and improved NK cell functionality against leukemia, in human blood samples.
Another reason that MCP is so beneficial is because of its relationship with the protein galectin-3. This naturally occurring biological molecule is directly implicated in the development and progression of cancer, cardiovascular disease and conditions related to chronic inflammation and fibrosis. Because MCP has a natural affinity for galectin-3, it can bind to and block excess amounts of this protein, thus helping to treat and prevent many of these degenerative diseases, as shown in the scientific literature. MCP is also proven in clinical studies to remove toxic heavy metals from the digestive tract and circulation, without affecting essential minerals. Together, this array of health benefits makes MCP an important supplement for protecting and promoting long term immunity and overall health.
Herbs, nutrients and lifestyle
- There are also a number of effective herbs that also boost immunity. Salvia miltiorrhiza and Angelica sinensis are excellent examples. Echinacea purpureahas been used for centuries for acute infection, and as further research is being conducted, we are learning even more about its long-term benefits.
- Some botanical compounds that boost immunity include curcumin, an active derivative of turmeric root, and honokiol, a powerful magnolia bark extract. Both curcumin and honokiol offer broad support for multiple areas of health in addition to boosting the immune system. They deliver powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, actively fight cancer and assist in detoxification, among other benefits.
- Zinc is an important nutrient because it supports numerous immune and enzymatic functions. Selenium is also very beneficial. L-Carnitine, an amino acid, preserves cellular mitochondrial function which is essential for healthy immune function.
- It’s also very important to drink plenty of filtered water and get enough exercise daily. Take a brisk walk outdoors, do yoga, go for a jog, and be sure to stay hydrated.
- Happiness is another great immune enhancer, so make time for doing things that bring you satisfaction and joy. Healthy stress relief exercises such as mindful meditation or deep breathing are shown in multiple studies to reduce immune-suppressing stress hormones and boost mental and emotional wellbeing.
- Lastly but perhaps most importantly, it’s critical to get adequate sleep. The body needs that down time to recharge and repair. Going to bed at the same time each night, preferably before 10 p.m., is also very helpful in regulating and maintaining immunity.
All of these measures will help ward of colds and flus, but it won’t happen overnight. Just as you wouldn’t run a marathon without extended training, don’t face an abundance of pathogens and germs without a well-trained immune system. Once you develop a robust immune routine, the beneficial effects will soon be apparent, protecting you from health issues large and small.
Immune health is not just an issue during fall and winter—it’s beneficial all year long and can result in increased energy, vitality and overall wellbeing, no matter the season.