Immune Health

We are constantly at war. Our body is constantly defending us against invaders too small to see with the naked eye, but this never-ending battle, which happens without our even being aware of it for the most part, is literally what keeps us alive. And while most of us don’t give it much though unless or until we get sick, there are some simple things we can do to take care of this incredibly complex and important surveillance and defense network called our immune system to make sure it keeps running in tip-top shape. This will go a long way to help keep us healthy throughout our lives.


First, let’s talk a little about the “nature vs nurture” debate. Do our genes dictate how healthy we are, or do we have some level of control or influence over our health? Well, it isn’t a simple yes or no question, as you may have guessed. Our genes clearly play a role, as some people have higher risk to certain types of cancer and other diseases, but simply having an increased risk does not automatically mean that we will get sick. In order for those diseases to become reality, something must trigger the risk factors bound in those genes to become expressed. Those triggers are usually some environmental factor such as a chemical in the air, water or food. For example, cigarette smoke contains compounds known as “free radicals” that combine with other chemicals to cause changes in our cells that, over time, lead to structural changes in the way our cells reproduce and build new cells. These structural changes may cause the cells to reproduce uncontrollably, which we call cancer. If our immune surveillance system is working properly, these cancerous cells are identified and eliminated, but if not, they escape detection and may grow into dangerous and sometimes fatal lesions or tumors.


Other times, our immune system may become sensitized to our own organs or tissues through a complex breakdown of our surveillance system. When that happens, we may begin attacking our own tissue. Depending upon the type of this surveillance breakdown, this may take the form of destruction of joint tissue (different types of arthritis), organs such as the thyroid (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), specific cells in the nervous system (ALS) or any of a number of different organs or tissues. These “autoimmune diseases,” where our immune system is literally attacking our own body, is one of the most challenging and heartbreaking category of diseases being treated today, because of the implications of our immune system, tasked with keeping us alive, seemingly turning on us and contributing to such a profound loss of function and quality of life.


So how do we strike a balance in this lifelong “nature vs nurture” see-saw? Scientists know that we are born with a certain “luck of the draw” in our genes, but we have much greater control over that destiny than was originally understood when they human genome was first mapped. In other words, the likelihood of developing a particular disease is much more related to the choices we make during our lifetime (diet, exercise, personal relationships, where we live, etc.) than the genes we inherited from our parents might dictate. That means we are far more in control of our destiny than not. So making good choices in those aspects we have control over is critical. Refer to the sections on diet and exercise for more information.


What about supplements? Is there scientific evidence that supplements may be of benefit? In fact, there is. People who regularly take supplements such as vitamin D, a multiple vitamin/mineral supplement, targeted, high quality probiotics and calcium/magnesium have been shown to have fewer colds and flu, better digestive function and fewer age-related fractures and seem to have fewer chronic diseases than those who don’t. Of course it’s impossible to “prove a negative” and long-term studies are lacking, but the relative low cost and significant upside would seem to indicate the value of erring on the side of caution.


Additionally, certain nutrients have been demonstrated to offset the harmful effects of these damaging environmental agents throughout life; things like beta carotene, vitamin C, phytochemicals, antioxidants, bioflavonoids and other similar compounds have shown a protective effect in the scientific literature.


All in all, a diverse, healthy diet, regular, moderate exercise, clean water and air, staying in healthy, supportive relationships and keeping stress to a reasonable level, coupled with judicious use of supplemental vitamins, minerals and accessory food factors, make good sense and contribute to maximizing one’s prospects for a long and healthy life. While no one can show scientific evidence of extending one’s lifespan, we can extend our “healthspan” with a few simple tools.



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