ABCs of ImmunityMichael Vertolli, RH December 1, 2005
Effective Ways to Fortify Yourself Against Winter Colds and Influenzas
One of the more interesting developments of the early 21st century is that our health care system claims to have embraced preventive medicine. Apparently, if we want to stay healthy all we have to do is quit smoking, lose weight, wash our hands a dozen times a day with antimicrobial soaps and lotions, stockpile medicine cabinets with antibiotics and antivirals, and get an annual flu shot. Not smoking and losing weight are of course beneficial, but it is fear that drives the new preventive medicine – fear of microscopic germs that lurk in the air, on surfaces we touch, on our skin and in our body cavities.
This obsession with microbes has long been one of the cornerstones of reductionist Western medicine, yet the philosophy is incomplete and misguided. Traditional healers have known for millennia that it is the state of health and well-being of the person that predisposes them to, or protects them from, infectious disease. Infection is a symptom of a deeper underlying disturbance in functioning. We are exposed to billions of potentially pathogenic organisms every day and yet the majority of us rarely become ill. If the current paranoia about infection had any basis in fact, we would be sick all of the time. In reality, the presence of potentially harmful microorganisms is only one piece of a larger puzzle — a piece that usually is not of much consequence, but when we are in a weakened state, takes on much greater significance.
Sadly, one of the most powerful forces that can disturb our normal functioning is anxiety and fear. If our health care pundits really want to do something to stop the potential spread of infectious diseases, the best way they can achieve this is through silent vigilance. They should be doing their best not to alarm the public and especially the media (there is nothing that can sell a story like fear). The media is probably 90% responsible for the wave of paranoia that is currently sweeping across Canada and the rest of the world.
Fear is not the only challenge that we face. Many of the practices being recommended to help prevent disease are actually increasing our risks. We are all familiar with the mis-use of antibiotics by the medical profession and agricultural industry. This trend is now spreading to antiviral drugs as anxious consumers are using them to help prevent avian flu and other scary monsters. These drugs are toxic to our bodies and, when over-used, lead to the development of drug resistant strains of bacteria and viruses. In other words, in the long run they make our bodies weaker and the microbes stronger.
DRUGS AND CHEMICALS INCREASE RISK OF INFECTION
Another misguided practice is the use of antibacterial products. They are everywhere these days. I was recently surprised when I came across a display of hand sanitizer at the checkout in Home Depot of all places! You can also get antibacterial soaps, creams, dishwashing liquid — the list gets larger every day. These chemicals may occasionally provide temporary protection in the short term, but in the long term will make the problem worse. Firstly, micro-organisms can quickly adapt to these substances when exposed on a regular basis. Once more we are creating superbugs that will be extremely difficult to deal with when we really need to. Secondly, these substances are also toxic. One recent example that has received media attention is an antibacterial agent called triclosan. This substance is found in many over-the-counter antibacterial products. When it comes in contact with chlorine in tap water, some of it is converted to chloroform, a highly volatile and potent carcinogen that is readily absorbed through our lungs and directly through our skin. When triclosan ends up getting flushed into rivers and lakes, it can react with sunlight and form highly toxic dioxins that persist in our environment indefinitely and accumulate in all living things, including us.
There is another aspect of this situation that needs to be examined. Micro-organisms live everywhere. They are a natural and essential part of our environment. They even live on and inside us. Each one of us is host to 10 times more micro-organisms than the total number of cells in our body. Think about that next time you refer to yourself as “me” — “us” would be more appropriate! We are not as autonomous as we would like to believe. Our body is actually an ecosystem. Most of these organisms are symbiotic with our body cells. They have a similar relationship to our body as soil micro-organisms have to the ecosystem in which they live. These organisms live on our waste products and dead and dying cells and help to create a healthy environment that is mutually beneficial for them and for us. Having a healthy population of micro-organisms in and on our body is like having a rich loamy soil in the forest. We know that some of these organisms help us to digest our food, some produce vitamins that we need and all of them compete with and help control the population of potentially harmful organisms.
In reality, we actually know almost nothing about these organisms. When we take antibiotics or use antibacterial products, these substances do not discriminate between good bacteria and bad bacteria (assuming it’s accurate to even make such a classification). We really have no idea what the potential health consequences are of killing all of these bacteria. However, one thing we do know is that when antibacterial products kill off huge populations of organisms, they disturb the balance of flora in and on our body and this often gives an edge to the potentially harmful microbes. This is another way that these products may actually increase our risk of infection in the long run.
As a result, holistic practitioners prefer to use probiotics to treat many kinds of infections. In the long run it is better to support the healthy organisms than to attack the seemingly dangerous ones. As weird as it sounds, if we are concerned about possible infection, it is better to wash our hands with natural (unflavoured) yogurt than antibacterial soap!
Vaccinations are another sacred cow of the new preventive medicine that tends to be more a part of the problem than the solution. Take flu shots, for example. For the most part they don’t work because they need to be prepared well in advance of the flu season. It is impossible to accurately predict what strains of flu are going to be around the following year. Even if they manage to predict one or more of the strains, these viruses mutate so rapidly that the odds are the vaccine won’t work very well anyway.
However, let’s assume that a drug company is able to create a vaccine for the right strains of the virus. At best the vaccine will reduce the likelihood that a small percentage of those vaccinated will get the flu. The price we pay is that some people will actually get the flu from the vaccine and some people who are vaccinated will get the flu anyway. In both of these instances the symptoms are usually much worse than when unvaccinated individuals acquire the virus naturally.
More importantly, what’s wrong with the flu anyway? Colds and flu are usually minor infections that are actually beneficial for those of us who are relatively healthy. They provide a positive stress for our immune system that helps to keep it primed and better able to handle more serious pathogens. The same can be said for childhood illnesses like measles, chicken pox and mumps. These conditions help to ensure normal development of our immune system.
Unlike micro-organisms to which we are exposed by natural means, injecting large amounts of antigens from disease organisms directly into our blood (often preserved with toxic substances such as mercury or formaldehyde), severely stresses our immune system. Sometimes this can be seen right away when a small percentage of children and adults get flu-like symptoms following vaccination. In more severe cases they may experience convulsions which result in serious complications or even death. In the long-term, if vaccinations do provide defence for some people against a few pathogens, they also increase our toxic stress load, weaken our immune response in general and are one factor that can contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions later in life.
The quality of our drinking water is another major challenge that has become critical in recent years, especially in smaller communities. Much of our water supply has become contaminated as a result of poor agricultural practices. Bacteria are getting into our water from large feedlots and farms that spray raw manure on their fields (it should be composted first). Since the Walkerton tragedy, rather than cleaning up these agricultural practices, it has become public policy to put excessive amounts of chlorine in the water. Chlorine is extremely toxic. I’ve been in many small communities in Ontario that have a municipal water supply and it’s shocking how gross the water is. It smells and tastes like pool water. I wouldn’t brush my teeth with it, never mind drink it.
None of this makes health sense and none of it makes economic sense. Our health care costs are skyrocketing and the primary cause is an increase in the use of mostly unnecessary drugs. In the meantime, the pharmaceutical companies are laughing all the way to the bank. The government has given them a blank cheque and even pays for their advertising (e.g. flu shots). These kinds of policies will inevitably bankrupt our health care system, especially with chronic degenerative illnesses on the rise as well, primarily because we’ve been poisoning ourselves and our environment.
LIFESTYLE STRATEGIES TO STRENGTHEN IMMUNITY
There are some who will accuse me of making light of some very serious illnesses that can be deadly. I will not deny that. My point is that the methods being used to deal with the situation are not as effective as some would have us believe; in the long term they are more likely to make the problem worse, and they miss the mark in terms of addressing the real issues.
Most of these illnesses are only dangerous for those who are unhealthy and immune compromised. Creating mass hysteria, dosing the population with drugs and vaccinations, loading our drinking water with chlorine and dumping tons of pesticides and other toxic chemicals into the environment are some of the factors creating a population that is unhealthy and immune compromised, thereby putting us more at risk.
Malnutrition due to poverty is another. Instead of wasting trillions of dollars on superficial methods that don’t work, it would be more effective to focus our time and energy on reviewing health and environmental policy, providing better health education and dealing with poverty. There are going to be times when drugs and antiseptics are necessary, but they should only be used as a last resort in situations when they are really useful. In this way they will actually work when we need them.
In the meantime, our best protection is to make sure that us and our loved ones are not numbered among the unhealthy and immune compromised. That means following some basic lifestyle principles:
• Eat a healthy diet focusing on whole, organic foods including lots of fruits and vegetables, while reducing processed foods, greasy foods, animal products and simple carbohydrates (sugar and white flour).
• Supplements are also beneficial – including a low potency multivitamin with minerals, antioxidants, essential fatty acids and probiotics.
• Get lots of exercise including regular aerobic exercise.
• Reduce consumption of social and pharmaceutical drugs including caffeine.
• Get sufficient sleep and time for relaxation.
• Try to stay calm and maintain a positive attitude — spending time in nature, meditation, prayer, yoga, tai chi and counselling can help.
• Find interests or hobbies that challenge you and compel you to keep learning and growing.
There are also herbal protocols that can help boost our immune system. Two kinds of herbs are particularly important here: immune stimulants produce a rapid, short-term increase in immune function; immune tonics produce a slow, but deeper improvement in immune function.
Some common and effective immune stimulants include the various species of purple coneflower root and herb (Echinacea spp.), plantain herb (Plantago spp.), elecampane root (Inula helenium), pot marigold flowers (Calendula officinalis), boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and goldenrod herb (Solidago spp.). The effect of these herbs tends to peak quickly and then wear off, so it is best to pulse them: take them for 1-2 weeks followed by a 1-2 week break. Repeat this for 2-3 cycles.
Immune tonics work more slowly and more deeply. They should be taken continuously for 2-3 month periods. These herbs are all adaptogens, which help to reduce the negative effects of stress. Some of the better ones include North American ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius), lacquered polypore or reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Chinese milkvetch root (Astragalus membranaceus) and Siberian ginseng root (Eleutherococcus senticosus). These herbs are also very synergistic with maidenhair tree leaves (Ginkgo biloba).
For both the immune stimulants and the immune tonics it is best to use a combination of 3 or 4 of the herbs, preferably as a fresh herb tincture. Take the recommended dose 3-4 times per day on an empty stomach 15-20 minutes before each meal and 20-30 minutes before bed. If you are combining more than one herb, do not use the recommended dose for each herb. Divide the dose of the herb that is recommended in the largest amount by the number of herbs in the formulation and use that amount of each herb (e.g. if you are using 4 different tinctures and the highest recommended dose is 60 drops, use 15 drops of each tincture as long as you are not using any of the herbs at a dosage greater than what is recommended for that specific herb).
For the best results, do several cycles of an immune stimulant formulation followed by 2-3 months on an immune tonic formulation. If you do this once or twice a year and follow the lifestyle recommendations listed above, it will help to maximize your immune function. This doesn’t mean that you will never get sick, but you will get sick less often and when you do the symptoms will not be as severe.
Do not use immune tonic formulations for children. Have them take several cycles of an immune stimulant formulation several times a year. If you choose to have yourself or your children vaccinated, do a couple of cycles of an immune stimulant before the vaccination and another couple of cycles afterwards.
Anyone who has a severe health condition should consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural health care practitioner who is trained in the use of herbs before using any of these protocols. Similarly, if you try these herbs and have an unusual reaction, consult with a practitioner.
The issue of infectious disease is very complex. It would take a whole book to properly discuss all of the angles. Nevertheless, if we follow a few basic principles, maintain a positive attitude and be wary of the media hype, we are off to a great start at protecting ourselves and our families.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. More information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/