Sick Of Being Sick?
The secret to staying healthy this winter may be as simple as balancing your immune system

By Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH

Remember when your biggest germ concern was catching “cooties” at school? This winter, while your co-workers cough and sniffle, you may wish it were still that simple. In order to avoid the common cold, the flu, and even to protect yourself from some of the scarier germs you’ve heard about recently, such as West Nile Virus and monkeypox, you want to make sure your immune system is in tip-top shape. But it’s not just a matter of boosting immune function with a lot of vitamins and herbs; new research is now revealing that it is just as important to have an immune system that is balanced. How can you tell if your immune system is out of balance? The primary sign is the presence of allergies or autoimmune diseases, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or lupus.

Immunologist Patrick Bouic, PhD, head of the immunology department at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa, and co-author of The Immune System Cure (Kensington Publishing, 2000), explains the difference between needing to boost or balance the immune system: “When a person develops an auto-immune disease or allergies, the immune system is unbalanced. If this person, in the unbalanced state, simply took an herb or supplement that boosted the immune system, then the unbalanced part of the immune system—such as the propensity toward inflammation—would also be boosted and health problems could end up being aggravated.”

How The Immune System Works
The human body’s immune system is an intricate network of specialized tissues, organs, cells, and chemicals. The lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, thymus gland, and tonsils all play a role in fighting off germs and illnesses. When the immune system is running well, it keeps an eye out for potential infectious organisms and works to neutralize them before an infection—such as the common cold, the flu, pneumonia, infectious diarrhea, a yeast infection, or an ear infection—develops. The well-running immune system also looks for cells in the body that might morph into cancerous cells and tries to eradicate them.

The immune system, however, is not perfect; sometimes it can inadvertently harm the very organism it is supposed to protect. Why? Although it is still not well understood by scientists, stress seems to be a factor in some cases, and a family history of disease can also play a role. But many times it appears to be random as to who develops an autoimmune disease. Here’s what happens: Proteins in the body can be mistakenly identified as foreign, causing the immune system to mount an attack and resulting in an autoimmune disease. In other circumstances, the immune system overreacts to harmless foreign particles, such as pollen or proteins in foods, such as dairy products, resulting in hay fever and food allergies, respectively. “With autoimmune diseases and allergies,” explains Amber Ackerson, ND, a Portland, Oregon– based naturopath, “the body’s immune system goes a little haywire and ends up going after substances that are not normally harmful, and in the case of autoimmune disease, even attacking the body’s own organs.”

Finding The Right Balance
Although your diet and lifestyle play crucial roles in healthy immune function (see “Stay-Healthy Strategies”), equally important are so-called immunoregulating herbs and supplements. Immunoregulators selectively interact with the immune system; they boost sluggish immune systems and calm those that are overly active. Of course, anyone can benefit from immune-balancing herbs and supplements, but those with autoimmune diseases and allergies stand to gain the most. (For a list of immunoregulating herbs and supplements, see “Take These for Immune System Balance.”)

One way to do this is with probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria such as acidophilus. “Probiotics are one of the best supplements to take if you want to balance your immune system,” says Heather Zwickey, PhD, director of research at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Probiotics are high on Zwickey’s list for immune balancing for two reasons: “First, they are safe enough to take daily—even if you have autoimmune diseases—and second, probiotics have the unique ability to bring back into balance whichever part of the immune system is out of balance.” Active-culture yogurt eaten several times a week is a good source of probiotics. Alternatively, you can take a daily probiotic supplement. Consult your health care practitioner to determine which probiotics are best for you.

Also beneficial are several herbs that act as adaptogens in the body. According to Donald Brown, ND, author of Herbal Prescriptions for Health and Healing (Lotus Press, 2003), these herbs have the ability to balance the immune system. Adaptogens increase the body’s resistance to stress and have a balancing effect on the body, including the immune, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. Both astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) are adaptogenic herbs. Mushrooms, such as cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), maitake (Grifola frondosa), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), and shiitake (Lentinus edodes), are also in this category because they have a tonic, balancing effect on immunity. Mushrooms contain complex polysaccharides that enhance immune function. By including these mushrooms in your cooking on a weekly basis, or taking one of these adaptogens a few times a week, immune function should become more effective and balanced.

Plant sterols are another effective immune balancer. Sterols and related compounds called sterolins are special fats found in plant foods, such as seeds, nuts, and plant oils. Sterols and sterolins have been shown to restore immune balance, which is beneficial for those with infections, stress-induced immune suppression, allergies, or rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions (Alternative Medicine Review, 2001, vol. 6, no. 2).

“The plant sterols and sterolins act on specific types of cells called lymphocytes,” explains Bouic, “specifically those that control the immune system.” Bouic’s team has researched a proprietary blend of sterols and sterolins, available in dietary supplement form, in several clinical trials with positive results. The trials included pulmonary tuberculosis patients, HIV-infected patients, and those with rheumatoid arthritis, seasonal allergies, and sinusitis (Drug Discovery Today, 2002, vol. 7, no. 14). According to Bouic, the pulmonary tuberculosis patients in the studies cleared their pulmonary lesions more quickly and regained body weight faster when taking the sterol supplement. HIV-infected patients showed a stabilization of the infection since the disease progressed more slowly, and they lost less weight compared with HIV-infected patients not taking the supplement. Study patients with rheumatoid arthritis taking the sterol supplement had less swelling and tenderness of their affected joints; those with seasonal allergies and sinusitis who were taking the supplement reported improved sleep and concentration and showed a decline in allergic markers.

In addition, Bouic conducted a study of marathon runners to assess what role sterols and sterolins could have in immune-suppressed but otherwise healthy individuals (International Journal of Sports Medicine, 1999, vol. 20, no. 4). These subjects were chosen because running a marathon or participating in other endurance events is known to suppress immune function. The runners in this study who took sterols and sterolins had improved levels of immune-related markers in their blood following the stress of running a marathon. More important than these favorable blood tests was the fact that the runners who took the supplements before the event (compared with a group of runners taking a placebo) experienced fewer incidences of upper respiratory tract infections.

Clearly, striking a balance with your immune system can bring about worthwhile health benefits. If you’re feeling run-down or worry about getting sick this cold-and-flu season, give one of these immune-balancing herbs or supplements a try. By getting your immune system in balance, you’ll be better equipped to defend against the myriad germs that are unavoidable this winter.

Oregon-based freelance writer Victoria Dolby Toews received her masters of public health from Portland State University in Oregon.