Immunity: The Big Picture
by Brian Amherst
August 3, 1999
Your body wants to be well.
Outfitted with a battalion of defenses for strategic
deployment, your immune system explodes with resistant force
at the first sign of infective invasion.
Think of the time a tiny splinter embedded itself in your
thumb. By bedtime, the spot rose and reddened; by morning,
white blood cells had launched their campaign, building a
hot, throbbing fortification. By day's end, the bit of wood
was propelled to the surface and ejected by the immune
system warriors. Once again, a foreign assailant was
The Protective Force
The immune system is a dazzlingly complex mechanism charged
with guarding against infection, colds, flu and cancer.
Laced with networks of couriers and transmitters, backed up
by intricate fail safe devices and reinforced by memory
units, immunity constantly adapts to highly specific and
"Supporting the immune system is critical to good health.
Conversely, good health is critical to supporting the immune
system." So write naturopathic doctors Michael T. Murray and
Joseph E. Pizzorno in their Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine
Maintaining the immune system requires a comprehensive
program of wholesome diet, resilient attitude, fitness
enhancing activity and nutrients keyed to the clear and
specific needs of this energetic machine.
The all-star lineup for immune sustenance: a high-potency
multiple vitamin/mineral formula, vitamins C and A,
bioflavonoids, isoflavones, zinc and selenium, antioxidants
like ActiVin (grape seed extract) and pycnogenol (French
maritime pine bark), as well as the botanicals echinacea and
But optimal partnering with your immune system also
benefits from understanding its workings.
The immune system wages war on the organ, tissue and
cellular fronts. It encompasses the lymphatic vessels and
organs (lymph nodes, thymus, spleen and tonsils), white
blood cells, specialized cells in particular tissues and
Lymph, a milky fluid consisting of water protein and
immune cells, is the essence of the immune system. Powered
by muscle movement (an important reason why exercise boosts
immunity), the lymphatic system collects and transports
lymph to the lymph nodes. These nodes contain certain immune
cells and filter out invading antigens, as well as produce
antibodies, before siphoning the lymph out into the
If you've ever had "swollen glands," that means your
lymph nodes have been in overdrive.
Macrophages are the immune cells that filter lymph,
consuming bacteria and cellular debris while protecting the
lymph system from invasion and damage.
Two organs dominate immune function: n The thymus. The most
influential, critical gland of the immune system, located
just below the thyroid gland and above the heart; produces T
lymphocytes, white blood cells responsible for cell-mediated
immunity not controlled by antibodies. This immune response
is tailored to specific antigens and is vital to resisting
infection from mold-like bacteria including yeast, fungi,
parasites and such viruses as Epstein-Barr, herpes simplex
and hepatitis. It also protects against cancer, allergies
and autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. n The
spleen. The largest mass (about seven ounces) of lymphatic
tissue in the body, located in the upper left abdomen behind
the lower ribs; it produces white blood cells, which engulf
and destroy bacteria and cellular debris; recycles material
from worn out red blood cells and platelets; produces immune
system enhancing compounds, including the proteins tufsin
and splenopentin, and spleen extracts.
The White Blood Cell Album
Although white blood cells (WBCs) are uniformly accountable
for protecting the body against bacteria, viruses, fungi and
parasites, the different types of WBCs vary considerably in
form and function. n Neutrophils phagocytize, that is, eat,
viruses, bacteria and old or dead cells. They don't need any
biochemical messengers for activation and their
effectiveness is wide-ranging.
n Monocytes collect cellular trash after infections and
can trigger immune responses; eosinophils can eliminate
foreign particles and, with basophils, are involved in
n Lymphocytes include varieties of T cells, which work
with other white blood cells or attack and destroy foreign
tissue, cancer cells or virus-infected cells; B cells that
produce antibodies that bind to bacteria, viruses or tumors;
and natural killer cells (NKCs) that destroy cancerous or
(Based on information in the Encyclopedia of Natural
Medicine; The Road to Immunity: How to Survive and Thrive in
a Toxic World (Pocket Books) by Kenneth Bock, MD, and Nellie
Sabin; and the Johns Hopkins Family Health Book (Harper
Keep the System Sound
Your immunity mechanism calls for special care and support.
The dilemma: How to develop a balanced system of
complementary and alternative therapies to build and sustain
powerhouse immunity? "There is no question that, in terms of
immune system response, certain supplements can reduce
infections, asthma, autoimmune disease and risk factors for
cancer," says Samuel D. Benjamin, MD, former project
director of the Arizona Center for Health and Medicine and
an ardent advocate for complementary medicine.
"But you must always be sure to maintain the
mind-body-spirit link," he told Energy Times. "For the mind,
it could be exercise, yoga or meditation. Evidence shows
improved immune system responses from these therapies. And
in any case, you never read in the headlines that somebody
has been admitted to the emergency room overdosing on
"Intentionality also is an important part of the mind
link: believing you are going to fare well. For your spirit,
you must ask yourself such questions as, Do I feel connected
"For the body, a daily multivitamin and mineral
supplement. Much depends on your community: I live on Long
Island, where there is a high incidence of breast cancer, so
I would recommend green tea and isoflavones from soy
products for women."
Dr. Benjamin stresses moderation in the use of
immune-intensifying supplements, among which he cites mixed
carotenoids, zinc and vitamin E.
The Soy Solution
Scientists who took the cue from the apparent link between
high-soy Asian diets and low cancer incidence have developed
a compelling case for soy as an immune-supportive anticancer
In a study conducted by the University of Southern
California at Norris and published in the March 4, 1998
Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers
reported that genistein, an active component of soy
products, short-circuits the ability of tumor cells to elude
destruction by the immune system due to an excess of
defensive stress proteins.
Genistein seems to make cancer cells vulnerable to the
immune response. Researchers at Wake Forest University told
participants at the January 1999 meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science that dietary or
supplemental soy fed to monkeys counteracted cell
proliferation that is a cancer precursor.
That Championship C
Probably the most widely recognized immune accelerator is
vitamin C, an honored warrior against scurvy and, in 1970,
again celebrated by Linus Pauling for its preventive powers
over the common cold.
Immune cells are known to accumulate and retain high
levels of vitamin C. Researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center in New York now understand how that happens:
Proteins called growth factors (which control growth and
production of immune cells) also increase those cells'
ability to take up vitamin C.
These researchers, reporting in the April 1998 issue of
the journal Blood, explain that the additional glucose that
the growth factors pump into immune cells (for enhanced
energy), plus extra vitamin C, intensify immune response.
And folks with higher levels of vitamin C in their blood
serum experience less cell damage from free radicals that
leads to cancer, heart and pulmonary disease and other
Scientists at the University of Buffalo (addressing the
June 13, 1997 meeting of the Society for Epidemiologic
Research) deduced from studying population groups that high
levels of vitamin C are associated with low oxidative stress
and lower risk of cell damage.
From A to Zinc
n Kids with neuroblastoma, a malignant tumor of embryonic
nerve cells and the third most common form of childhood
cancer, experienced significantly improved survival rates
when their therapy included high doses of retinoic acid, a
derivative of vitamin A, according to researchers at the
University of California, San Francisco, and Childrens
Hospital Los Angeles, who reported to the American Society
for Clinical Oncology on May 18, 1998.
n Colostrum, the pre-milk liquid produced by mammals
during the first 24 to 48 hours after birth, took the
spotlight recently as a supplement imbued with multiple
immune factors and natural antibiotics that augment body's
immune response. A 1992 study showed that bovine colostrum
might be able to reduce and prevente infections in immune
deficient folks, especially those with AIDS.
n University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute researchers
found for the first time (on laboratory animals) that
vitamin D appreciably inhibits widespread prostate cancer by
binding to cancer cells and triggering cell death or their
transformation to benign cells.
n Vitamin E exerts formidable immune-enhancing influence
on both antibody and cell-mediated immunity. One fundamental
study in the Journal of the American Medical Association
(245, 1981: 53-58) established conclusively that vitamin E
deficiency results in significant impairment of immune
function. Later studies demonstrated that it reduces
prostate cancer by up to one-third.
n Coenzyme A, described as a metabolic enzyme, takes part
in starting numerous body processes that provide energy for
the immune system. If you ever run short of this enzyme, fat
processing within your body would grind to a halt.
n Researchers looking at a substance with the tongue
twisting name 3-acetyl-7-oxo-Dehydroepiandro-sterone,
believe it aids immunity by quelling stress hormones.
n Mushrooms contain natural substances called
polysaccharides, believed to enhance immunity. In
particular, maitake mushroom, which conveys the immune
booster beta-D-glucans, is reputed to help fight infections
and drop blood pressure.
n Men and women taking selenium supplements for 10 years
had 41% less total cancer than those taking a dummy,
according to a January 1997 study by Cornell University and
the University of Arizona. Other studies have shown it to
reduce the risk for colon cancer by about 60%. n Zinc may
provide immediate protection against the all too common
cold. Scientists at the University of Florida were the first
to apply genetic fingerprinting methods like those used in
criminal and paternity investigations to understand how
nutrients directly affect human immune cells.
The study, in the April 1998 Journal of Nutrition,
demonstrates that zinc signals cells to make the protein
metallothionein, which protects against infections, toxins
and other stressors.
Phytochemicals a la Carte
Researchers extol the powers of phytochemicals in fruits and
vegetables available in dietary or supplement form as
immune-igniting antioxidants. These compounds neutralize
free radicals that oxidize cellular membranes, rendering
them vulnerable to cancer.The Strang Cancer Prevention
Center, an affiliate of New York Presbyterian Hospital,
offers a menu of the top antioxidant phytochemicals. The
center's director, Mitchell L. Gaynor, MD, is coauthor (with
Jerry Hickey, RPh) of Dr. Gaynor's Cancer Prevention Program
(Kensington): n Carotenoids, including beta-carotene from
veggies and lycopene (the substance that lends the tomato is
ruddy complexion), fight free radicals.
n Isoflavones from soy, fight angiogenesis, the process
by which new blood vessels form to supply nutrients to
cancerous growths. n Sulforaphane in broccoli, kale and
cabbage activates anticancer enzymes.
n Omega-3 fatty acids in cold water fish block the
synthesis of prostaglandins, natural compounds in the body
that promote tumor growth.
n Ginger contains antioxidant compounds, each more potent
than vitamin E. Recent studies on mice show ginger can
prevent skin tumors. n Rosemary contains carnosol which
deactivates carcinogens and helps limit the effects of
Sometimes the world can look like a dangerous place,
especially when you're sick and tired much of the time. But
in the search for immunity, menus of health help like this
ensure that no matter what your immunity needs, a boost can
be yours with the proper nutrient selection.