When you have an autoimmune disease, like Hashimoto's Thyroiditis or Graves' Disease, you may wonder whether it's a good idea to try to "boost" the immune system. After all, an autoimmune disease represents an over-response of the immune system to its own organs and cells, so why would you want to give the immune system even more ammunition?
When we have an autoimmune disease, it's already clear that we don't have a properly functioning immune system. Some people erroneously believe that because theimmune system goes into "overdrive" with autoimmune disease, that they have a properly functioning -- but overzealous -- immune system. Actually, autoimmune disease is a sign that the immune system is already dysfunctional. People with autoimmune thyroid disease frequently are more susceptible to infection, catch more colds and flus more easily, and take longer to recover. These are all signs that the immune system is not functioning optimally.
So, it's important to do as much as you can to help your immune system work as best as it can. But before we explore some things you can do, let's take a look at how the immune system is supposed to work.
The Immune System in Action
The immune system is what protects us against bacteria, pathogens, microorganisms, cancer cells, and other things that can be danger to our health.
The immune system is usually on the alert to foreign substances. In particular, it's looking for "antigens." Antigens are large molecules (usually proteins) that travel on the surface of cells, viruses, fungi, bacteria, and some toxins such as chemicals and drugs. A properly functioning immune system identifies and then destroys substances that contain antigens. Of course, since our bodies have some cells that are actually antigens, a functioning immune system will learn to recognize "normal" antigens, and not attack them.
The body has a number of mechanisms that act as the front-line against antigens. These include your skin, stomach acid (which can neutralize some antigens), mucous (which can trap some antigens, such as inhaled pollen), tonsils, adenoids, coughs, and tears. Internally, we have the thymus gland, the lymph nodes throughout the body, the bone marrow, and also various types of white blood cells, which can atttack antigens when they are detected.
In some cases, the response to an antigen is inflammation. For example, when you inhale a cold virus, it inflames your nasal passages. The inflammation process causes the body to release chemicals, which include histamine. The swelling also helps isolate the antigen from contact with body tissues and prevent its movement throughout the body.
The inflammatory process and chemicals released also attract white blood cells to destroy antigens or damaged cells. When white blood cells surround and destroy foreign substances the process is called phagocytosis, and the cells are called phagocytes. Phagocytes ultimately die, and end up forming pus.
You can develop something called "acquired" or "adaptive" immunity, when the body is exposed to various antigens repeatedly. A particular type of white blood cell called a lymphocyte develops. B lymphocytes -- B cells-- produce antibodies, that attach themselves to a particular antigen, and act as a flag, making it easier for phagocytes to find and destroy the antigen. T lymphocytes -- T cells -- attack antigens directly. Different B and T cells are associated with each different antigen.
Lymphocytes usually develop the ability to differentiate between the body's own tissues, versus antigens. And, B and T cells actually have a unique ability to remember what is foreign, and what is part of the body, and then multiply those memory cells in order to more effectively wipe out the antigens.
When the Immune System Malfunctions
Sometimes, the immune system does not work the way it should. It may have a response that is not appropriate, it may overrespond, or not respond enough, when it encounters an antigen. It may look at an inherently harmless substance, and react as if it is an antigen. This is what happens when someone has an allergy to something that is otherwise safe for most people, such as, for example, apples, or peanuts.
In autoimmune disease, the immune system decides that normal body tissues, such as the thyroid, are antigens, and puts the immune system into action to destroy it.
Even in people who aren't already suffering from autoimmune disease, pollution, drug overload, toxins, continual emotional or physical stress, and poor diets can compromise the immune system and make it less effective.
Balancing Your Immune System
There are a number of ways you can balance your immune system, and help return it to proper functionoing. Ultimately, you should be doing this under the guidance of a good holistic or naturopathic physician, who can help identify your unique deficiencies, and devise a customized immune-enhancing program for you.
But, here are some general guidelines to familiarize you with the idea of immune balancing.
1. Take Antioxidant Supplements
Dr. Andrew Weil's recommendations regarding antioxidants includes
Whiole Dr. Weil recommends no more than about 200 mg of Vitamin C per day, other physicians recommend as much as 2000 milligrams a day to help boost immune function.
- Beta-carotene, 25,000 IU a day
- Vitamin E, 400 to 800 IU a day as natural d-alpha-tocopherol combined with other tocopherols.
- Selenium , 100 to 300 micrograms a day
Note: Dr. Weil advises that you don't take selenium within thirty minutes of taking vitamin C, but rather, take with your vitamin E at your largest meal.
2. Consider Immune Enhancing Supplements
There are a variety of immune-enhancers available, and some of the best known, recommended supplements include:
Some lesser known, lesser-studied products that are also popular with some practitioners and patients for immune enhnacement include:
- Products that contain immune-enhancing mushrooms, such as MGN3 and Grifron Maitake Caps or Extract
- Products with IP6 and Inositol, such as Cell Forte or Cell Mend
- CoQ10 -- 100 -300 mg a day
- Camu-camu and Cat's Claw - Amazonian rainforest products that can help combat viruses and build immune response
3. Improve Your Nutrition and Diet
- Organic Germanium
- Sterols and sterolin products such as Moducare
- Other immune enhancing herbs such as Olive Leaf Extract
Eat as little processed foods as possible
Avoid polyunsaturated vegetable oils and products made from them. (This includes margarine!)
When you need to use oils, switch to olive oil.
Eat less high-glycemic carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, sugary foods)
Reduce dairy, and if you do eat dairy foods, switch to organic versions, and be sure to include yogurt
Eat plenty of ocean fish
Focus on fresh whole foods as much as possible, such as fresh vegetables, whole grains
Try to eat an immune-enhancing food every day. These include garlic, maitake mushrooms, broccoli, and sea greens (like dulse, chlorella, and spirulina). (Note: be careful with too much raw broccoli or sea greens, as they can be goitrogens. Cooking, however, removes most of the antithyroid goitrogenic properties.)
Try to avoid pesticides and hormones by choosing organic produce, meats and dairy products whenever possible
Be sure to take probiotics of some sort. Either by eating sufficient organic yogurt, or by taking an acipdophilus supplement.
4. Get Sufficient Exercise
Exercise is actually an immune enhancer. It creates immune enhancing chemicals, and increases oxygen, which helps fight antigens more effectively.
5. Practice Relaxation and Stress Reduction
Relaxation techniques are immune-enhancers. A positive mental attitude makes a big difference in how the body fights disease. Creative visualization establishes belief and optimism. Biofeedback or massage therapy to reduce stress.
6. Get Enough Sleep
I can't emphasize enough how sleep is really a basic foundation of immunity. Two people can follow the same exact program, but if one is getting insufficient sleep -- and for most Americans, that means less than eight hours a night -- they will have reduced immunity against disease.
7. Incorporate Mind/Body - Spirituality into Your Wellness
Whether it's organized religion, prayer, meditation, or mind-body approaches such as yoga or tai chi, your mind and spirit are in communication with your immune system. Having a rounded spiritual sense and positive outlook on life can enhance immunity. A good place to check is Phyl Desy's Holistic Healing site, for good ideas on mind/body/spirituality approaches to wellness.
NOTE: Be sure to consult your own physician regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.