BACKGROUND: The immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend the body against attacks by “foreign” invaders. These are primarily microbes—tiny organisms such as bacteria, parasites, and fungi that can cause infections. Viruses also cause infections, but are too primitive to be classified as living organisms. The human body provides an ideal environment for many microbes. It is the immune system’s job to keep them out or, failing that, to seek out and destroy them. (Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)
THE VITAMIN C DEBATE: While many believe vitamin C will help ward off colds and flus, research finds that’s not the case for most people. A comprehensive analysis of 29 studies called “Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold” concludes, “Regular ingestion of vitamin C had no effect on common cold incidence in the ordinary population. However, it had a modest but consistent effect in reducing the duration and severity of common cold symptoms.”
The analysis goes on to state, “Trials of high doses of vitamin C administered therapeutically, starting after the onset of symptoms, showed no consistent effect on either duration or severity of common cold symptoms. However, only a few therapeutic trials have been carried out, and none have examined children, although the effect of prophylactic vitamin C has been greater in children. One large trial with adults reported equivocal benefit from an 8 g therapeutic dose at the onset of symptoms, and two trials using five-day supplementation reported benefit. More trials are necessary to settle the possible role of therapeutic vitamin C, meaning administration immediately after the onset of symptoms.”
BOOSTING BOOSTERS: Scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are studying a naturally-occurring immune booster called lactoferrin to add to tuberculosis and flu shots.Dr. Jeffrey Actor is investigating how lactoferrin modulates the body’s immune response. Much like a seesaw, too little of a response is bad and too much of a response is bad. Dr. Actor believes lactoferrin can boost the response of a TB vaccine to increase protection against disease. One third of the world is infected with TB. If lactoferrin could increase the protective aspects of the disease even slightly, it could save thousands of lives. Dr. Actor thinks it could be added to the current vaccine to boost protective immune function. One day, Dr. Actor envisions lactoferrin being added to childhood vaccines. It could strengthen the benefits of existing vaccines and provide longer lasting protection against a variety of organisms. He also sees the protein as a way put the brakes on the body’s over response to bacterial infections that can lead to sepsis. The possibility of catching a bacterial infection that leads to sepsis is often higher in a clinical setting. If someone knew they were going to be a situation when their risk of sepsis was increased, they might take lactoferrin ahead of time as a preventive measure.
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Amitava Dasgupta, PhD, a Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, talks about the mystery of your immune system and what you can do to improve it.
It seems like everyone is concerned about boosting their immune system and fighting off sickness and trying to stay healthy, what do you think are the best ways people can do that?
Dr. Dasgupta: The first thing I tell them is eat properly every day and eat lots of fruits and vegetables, especially the fruits which are very rich in Vitamin C. For example, oranges, pineapple, any citrus fruit. Vitamin C is actually very good in fighting cold. In fact Dr. Lydia Spalding, who was at Stanford University, had a theory that if you can take vitamin in mega doses, especially Vitamin C, it can prevent lots of illness. Now the medical company doesn’t recommend you take such a high level of Vitamin C, but during the winter months taking Vitamin C supplement or even Vitamin C rich fruits are very good for you. Lots of people believe in the medical community that if you have an active common cold you can take two grams of Vitamin C, which is a five hundred milligram capsule fortified not more than two days. There is a problem with taking too much Vitamin C because it can crystalize in your kidney causing very painful stone. Just for two days you can take two grams of Vitamin C and that can help relieve the symptom. What is very important in winter month is wear proper clothes so that you won’t catch a cold, and eat lots of fruits and vegetable and you can take vitamin supplements. There are a few alternative medicines, which have mixed result in clinical trial, but one thing we know, Echinacea can boost your immune system. We did some research in our laboratory and we saw in mice model that it can modulate the immune system although clinical trials are kind of confusing because some trials says it can help you prevent common cold while others say it doesn’t. However since there is no serious side effect, it is possible to take Echinacea for two months during the coldest month. However do not forget to take your flu shot because there is no vitamin or supplement or food that can substitute the flu shot. Another thing which can be helpful, there is a publication it says that drinking red wine during the winter month can reduce the chances of common cold. Just one glass a day. Not more than that because just one glass of wine a day can give you protection against common cold.
What’s in it that helps you?
Dr. Dasgupta: We don’t really know because it could be the antioxidant. That could be one of it or it could be because wine can have about over a hundred different chemicals. Not all of them are characterized. It might be some component of the red wine that can boost your immune system but it has to be red wine and red wine only.
What infections can we get in the different season?
Dr. Dasgupta: Spring and summer infections are mostly bacterial where supplements are not going to help you. But the whole part of it is that eating healthy foods, eating foods rich in antioxidant is always good for you. For example, eating vegetables like tomatoes, which are very high in antioxidant, and broccoli, cauliflower and lentils. Eating fruits every day is very important. The department of agriculture publishes the dietary guideline which is available for free for all Americans. They tell you how much energy should come from carbohydrates, how much energy should come from other sources. Reducing cholesterol and including fruit and vegetable every day should be your plan throughout the year not just winter months.
What are some of the lesser known ways to boost your immune system that people haven’t heard of or are still being studied that you many recommend?
Dr. Dasgupta: There are not much listed. One of the things we try to recommend is that stress is a very big factor. Now we are beginning to understand how the stress can cause problem to our immune system. If you are highly stressed your immune systems aren’t functioning properly. Studies indicate the people who have more friends and social network have less stress hormones, which is called cortisol in the blood. I would say try to cultivate some happy. It can be listening to your favorite music, talking to your spouse or going to movies, eating out once a week, whatever can help you reduce your stress is very helpful. And then of course we’re going to off the scale issues like power of meditation and prayer. There is very little work done by medical mythology, but there are some studies which indicate that if you meditate, it can help you relax because it gives you the brain wave which is indicative of a relaxed state of mind. Any sort of relaxation is going to boost your immune system. Exercise is also another way of boosting your immune system. Exercise regularly is very helpful. If nothing works walking for half an hour in a relaxed mind when you’re not thinking about anything like your job or trouble or anything, just walking for half an hour in a relaxed mind is very, very beneficial for the health.
Why does stress hurt your immune system, what is the chemical reaction?
Dr. Dasgupta: What it does is when you are stressed; your body reacts by sending or releasing some hormones. One of them is the release of the stress molecule which is called cortisol. It’s is a small molecule, it’s a steroid like structure. Your level in the cortisol goes up and your adrenal cortex releases that chemical in a response to the high level of the hormone, and then what happens is that it increases the blood pressure, it makes you tense. It’s preparing your body to fight. It can be released in response to any stress like job related. Lots of people have a stressful job so you cannot really stop the release of cortisol. But when you go home after the work the recommendation is not to take your stress with you, just think about it next day when you come to work. It’s almost like leaving your baggage at work and don’t worry about it when you have the evening and the night and then come back next morning. Sleep well. They’re all related to diseases and immune system. For example, if you snore too much that you wake up your spouse every night, it’s better to talk to a doctor and go to a sleep clinic to find out if you have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can cause many health issues including blood pressure, hypertension, and lower immunity. If you can handle those problems earlier you can live a healthier life.
The immune system seems like it’s delicate but at the same time resilient.
Dr. Dasgupta: That’s correct. At this time that’s the reason there are so many journals and immunology because there are so many things unknown. If everything is known nobody will publish papers anymore.
What are some of the bigger breakthroughs you’ve seen?
Dr. Dasgupta: Honestly the biggest breakthrough in medicine so far in the last ten to fifteen years is basically treating HIV. As you know, twenty years ago HIV was a death sentence, but with the development of many new drugs, you can probably manage HIV almost like you can manage diabetes and hypertension. You can start to live a longer life. We have a tremendous understanding of immunology, but all the work has been focused on the people where human functions are compromised. If you are a healthy individual you don’t really need a boost of the immune system unless you are abusing your body. I recommend eating three meals a day. If you are over fifty, take one multivitamin supplement every day. Get regular health checkup, get your blood chemistry done on a regular basis and try to live a happy life. If you are happy, you look and you live longer and you live trouble free.
In your opinion how far are we from curing the common cold?