On the whole, the immune system does a remarkable job of defending against disease-causing microorganisms. But sometimes it fails: A germ invades successfully and makes one sick.
“More than 170,000 Americans die each year from infectious diseases caused by pathological agents from bacteria, viruses and fungi. In spite of immunization and medical advances, the rising threat of global infectious diseases could threaten the health of most of the world’s population,” noted Roger V. Kendall, PhD, vice president of research and development with Vermont-based FoodScience Corporation. “There is also a growing concern around the increase in antimicrobial drug resistance, which is in part due to the excessive use of antibiotics over the past 50 years.”
Common disease-causing microbes, such as E. coli, salmonella, Staphylococc aureus, and those causing TB, gonorrhea and malaria, have been become harder to treat resulting in an increase in mortality, Dr. Kendall added. “Emerging infectious diseases, such as ebola, SARS, H1N1 avian influenza, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and hepatitis C, and even the rise of old diseases, such as mumps and measles are becoming a serious threat for which the medical community is striving to find answers. The increase in globalization, international travel, food imports, environmental factors, poor nutrition and lack of drinkable clean water are all contributing to the problem of immune invaders.”
In addition, Dr. Miro Smriga, PhD, director of scientific & regulatory affairs with New Jersey-based Ajinomoto North America, Inc., noted that there has been a significant surge in stress-related immune system complications and consequent damage to gastrointestinal tract and mental health. “Researchers have identified 80 to 100 different autoimmune diseases and suspect at least 40 additional diseases of having an autoimmune basis,” he said. “These diseases are chronic and can be life-threatening. Symptoms cross many specialties and can affect all body organs.” The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates up to 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease and that the prevalence is rising, Dr. Smriga pointed out. “The reasons are numerous, perhaps tied to the chronic mental stress, lack of exercise and reliance on prepackaged food with low content of basic nutrients are the leading ones.
“We live in a very fast-paced, high-pressure society with many demands on our time,” Dr. Smriga continued. “Stress and diet are key root causes that get cited frequently as relating to a number of health problems facing the American population today. Stress in particular has been identified as a contributor to elevated blood pressure, headaches, stomach complications, lack of sleep and cardiovascular issues among others. When factored in with a poor, nutrient deficient diet, which is common in the American culture today, this is not an ideal combination for maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle.
“Finally, whether we like it or do not, the impact of aging on the immune system is profound. As people age, a number of critical immune system components, including cellular response, antibody production, and response to vaccines are reduced or slowed. At the same time, susceptibility to infection and cancer is increased,” Dr. Smriga said. “Some of this increased susceptibility to disease is linked to chronic inflammation, which is associated with many disorders of aging.”
Keys to a Naturally Healthy Immune System
Doug Williams, herbalist, COO of Kudzu Natural Resources and broker for Amazing Herbs, both in Georgia, said the most important new threats to our immune health seem to come from the combination of changes we have made to our environment with pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, airborne and water pollution, that create constant challenge for the liver and anti-inflammatory functions of the body.
But there are interventions that offer hope for producing a better immune response.
“As always, good health starts with a healthy lifestyle:
A) Get plenty of sleep to recharge and repair your body, and B) eat your veggies,” Williams said. “You do not have to be vegetarian, but eating a diverse more plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways to support gut and thus immune health. C) Make functional foods a major part of your diet. Seek out greens and bitters, seed and nut oils, bright colored fruits and veggies, beans and rice. Medicinal mushrooms and fermented foods benefit your body, as well as your palate. Bitters in particular are being more appreciated for their support for liver, gut and immune health. D) Drink plenty of water so that your fluid systems can run at optimum effectiveness.”
Dr. Kendall added that maintaining a healthy immune system and practicing good hygiene is critical to reducing one’s risk of getting infected. He also said eating a nutrient rich diet, getting adequate sleep, reducing one’s exposure to pathogens, toxic chemicals and drugs, adequate exercise and elimination chronic stress are just a few points that will help to improve significantly on immune status.
“Research has shown that by consuming foods that are known to strengthen the immune response, such as yogurt (probiotics), oats (rich in beta glucans), garlic (allicin), seeds and nuts, (minerals such as zinc and selenium), whole grains (B vitamins), fresh colored fruits and green vegetables (rich in beta–carotene, vitamins A, C, E), and fresh fish (supplies essential fatty acids, vitamin D and coenzyme Q-10), people can improve on immune status,” Dr. Kendall added. Other natural immune builders he suggested include, colostrum, green tea, medicinal mushrooms, such as maitake and reishi, as well as herbs, such as echinacea, elderberry, ginseng, astragalus, bayberry, hawthorn, licorice root, red clover and golden seal.
Kris Vaughan, clinical herbalist, integrative nutrition coach and marketing consultant for Wise Woman Herbals in Arizona, pointed out that a healthy immune system requires a healthy environment in the digestive tract, “specifically the integrity of the mucosal lining, prevalence of beneficial bacteria, maintaining proper pH and elimination of inflammatory and allergenic foods in the diet.” Vaughan added that demulcent and bitter herbs pair well together to stimulate digestion while coating, soothing, and healing the mucosal lining of the gut. “My favorite botanicals in a digestive protocol are demulcents, such as slippery elm, marshmallow, and mullein paired with ginger, fennel, gentia and licorice.”
Just about all of the essential nutrients including vitamins, minerals amino acids and essential fatty acids play a role in maintaining a strong immune system. Dr. Kendall explained that research has demonstrated that supplements that provide optimum levels of vitamins A, C, D3 and E, minerals such as selenium and zinc, coenzyme Q-10, essential fatty acids, Beta1,3 glucans, high potency probiotics, amino acids, such as N-acetyl cysteine, dimethylglycine (DMG), curcumin, olive leaf extract and green tea extract, all support a healthy immune system. “These nutrients work with the body to balance the immune response in regard to macrophage, B-cell (antibodies) and T-cell (cell-mediated immunity) activity,” he said. “Case in point would be DMG, which enhances both B and T cell activity, plus macrophage and natural killer (N-killer) cell activity when there is a demand made on the immune system. DMG also balances the production of the cytokines (protein regulator of the immune system) produced from the T–cells to reduce inflammation, as well make the immune system respond more quickly.”
Also addressing N-killer cells and enhancing the immune system is the natural ingredient rice bran arabinoxylan compound (RBAC) developed by Daiwa Pharmaceutical in Japan in 1992 and introduced into the U.S. market in 1997. According to Hank Cheatham, vice president of marketing and sales with the company, RBAC is currently sold to U.S. doctors and other health care professionals by Daiwa Health Development in California under the brand name BRM4 and is available in 60-ct. bottles of 250 and 500 mg.
Cheatham explained that BRM4’s active ingredient, RBAC, is a polysaccharide dietary fiber derived from rice bran, modified by an enzyme from Shiitake mushroom using a patented biotechnology process. BRM4 provides essential support for the body’s first line of defense—N-killer cells. RBAC in BRM4 strengthens the immune system by more than tripling the activity of the N-killer cells, and significantly increasing the levels of B lymphocytes, helper T and cytotoxic cells. Helper T cells also signal plasma B cells when they encounter their cognate antigen to secure a healthy production of antibodies. In addition, rice bran arabinoxylan compound (RBAC) in BRM4 supports the body’s natural production of cytokines to control inflammatory response.
BRM4 is well researched, Cheatham noted: 28 published studies, including 10 clinical trials. Moreover, clinical trials have shown BRM4 is safe with no harmful side effects. Additionally, in more than 12 years of use worldwide, there have been no reported cases of drug interactions.
There is evidence that various micronutrient deficiencies—for example, deficiencies of glutamine and essential amino acids, but also zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid and vitamins A, B6, C and E—alter immune responses, noted Dr. Smriga. “The research at this stage is promising but requires far more advancement,” he said. “Some herbal dietary supplements are currently being suggested for immune health—the most typical ones are aloe vera, echinacea and garlic (probably the best option among the herbs and plants).”
But some of the best strategies for immune health are very simple and widely applicable, according to Beth Baldwin-Lien, ND, director of medical affairs & education with Connecticut-based Vital Nutrients. “For instance, taking a multivitamin has been associated with significantly fewer infections in adults under age 65.”
Liquid cod liver oil, probiotics with acidophilus and bifidobacter and larch arabinogalactan (a prebiotic) have been shown to reduce frequency, severity and doctor’s visits for upper respiratory infections in children, she added. Another concern is that autoimmunity causes low stomach acid in many cases and further compromises proper digestion, cautioned Vaughan. She said supplementing with betain HCL and pepsin is beneficial along with digestive enzymes. L-glutamine daily helps to rebuild the intestinal lining to prevent further damage and reverse a leaky gut.
“Reducing a low-grade inflammatory response through botanical anti-inflammatories, such as turmeric and ginger are helpful,” Vaughan pointed out. “Studies have shown that assimilating turmeric in the digestive tract is challenging and there are different theories on how to work around this. We have formulated a turmeric blend that we are presently testing for efficacy, containing digestive enzymes, such as lipase and protease to see if this is a viable solution.”
One of the oldest and more popular foods consumed for health—black cumin seed (Nigella sativa), is beneficial for immune, digestion, liver inflammation response and blood sugar, according to Williams. Popularly known as black seed, it is grown in countries, such as Turkey and Egypt, and is regarded as a panacea and used as spice, oil, and snack as part of the daily diet. For decades, top university researchers have been publishing studies showing its benefits, he said.
Williams explained that black cumin seed oil is the only source of thymoquinone (TQ), the active ingredient that has been studied for being a catalyst for immune system and inflammatory response. “Levels of naturally occurring TQ in black cumin seed oil tend to vary, with percentages ranging from the low 0.2 percent to the highest 2.2 percent TQ content, depending on the source of the seed,” he said. “However, the discovery of stronger and higher potency oils of Nigella sativa have allowed for greater efficacy and health benefits for consumers. Amazing Herbs’ 5X-TQ Premium Black Seed oil contains a minimum of 0.95 percent TQ, the highest naturally occurring source currently available which is cold-pressed from select Turkish Nigella sativa seeds and offers five times the levels of active constituents and antioxidants than other available forms.”
In recent times, there have been some beneficial innovations when it comes to improving the absorption and utilization of nutrients. One example, according to Dr. Kendall, is the introduction of ubiquinol, the water soluble coenzyme Q-10, which gives a three to four times better uptake as compared to the fat soluble ubiquinone form. “Liposomal formulas are being introduced that not only provide better uptake and retention of water soluble nutrients like, vitamin C and glutathione, but also aid in absorption of fat soluble nutrients,” he said. “ Phytosome technology is being used to improve absorption of plant derived, fat soluble nutrients from green tea, curcumin and grape seed extract by incorporating them in a matrix of phosphatidylcholine. This process increases their hydrolytical stability and their oral absorption and bioavailability.”
A trend in immune health supplementation, said Steven Fink, marketing director and business manager with Ajinomoto North America (in North Carolina), is to add antioxidants to vitamins and minerals, by creating “proprietary blends,” which are most commonly a blend of vitamins and herbs, sometimes combined with prebiotics to specifically target and protect gastrointestinal tract against stress-induced inflammation, he said.
He noted the company’s AjiPure amino acids, such as the immunity boosting Glutamimmune, were launched in 2014 with the purpose of providing health conscious consumers the opportunity to benefit from the world’s most premium line of pharmaceutical grade amino acids, all of which are produced using a patented vegetable based fermentation technology to produce the cleanest, purest plant based amino acids available on the global market.
Other innovative products, said Dr. Kendall, include ingredient combinations such as DMG, Maitake D fraction, arabinogalactan powder and beta 1-3 glucans, or vitamin D3 and elderberry. Olive leaf extract products are also known for immune supportive qualities.
Dr. Baldwin-Lien explained that combining elderberry with other synergistic herbs and nutrients can be even more effective for prevention or acute treatment of a URI. “For instance, Vital Nutrients Viracon utilizes elderberry and licorice for their antiviral effects, along with astragalus as an immune tonic to stimulate lymphocyte production, zinc and propolis to reduce duration of common cold in adults, and the Chinese antimicrobial herbs isatis and Coptis sinensis,” she said.
The company has focused on children’s immune health as well. “With so many conventional over-the-counter children’s medicines being removed from the marketplace in the last several years due to safety concerns, one of the innovations in the Vital Nutrients line has been the development of a versatile children’s immune support supplement, Vital Kids Berry Well Immune Powder, which can be used for either acute or long-term immune enhancement, with dosing recommendations for children as young as 6 months of age,” she said.
To be innovative, Vaughan said she believes that focusing on the underlying cause instead of a symptomatic approach is a huge step in the right direction. “I am encouraged by studies on the gut and its link to immune health. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of illness is diet related and we can no longer ignore the role that the health and proper environment of our digestive tract plays in our immunity.”
Williams added that scientific research is proving the truth of old traditions, diets and therapies, providing more evidence and support for ancient wisdom is also encouraging. “The microbiome research is revealing how gut health is fundamentally central to overall health, exactly as understood by ancient ayuvedic, Persian and Chinese medical systems,” he said. “Research on bitter compounds has shown to be greatly supportive of both phase I and Phase II liver detoxification, with corresponding benefits for gut bacteria, and colon health with increased bile production. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are now understood to be so essential for cellular health that the problems associated with deficiency look like an all of the above list health challenges. Antioxidant research has shown that certain foods can be the most important part of our preventative heath strategy.”
In conclusion, Fink noted that it is important for consumers to research any supplement being considered for use along with the manufacturer’s background and industry reputation,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are some companies that make dubious claims or take regulatory short cuts to bolster profits, thus, ultimately the consumer pays the price.”
Healthy Take Aways
• The increase in globalization, international travel, food imports, environmental factors, poor nutrition and lack of drinkable clean water are all contributing to the problem of immune invaders.
• Researchers have identified 80-100 different autoimmune diseases and suspect at least 40 additional diseases of having an autoimmune basis.
• Maintaining a healthy immune system and practicing good hygiene is critical to reducing one’s risk of getting infected.
• Eating a nutrient rich diet; getting adequate sleep; reducing one’s exposure to pathogens, toxic chemicals and drugs; adequate exercise; and elimination chronic stress are just a few points that will help to improve significantly on immune status.
• Microbiome research is revealing how gut health is fundamentally central to overall health, exactly as understood by ancient ayuvedic, Persian and Chinese medical systems.
For More Information:
Ajinomoto North America, Inc., (201) 292-3200, www.ajinomoto-usa.com
Amazing Herbs, (800) 241-9138, www.amazingherbs.com
Daiwa Health Development, Inc., (866) 457-4810, www.dhdmed.com
FoodScience Corporation, (802) 878-5508, www.foodsciencecorp.com
Vital Nutrients, (888) 328-9992, www.vitalnutrients.net
Wise Woman Herbals, (541) 895-5172, www.wisewomanherbals.com