‘Anti-oxidants’, ‘super-foods’, ‘immune-health’ are all labels that you are likely to find plastered on anything these days from avocados to juice smoothies. What these labels actually mean for promoting a healthy and balanced immune system, however, is unclear at best. At worst, they are shameless marketing schemes that take advantage of the unfortunate state of most people’s miserably unbalanced immune state and resulting health issues. Each week, self-described ‘health-nuts’ clamber to scoop up the latest magazines and drink up the TV shows promoting what seems like a different previously unknown, practically magic immune-system rescuing miracle cure. While most of these are far from the historically detrimental ‘snake oils’ of yesteryear, and may actually be genuinely good for you, each of these items, whether it is blue berries, acai, quinoa, or ginger root each individually are neither necessary for immune regulation nor are they going to contribute dramatically to your overall health.
The obvious first place to start in order to cultivate a meaningfully healthy and balance immune system is the age-old, “eat right and exercise.” There is no way that adding a few blue berries to your breakfast routine will counter the massively detrimental effects of swilling down alcohol everyday, smoking cigarettes, scarfing down donuts and ice cream, and watching hours of television rather than going for a run, cycle, or swim. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love delighting in these lovely aspects of life. In fact, it is good to enjoy these things from time to time. It is the pattern of excessively engaging in these that disrupt the natural balance or homeostasis of your immune system, eventually causing health problems. A healthy immune system isn’t severely affected by these indulgences.
There are a variety of ways in which your individual body’s immune system can be dysfunctional, though. One of the most common maladies manifests as allergies and asthma. Aside from eating better and exercising, what can we do about this? The common ‘cure’ is to take anti-histamines. Anti-histamines work by interfering with, you guessed it: histamine. Why this works to temporarily alleviate symptoms is because when your immune system accidentally identifies the pollen plumes in the air during spring (hay-fever) as ‘bad,’ it responds by dumping histamine into your blood stream and nasal area. This molecule interacts with a plethora of cells throughout your head that trigger your typical allergic responses: watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, stuffiness, and itch. You might think this is a terrible way to respond to something as innocuous as pollen and you would be right. We didn’t evolve this set of stereotyped responses to pollen. It is actually the best response to large foreign invaders, parasitic worms, and is mediated by a specific branch of the immune system called Th2.
If we are being general, we can break up the immune system into a few different categories or branches. The first major break is the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. The main thing to know about how these two branches are different is that the adaptive immune system has specialized cells called helper T cells that are able to influence the way in which the rest of the immune system responds to perceived threats. The helper T cell adaptive immune system can also be separated into at least two branches: Th1 and Th2. I’ve already told you what Th2 is good for protecting us against: parasitic worms. Th1 on the other hand, is needed for your run of the mill small pathogens that we hear about all the time and despite gallons of hand sanitizer and antibiotic soaps, we can’t seem to really avoid: viruses and bacterial infections. Now something that you don’t hear about often is the fact that these two branches interact by inhibiting each other! Yes, your immune responses influence each other in dramatic ways to keep the balance and keep you as healthy as possible by naturally keeping the other in check.
So essentially, when an individual has allergies, it reflects an imbalance in their adaptive immune system where Th2 is over reacting to entirely the wrong thing while Th1 is pathetically unable to fight off cold viruses and bacterial infections efficiently. You might notice that your friends or family that don’t have allergies or asthma reportedly ‘never get sick.’ This is likely due to them having a relatively well-controlled Th2 response and thus a hearty Th1 response ready to quickly fight against microscopic threats.
Now that you know a bit more about the natural balance between Th1 and Th2 adaptive immune responses, what is there to do about an imbalanced system in a highly allergic person other than dose them with temporary solutions like anti-histamines and recommend they drink acai every day? There is another inhibitory circuit that I haven’t mentioned yet that intimately interacts with the immune system: the mind! It turns out that the best way to keep a balanced immune system (other than healthy eating and exercise) may be to use the most powerful organ you have, your own mind. It has actually been studied for decades and is well known that stress, which is only perceived danger, will dramatically affect the immune system. The way stress works is that you have thoughts such as “I’ve got this deadline coming up and I’m never going to make it, then I’m going to get fired” or perhaps more reasonably in an evolutionary sense, “there is a lion over there and it looks like it’s hungry and going to eat me.” Either of these predicted futures are quite stressful so your thoughts trigger your body to produce stress hormones which trigger your adrenal glands to release chemicals into your body that promote the fight or flight response. The release of these chemicals directly interacts with and inhibits your Th1 immune response.
You might be wondering why you would want to have your immune system inhibited when you are stressed out. As it turns out, your own Th1 response to viral and bacterial infections is actually largely responsible for how terrible you feel while you are fighting off the flu or a little strep throat. It is believed that this is to make you lie down, sit still, and conserve energy to efficiently battle the bugs running amok inside you. However, when faced with certain death via lion, it’s actually a really good idea to suddenly feel great and be ready to get out of there like a bat out of hell. On the other hand, when you have a deadline that you might not meet, this ancient inhibitory stress response may actually make you less likely to ‘survive’ at work.
Ultimately, if you connect the dots, you can see that stress inhibits Th1, which is responsible for balanced inhibition of Th2 and thus if you are stressed out, you may end up with a highly overactive and unchecked Th2 response. This logic would lead us to believe that simply by reducing stress in our lives, we could quite possibly eliminate otherwise intractable allergies. One of the most powerful ways to accomplish this is to meditate on a regular basis, calming the natural reactivity of the mind. Another even deeper method is to engage in EFT in order to combat truly entrenched negative thought patterns. Also, a much more intimidating, but honestly the simplest method is to improve your communication and socialization with others. A phrase that is used by a wonderful author and life coach, Dr. Neha, is “Be curious, not furious.” The concept is that as individuals, we tend to put more belief in our own thoughts, no matter how unreasonable or negative they may be, than actually investigating the situation and soliciting more information from our environment and those around us. And finally, the easiest way to immediately reduce stress is to smile. Just the act of smiling activates the emotional parts of your brain associated with happiness! Plus, if you smile at others, you are much more likely to solve (real or perceived) problems together.
So, next time that you feel stress building in your mind and body, remember that it’s not a lion about to eat you. Take a deep breath, meditate for 5-10 minutes, if you can communicate with someone about whatever it is that is causing you stress, do so, and make sure you put a smile on your face! All of this will lead to a healthier and balanced immune system with fewer allergies and better immune defense against viruses and bacteria. Who needs super foods when you already have the best immune-health promoter right between your ears?