When speaking of health, we often talk about “boosting” our immune system. However, it should be noted that the immune system can be either underactive or overactive, and to boost the latter may be more harmful than helpful, as we are essentially giving our body extra “ammo” to fight against itself! Biochemist Kelly Groskopf, does a great job of explaining how the immune system works and why immune modulation can play a key role in maintaining optimal immune health.
Immune System 101
Our immune system has two primary responses. Think of it as your internal “law enforcement”:
- POLICE PATROL: Innate Response – Non-specific responses that deal with low level threats on an immediate basis and call for reinforcements when needed
- SWAT TEAM: Adaptive/Acquired Response - Highly sophisticated, targeted responses to a specific threat that take time and information to mount a response
Furthermore, the acquired/adaptive response (“SWAT Team”) can be broken down into:
- Combat Soldiers (direct execution) - T-cells (aka, TH1: cell-mediated immunity), which consist of immune cells killing other cells.
- Control Center (set-up attack) - B-Cells (aka, TH2: humoral immunity), which produce and secrete antibodies against antigens (invaders).
Our immune system is meant to stay balanced between B-cell & T-cell responses. If the immune system tips too much in either direction, poor health results. In North America, we tend toward an over-expression of a TH2/B-cell response, and this only increases as we age.
What Happens When Things Go Wrong?
There are various types of reactions depending on whether the immune system is overactive or underactive, and whether it acts upon the body’s own cells, or foreign substances. These reactions can be broken down into four categories:
- An overactive immune system can mistakenly attack itself, resulting in autoimmune conditions.
- An overactive immune system can respond to and attack foreign substances that are normally harmless; this can result in allergies.
- An underactive immune system that fails to respond to real foreign substances that are true threats (bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc.) will result in chronic illness.
- An underactive immune system can fail to properly monitor or regulate the body’s own damaged or mutated cells.
Where do Immune Boosters Work?
Immune boosters are important and can act to directly kill pathogens, activate innate immune responses, and/or support adaptive immune responses. However, they are only intended to work in scenario C, above, where the system needs a boost in attacking foreign threats. Immune modulators, on the other hand, are intended to work in all four categories (A-D).
How do Immune Modulators Work?
Immune modulators not only enhance the effectiveness of immune boosters, but normalize immune dysfunction by enhancing immunity if necessary and/or balancing an overactive immune system if needed. In technical terms, they can help to enhance TH1 activity and regulate TH2 activity. In this way, they have also been shown to prevent cellular mutation, autoimmune disorders, allergic states, chronic bacterial and viral diseases, as well as stress-induced immune suppression.
Examples of autoimmune conditions and reactions (essentially an allergy to one’s self) include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, Crohn’s Disease, Hashimoto’s, etc.
It should be noted that underactive and overactive immune states do not always exist separately: Many people who suffer from colds in the fall and winter (characteristic of an underactive immune system) can also suffer from seasonal allergies in the spring and summer (characteristic of an overactive immune system)!
What Are Plant Sterols?
These are often referred to as “plant fats”. However, they are technically steroidal alcohols that belong to the same chemical class as cholesterol and vitamin D. They are naturally found in the membranes of most vegetables, fruit, seeds and nuts.
Plant sterols are essential to the body, meaning they must be ingested as we cannot make them on our own. Examples of plant sterols are beta sitosterol, campasterol, brassica-sterol, stigmasterol, etc.
Plant sterols are best known for their immune modulating properties and have also been used extensively in natural cholesterol-lowering formulas (as they compete with cholesterol for absorption) and prostate formulas, as well as to fight infection, reduce seasonal allergies, and protect against inflammation.
In food, plant sterols are only found in small quantities, and processing, cooking, and freezing deplete them further. Consider incorporating a high quality supplement into your daily regime to maintain healthy immunity all year long!
This column is sponsored by Good 'n' Natural in Steinbach.