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Immunity – Natural Immunity Against Infectious Disease with Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Shihan Mary Bolz
Licensed Acupuncturist
Master of Science Oriental Medicine
Doctoral Fellow, FBU
Master Martial Arts Instructor

People do not need to be afraid of the well-publicized H1N1 virus (common name, Swine flu) any more than any other infectious disease. Every one of the commonly known infectious diseases has been associated with viruses, microbes, or their toxic products. The presence of the organism alone is never enough to produce the disease. There must be a breakdown or deficit in the host’s immune system in order for the organism to take hold and produce symptoms. In the midst of an epidemic, some people remain healthy and others become ill. There are multiple causes, both internal and external, in the individual, occurring at the same time. To maintain health, a high degree of immunocompetence must be reached and maintained. This means that to live healthily, the immune system must have the capacity to respond appropriately to some foreign organism or potentially harmful entity.

The concept of disease resistance has all too often been obviated by modem medicine’s exclusive concern with correcting, rather than preventing disease. In correcting disease, one focuses on symptoms or superficial mechanisms, not on the condition of internal breakdown, which precedes the manifestation of symptoms. This is what Traditional Oriental Medicine does focus on, the condition, which has allowed the breakdown, which brings on the symptoms. In allergic reactions, for example, antihistamines may be administered to interfere with inflammation, which is actually only the last link of a chain of events involved in the allergic response. The overt illness is obviously in and of itself not the cause, but merely the expression of some fundamental error or breakdown in immune competence.

The primary issue is not so much, whether one is exposed to certain microorganisms–since this is often inevitable–but how strong one’s overall resistance or immunity is. The immune system is continually being challenged by viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other microbes harbored within the body. To keep these entities at bay, the system must be adequately maintained through a health promoting way of life. The economy of immunity calls for maximizing the supply of nutrients and minimizing the demand posed by antigens, toxins, and abnormal cells.

Nutrition provides the primary form of controllable supply (raw materials) for the production of enzymes, antibodies, white blood cells, and organ systems, which support natural immunity. Antigens and toxins comprise the demand by which the immune system is continually stimulated and stressed. Health and disease manifest as a balance or imbalance, respectively of immune supply and demand. If the body is continually stimulated by antigens over time, as is the normal situation, it must be supplied with adequate nutrition and endowed with sufficient genetic strength to keep balance maintained, i.e. good health). In the case of viral infection, a variety of white blood cells, neutralizing antibodies and certain natural antiviral chemicals may be missing or somehow not working properly, thereby allowing infection to take place.

Immune competence reflects the vitality of the immune system, including the amount of energy available to promote and maintain health. All cells have a limited supply of energy, and some cell types run out of energy sooner than others do. Neutrophils, for example, are unable to replenish this energy and sustain phagocytic (cell-eating) activity. Although they may be very active, they are rapidly exhausted and are usually capable of no more than a single phagocytic event. When neutrophils are unable to eliminate a foreign entity, macrophages must be called upon. Macrophages have a more slow acting and sustained phagocytic activity, so they can compensate for neutrophil deficits when the immune system is challenged excessively.

Macrophages process antigens for recognition by lymphocytes and participate in removing old, dying, or damaged tissue. Macrophages too have their limits. Their lifespan depends on the quality and quantity of material they consume. For example, in the lungs, the macrophages can consume particles of dust and other contamination of cigarette smoke. Too much smoking will overburden the macrophages and lead to their demise. Similarly, other inhaled particles– such as asbestos particles and certain ingested food additives–are too toxic to hungry macrophages. When subsequently release from dying cells, these toxins are promptly eaten up again, producing a cascade of macrophage destruction.

An essential function of these phagocytic cells is to dispose of potentially dangerous material, while permitting the free access of nutrients and oxygen to body tissues. What happens when this initial line of defense is overwhelmed or depleted by excessive toxic demand? Obviously, when this occurs, toxins and other foreign materials are allowed to pass throughout the body via the bloodstream, and the burden of dealing with them is given to T-cells, B-cells, and antibodies. In essence, when one part of the system cannot fulfill its protective roles, other parts are forced to compensate by working extra hard. Eventually, these other parts may also become overworked and depleted. the result may be transient states of diminished disease resistance followed by a pronounced condition of immune deficiency.

This situation is analogous to savings in a bank account. When someone continually spends more than he or she saves, an empty account results. Common sense dictates that spending should never exceed savings. If savings become low, more money needs to be deposited to prevent a negative balance. Alternatively, if savings are high, then one can afford to spend a little more freely. The continual maintenance of bank savings is analogous to the body’s need to replenish its supply of key organic substances making up lymphocytes and antibodies–particularly when challenged by bacteria, viruses, allergens, and toxins–through appropriate nutrition. The ideal supply of immune components is maintained by balanced proportions of essential nutrients together with reduced intake of harmful elements. For example, although cow’s milk provides protein, a fraction of it is comprised of indigestible proteins (e.g., casein) that may pass into the bloodstream and pose as a regular source of antigenic stress.

Overburdening of the immune system may occur by various means following entry of foreign substances–chemical additives, foreign proteins, toxic metals, recurrent infections and antibiotics–into the blood stream. The overuse of antibiotics in food products such as chicken, turkey, beef cows, pork, milk cows, even the chemical pesticides and fertilizers in vegetal quality foods, is wreaking havoc on people’s natural immune ability.

What can you do to prevent immune deficiency? The most controllable factors are those factors, which promote immunocompetence. That is, diet and lifestyle. Antigens and microbes are everywhere; we cannot confine ourselves to a sterile environment. We must make ourselves very unfriendly hosts for the potentially harmful pathogens. Nutritional factors antagonistic to sound immunity include those recognized by the National Cancer Institute and other prestigious organizations as detrimental to overall health: foods that are heavily processed, high in saturated fat, protein, simple sugars and chemical additives. Conversely, some dietary factors–namely complex carbohydrates, fiber, C-B-complex, potassium, magnesium and other mineral-rich foods, can enhance immune response by eliminating toxins and regenerating the lymphatic tissues, cells and other components. Excessive dietary fats results in altered lymphocyte receptor binding; oxygen deprivation, poor blood circulation and free radical oxidized fat in the body. Synthetic drugs and chemical additives are also toxins, which burden the liver and thus the immune response. Regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and management of emotional stress, as well as sound dietary practices are the best preventive medicine against infectious and degenerative disease.

In Traditional Chinese medicine, the first reference to infectious disease appears in Huang Di Nei Jing, (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic) compiled in the first or second century CE. This text discussed the presence of “re bing” (hot disease), which, according to our understanding today, refers to the various types of infectious disease. The understanding of infectious disease progressed further during the Ming and Qing dynasties as many people in Southern China suffered and died from a variety of feverish conditions. In those days, it was observed that the cause of the warm and hot disease “has no sound nor smell, and no shape nor shadow.” In addition, it was noted that the warm and hot disease may be transmitted from one person to another via air or earth (direct contact), and affect weak, deficient individuals. Many of the bitter and cold herbs and formulas used to treat these warm and hot diseases are recognized today to have remarkable antibiotic effects. These observations were made and published approximately 200 years before the discovery of bacteria and other microorganisms. “Wen bing” or “warm disease” theories accurately described the origins and transmission of epidemic disease, and the importance of the immune system in relationship to the pathogens. So the “wen bing” theories revolutionized and significantly influenced the theory and practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), changes that persist today.

One of the fundamental concepts in traditional Chinese medicine is that “superior medicine prevents disease, and inferior medicine treats disease.” Prevention of infectious disease is certainly no exception since bacteria and virus tend to adversely affect those who have weakened or compromised immune systems. Many herbs and formulas that tonify “wei (defensive) qi have been shown to have marked effect to boost the immune system. Therefore, when formulas are designed and prescribed by the Oriental Medicine doctor, for infectious disease, there will be herbs that have an immunostimulant effect, may have those with an antibiotic effect in general, have an antibacterial effect, or those herbs, which have antiviral effect, of which there are many in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).

In allopathic (Western) medicine, the discovery of antibiotic drugs is one of the major breakthroughs in modern medicine. It enables doctors to effectively treat many different types of infections. Unfortunately, decades of abuse and misuse have led to growing problems of bacterial mutation and resistance. At this moment, many of these “super bugs” can only be treated with the newest and most potent antibiotic drugs, and unfortunately, many of them have potent side effects as well. Due to the number of antibiotic drugs, and the various species of microorganisms, it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the benefits and risks of each individual drug.

In TCM, herbs and herbal formulas are also extremely effective for treatment of various infections. One of the main benefits of using herbs is their wide spectrum of antibiotic effect, with indications for both bacterial and viral infections. Furthermore, most of these herbs are extremely safe, and do not have the same harsh side effects as drugs.

In summary, both drugs and herbs are effective to treat mild to moderate cases of bacterial infections. However, because drugs are more immediately potent and can be prescribed with more laboratory precision (via cultures and sensitivity tests), they are more appropriate for life threatening infections, such as meningitis or encephalitis, or mutant strains of bacteria, such as beta-lactam-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). On the other hand, use of herbs is far more effective than drugs for treating certain viral infections, such as the common cold and influenza; as drugs are essentially ineffective for these conditions. Most importantly, herbs are much gentler to the body and safer than drugs. In other words, herbs treat infections without damaging the person’s underlying constitution. This allows the patient to recover faster and become more resistant to secondary or recurrent infections. Acupuncture treats infectious disease by helping the body to get rid of the pathogen through natural means, improving, and enhancing the body’s “defensive qi” or defensive mechanisms.

TCM knows there is a cure for the common cold and flu. It is an effective, safe treatment. As always, prevention is the BEST medicine.

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