Nutritional Programs for Immune Enhancement

  • Immune Anatomy
  • Immune System Suppressors
  • Immune System Supporters
  • Immune Enhancement Nutrient Program

  • Our immune system is the most dynamic body component in determining our state of health or disease. It will be the basis, I believe, of future breakthroughs in medicine. There is a great deal of evidence from current and past research demonstrating life’s effects on human immune function and our immune system’s influences upon our health. These investigations provide a continuous flood of knowledge about the sensitive balance and many levels involved in our wellness. Psychoneuroimmunology, which provides a bridge between psychology and the nervous and immune systems, now plays an essential role in medicine.

    Our immune system constantly interacts with our internal environment, protects us from our external environment, and provides the inherent knowledge to sense the difference between friend and foe. For many reasons, including genetics and individuality, some of us may be overactive or too underactive in our defenses, and this can create a great variety of health problems, such as allergies, infections, and cancer.

    There are many components to our immune system—organs, bone marrow, cells, antibodies, chemicals, and the nutrients that help nourish and generate them. Most of these cells and tissue constituents are part of what is called in medicine the reticuloendothelial system, which plays a “defensive role in inflammation and immunity” (Dorland’s Medical Dictionary) and in the formation and destruction of blood cells. Our immune system protects us from viruses, bacteria, yeasts and fungi, foreign proteins, and cancer cells. It provides two kinds of protection: Innate (inborn) nonspecific immunity and specific learned or acquired immunity. Specific immunity depends on “humoral” (antibodies and chemicals carried in the blood) and cellular (white blood cells) responses, which can be immediate or delayed.

    The thymus-derived lymphocytes (T lymphocytes or, simply, T cells) run the cellular defense and the delayed immune reactions. T cells, specifically T-helper lymphocytes, guide the B cells to produce antibodies (each cell produces only one specific antibody), a process that takes a three-to-five or more days induction period, often the time of infection by new viruses. Reexposure to the same virus will create a more rapid antibody response. This is our important immune memory and there are “memory B cells” that circulate in the blood to respond to subsequent infections. The T-helper cells stimulate immune activity, especially B cell activity, whereas the T-suppressor cells slow down certain functions such as antibody formation, usually after a problem has been handled. Another important cell which is neither a T or B cell or a phagocyte is the NK (natural killer) cell. The T lymphocytes also send messages to (and receive messages from) the macrophages and other phagocytes to “attack” virus-infected cells and foreign organisms, either by engulfing or marking them. Other T cells can also be cytotoxic to virus-infected cells.
    All of these important T lymphocytes originate in the bone marrow and mature in the thymus gland, the “king” of the immune system. B lymphocytes also originate in the bone marrow and may mature there, in the spleen, lymph nodes, and elsewhere; they are programmed to become the antibody factories or the plasma cells, which are formed from B cells and also produce the specific antibodies.

    Immune Anatomy

    Organ Tissues Non-specific* Defenses Antigen-specific+ Defenses
    thymus glandmucous membranes T cells
    bone marrow mucus secretionsT-helper cells
    spleenciliaT-suppressor cells
    lymph nodes neutrophilsnatural killer cells
    tonsilslysosomes B cells
    adenoidsiron-binding proteinsplasma cells
    Peyer’s patches other chemical mediatorsantibodies—IgA, IgE,
    (small intestine)stomach acidIgG, IgM, IgD
    appendixlysozymes in tears, salivacomplement system
    liver interferon

    *Not mediated by antigen stimuli.

    +Mediated through antigen proteins

    To explain the entire immune anatomy and interrelationships would take a book or two, but I feel that few other relevant and explanatory notes are important here. The skin and mucous membranes, including the cilia (tiny hairs) lining these membranes and the mucus itself, are all first lines of nonspecific, physical defense by providing a physical barrier against invasion. The lymphatic system is really the secondary circulatory system that removes foreign cells and proteins, which it eventually dumps into the blood to be broken down and eliminated. The lymphatic system itself has no pump, and thus relies on muscle activity and exercise for the lymph to circulate. That is one reason why I believe that physical stagnation increases the chance of infections, and conversely, exercise improves resistance. Lymph nodes are storage sites for cells along the lymphatic system. There are hundreds of these nodes throughout the body. When infection is present, these nodes can commonly be felt in the area closest to the infection. Predominant lymph nodes are in the neck, groin, or axillary regions. The tonsils, adenoids, the appendix, and Peyer’s patches along the small intestine are other important lymphoid tissues. The thymus, bone marrow, and spleen are all sites for immune cell maturation. The liver is also important to immune function, because it helps to detoxify many substances in the body that could be taxing to the immune system.

    The phagocytic white blood cells are important in immune surveillance first as the frontline defense patrolling the body. They engulf foreign substances and microorganisms and then can kill or dissolve them by their chemicals. The neutrophils and macrophages work through oxidative destruction. The NK cells kill by secreting a phospholipase enzyme, which dissolves the lipid protection of cells containing viruses or other germs. The NK cells may also release a series of chemicals called interleukins, such as interleukin 2 (IL2), which act as mediators in T lymphocyte functions and proliferation as well as other possible functions. Zinc may help in the production and function of NK cells as well as T and B cells. Besides the basic T and B cells, and the helper and suppressor T cells, and helper-suppressor ratio, special IL2 receptor positive cells and Ta1 positive cells, which are actively dividing T cells, can be measured by specialized T cell or immune system blood studies to reveal the status of current immune functions. Leukotrienes and prostaglandins (E2 series) are other chemicals that are implicated in inflammatory and allergic reactions. More of these are produced when the diet is high in arachidonic acid, found mainly in saturated animal fats.

    The complement system releases chemicals in the serum that can lyse, or break apart, antibody-coated cells and microorganisms. Lysozymes and enzymes in tears and saliva can also lyse certain microorganisms. Interferon is an antiviral substance produced by T lymphocytes and macrophages. Iron-binding protein in phagocytic cells also plays a role in protecting against certain infections.

    As with other body systems, immune balance is the key. A number of important factors in life influence immune health; unfortunately, there are many more factors that suppress it than enhance it. The basic aging process usually reduces our immune competence. Allergies and infections may do this also, though initially these may stimulate immune activity. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, all standard Western cancer treatments, as well as some antibiotic therapy, can weaken immune function, which is not ideal for healing or prevention of cancer in the future. Stress responses, such as that caused by business activity or travel, can lower immunity, as can all varieties of intense emotional and psychological experience. Low self-esteem, emotional extremes, or loss of a loved one may reduce lymphocyte and NK cell numbers and function. Many drugs and chemicals, from steroids (and possibly steroidlike agents, such as excess vitamin D or progesterone) and other anti-inflammatory agents to sugar, alcohol, and marijuana, can be immune suppressors. The external environment can also be detrimental to the normal functioning of the immune system. Photochemical smog, industrial chemicals, pesticides, and certain antibiotic residues in meats as well as a high-fat diet may tax the immune system further. Even excess intake of the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) from vegetable oils may increase free-radical formation and affect immunity. Nutritionally, low protein intake and vitamin A and zinc deficiencies are most relevant to immune suppression; a deficiency of essential fatty acids and other essential nutrients, such as pyrodoxine, pantothenic acid, and selenium, may also contribute.

    Immune System Suppressors

    agingemotional extremes
    high-fat diet
      (including excess PUFAs)
    excess iron
      yeasts and fungi
    malnutrition (especially in
      infants and the elderly)
    surgerynutrient deficiencies:
      vitamins A, C, and E
      B vitamins, especially B5,
        folic acid, B6, and B12
      cortisone and other steroids
      zinc and selenium
      essential fatty acids
    chemicals in diet and environment:
    lack of sleep
      phenol and formaldehyde
    airplane travel
      air/water pollution
    drugs, recreational:
      marijuana, nicotine
      cocaine, amphetamines

    A major concern is that immune suppression or weakness can predispose us to infections as well as cancer; these diseases may generally deplete our energy level and vitality. Overwork, multiple stresses, and lack of rest, exercise, and sleep tend to deplete our energies, our strength, and our ability to defend ourselves. This leaves us more vulnerable to outside influences. I believe that these imbalances of lifestyle, along with emotional and other psychological factors, are the basis of immune weakness.

    Besides immune compromise, problems of hyperimmunity seem also to be more common nowadays. Allergies are the main example of immune overactivity; however, the autoimmune diseases appear more prevalent as well. In these diseases, such as thyroiditis (Hashimoto’s), rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus erythematosus, our immune system aberrantly makes antibodies to our own body tissues, which then leads to inflammation, pain, or malfunction of those organs or tissues, as the case may be. We have a great deal more to learn about these autoimmune diseases (and allergies for that matter) in the coming years.

    Immune System Supporters

    self-lovezincrotating diet
    interpersonal loveseleniumlow-fat, low-sugar diet
    positive attitudesiron*wholesome foods
    laughtercopperdietary protein
    affirmationsvitamin Cchemical-free diet
    breathingbioflavonoidschemical-free home and work
    relaxingvitamin Afiltered, purified water
    exercise, yogavitamin Eessential fatty acids
    herbs:pyridoxineadequate digestive function
    pantothenic aciddigestive enzymes, such as
    folic acid
      bromelain, papain, or
    vitamin B12
    amino acids:thymus glandular**
    allergies, infections, and
    coenzyme Q10
      cysteine and glutathione
    staphage lysate
      possibly lysine and taurine

    *Excess iron can increase oxidation and weaken immunity.

    **Possibly also spleen, thyroid, and adrenal glandulars as long as these are free of pesticides and viruses that could cause disease.

    ***May initially stimulate immune activity and then be suppressive.

    On the positive side, a balanced and optimistic attitude, healthy lifestyle habits in regard to diet, and basic care of the human body will support the optimal function of not only our immune system but our entire body. As I have said, there are not many specific agents that increase immunity. Our immune function is optimum when we supply our body with the necessary nutrients, take time to relax and recreate, and do not block and weaken our natural vital energy circulation through the other factors that are listed as immune suppressors. Adopt more of these lifestyle-related immune supporters!

    For whom is this immune enhancement program best suited? It can be employed by those people with chronic fatigue, particularly secondary to viral infections, or by anyone with repeated illnesses or infections who needs a stronger immune defense system. People under stress, both physical and psychological, need to strengthen their immune systems. Really, anyone subject to several of the factors listed in the “immune suppressors” chart might benefit from this Immune Enhancement program, which is not really dissimilar from the programs for Anti-Aging and Cancer Prevention. People who have cancer or have had cancer will want to make sure they include many of the recommendations in this program as well.

    Our immune functions can be evaluated in a variety of ways. If we are healthy and full of energy and do not get many infectious diseases, it is not likely that we need any blood tests for our immune system; it is probably normal. But if we are easily fatigued or get recurrent colds, flus, or other infections by viruses, bacteria, yeast, or parasites, our immune system may be out of balance or deficient in one or more functions.

    The most common blood test that indicates immunological activity is a simple, inexpensive complete blood count, or CBC. Particularly important is the white blood cell count (WBC). The differential count gives us the percentages of the basic WBCs—polymorphonucleocytes (PMN-phagocytes), bands (PMN-percursors), lymphocytes (the immune directors, including T and B lymphocytes although they are not specifically noted), and the other less common monocytes (scavengers), eosinophils (allergy cells), and basophils.

    Through another blood test, the specialized T and B cell study provides a sensitive index of the immune system. A complete test provides absolute levels and relative percentages of T cells and B cells, T-helper (TH) cells, T-suppressor (TS) cells, Natural Killer (NK) cells and the helper/suppressor (TH:TS) ratio. This TH:TS ratio is currently the most generally utilized monitor of immune function. It may be elevated in problems such as infections or allergies, or decreased in other infections or in acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The TH:TS ratio can be monitored over the course of certain illnesses to determine the effectiveness of treatment. In healthy people, it is also thought to be one of the better objective monitors of more subtle immune status. More finite measurements of immune status may be available soon, such as the level of interleukin 2. Other tests that may also be relevant in an immunological evaluation include antibody (Ig-immunoglobulin) levels, complement, interferon, routine blood and liver function tests, and allergy tests for both environmental and food allergens.

    Reducing any active allergic response through avoidance, desensitization, and detoxification may help to reduce the immunosuppressant effects of existing allergies. More generally, avoiding chemicals and other factors from the immune suppressor list may also minimize any immune function weaknesses. Further measures for immune support include the ideas presented in other programs, Executives and Travel or Anti-Stress. Intense, as well as chronic, unrelenting stress and emotions are real concerns in weakening immunity. Preventive care in lifestyle, diet, and supplements is ultimately most important.

    The immune-supporting diet plan includes the common sense suggestions discussed in Chapter 13, Your Ideal Diet, as well as suggestions from the programs for Allergies, Anti-Stress, and Cancer Prevention. A low-chemical, low-sugar, and low-fat diet is mandatory! A rotating diet, without regular use of milk or its products, eggs, wheat, corn, sugar, and yeast or other specific foods to which one may be allergic, is suggested.

    Wholesome foods free of chemicals and pesticides are the best. Care must be taken to prevent food exposure to microorganisms, including parasites, as they may have a deleterious influence on our immune health. Low chemical intake is important. This means avoiding both chemicals in foods and chemical consumptive habits, such as alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, marijuana, and nicotine—as is always the case for optimal health. A water purification system which removes chemicals is also a good investment for our health (See Chapter 1).

    Care must be taken to obtain sufficient dietary proteins and L- amino acids that help form the immune tissues and antibodies. For proper protein production, adequate amounts of pyridoxine, pantothenic acid, folic acid, magnesium, and zinc are very important. The essential fatty acids are also required for cell and tissue health. On the other hand, excess protein and saturated fats are “clogging” to the vascular and lymphatic systems and may suppress immunity. Fasting and detoxification diets can strengthen immune functions and reduce immune overload and reactions, as can be seen in allergies and infections or autoimmune problems such as rheumatoid arthritis. The reduced intake of allergenic substances and the cleansing of potentially allergenic materials from the body can reduce many symptoms and allow the T lymphocytes to restore balance and reduce their hyperreactivity.

    With regard to specific supplements, it is most important to prevent deficiencies of many vital nutrients, such as vitamins A and C and zinc, by following the previous suggestions and eating foods high in these nutrients. Additional supplements, if not excessive, are insurance, possibly in the face of poor digestion and assimilation, to provide adequate nutrients to the cells and tissues.

    Useful supplements for immune enhancement begin with a basic multiple that includes the essential vitamins and minerals plus the important antioxidant nutrients. If the multiple does not provide adequate amounts of the antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, zinc, and selenium, then an antioxidant formula or additional specific nutrients are needed to reach the optimum levels. Of course, this program is designed for those with some immune suppression or those who want to enhance a sluggish immune system. The positive side of those many important nutrients whose deficiency leads to weakened functions is that adequate levels support or stimulate those actions.

    Vitamin C is probably the most important of the antioxidant nutrients. A higher level of intake than usual, about 4–10 grams if tolerated, can help in antibody response and in some white blood cell functions. Vitamin C has also been shown to increase production of interferon, a substance with antiviral and, possibly, anticancer effects. Vitamin C levels have been found to be commonly decreased in the presence of such situations as surgery, stress, and progressive disease, as well as colds and other infections, especially those of viral origin. In these situations, it is needed in increased amounts. The vitamin C-complex nutrients, such as rutin and other bioflavonoids, may also have mild antioxidant, synergistic effects. Bioflavonoids appear to act with vitamin C to potentiate its anti-inflammatory properties and improve cellular defense against various microbes. Quercetin, a type of bioflavonoid, has also recently been found to function as an immune supporter and antihistamine.

    Deficiency* Immunologic Problems Related to Deficiency
    Vitamin AReduced cellular immunity, slow tissue healing, increased infection rate, lowered
    IgA levels (which affect defense at the mucous membranes).
    Vitamin CDecreased phagocyte function, reduced cellular protection, and slow wound
    Vitamin EDecreased antibody production and response; with selenium deficiency, lowered
    cell-membrane integrity.
    Vitamin B5Lowered humoral immunity, increased irritation of stress.
    Vitamin B6 Lessened cellular immunity, slow energy metabolism.
    Vitamin B12Decreased lymphocyte proliferation and PMN bacteriocidal activity.
    Folic acidReduced blood cell production, perhaps increased cervical cancer.
    Zinc Decreased T and B cell function and thymic hormones; increased infection rates,
    and slow healing.
    IronDecreased cellular immunity and neutrophil activity. (Excess iron can also impair
    bacteriocidal activity.)
    SeleniumWith vitamin E deficiency, antibody response is lowered; increased cellular
    Copper Lowered resistance to infection.

    *Adequate levels of these nutrients will support or enhance these immunological functions.

    Two nutrient pairs—Vitamin A and zinc, and Vitamin E and selenium—are also essential. Selenium, as sodium selenite or selenomethionine, and vitamin E stimulate antibody production and strengthen cellular immunity. Zinc and vitamin A are also needed for cellular immunity, increasing T cell activity and the function of the phagocytic white blood cells. Both are important to tissue healing. Beta-carotene is useful as a vitamin A precursor, also aiding in wound healing and protecting against carcinogenesis.

    Some B vitamins are particularly helpful. Vitamin B6 aids immunity and antibody formation and is probably the most important of the B vitamins. Vitamin B12 may help stimulate immune function, more readily when injected as oral absorption is slow. Pantothenic acid is helpful in combating stress, and B1, B2, and B3 may provide subtle immune help by providing a balanced complement of the B vitamins. This helps the overall antibody production. Folic acid is also needed for normal cellular function.

    In addition to zinc and selenium, the most important minerals are iodine, iron, copper, and magnesium, though basic levels of manganese, molybdenum and chromium are also important. Iodine is required in the neutrophil killing of microbial invaders. Iron improves resistance against infection by increasing cellular metabolic efficiency and immune activity; it supports the lymphocytes and neutrophils (phagocytes) and can improve bacterial killing. Excessive iron intake, however, can also be immunosuppressive (it increases oxidation), enhance microbial growth, and reduce phagocytic cellular activity. Copper also improves resistance to infection and should be increased to balance out zinc intake. Like iron, too much copper can have deleterious effects, so careful monitoring is important.

    Water, fiber, adequate protein, and essential fatty acids (EFAs) are all crucial to a healthy body and immune system. Water helps to flush out impurities and, with fiber, helps to clear colon toxins. EFAs found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, as well as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) help increase the anti-inflammatory prostaglandin E1 (PGE1), while eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may slightly reduce immunity. However, EPA also decreases the level of PGE2 prostaglandins, which can be inflammatory and irritating and may produce a false or unnecessary immune response that is part of many illnesses. A mixed-oil formula with a high proportion of EFA and GLA is probably best used here.

    The antioxidants and other nutrients help counteract the free-radical irritants. These unstable, free-radical molecules include superoxides, peroxides, hydroxyls, singlet oxygens, and hypochlorites. Vitamins C and E are helpful modulators of free radicals in general; along with zinc, copper, and manganese, they help reduce superoxides through superoxide dismutase enzymes. Selenium supports the production of the enzyme glutathione peroxidase, which counteracts peroxides, stimulates immune response, and protects against many toxins. Riboflavin subtly assists at maintaining electron balance.

    The sulfur-containing amino acids, L-cysteine and methionine, are also “free-radical trappers” and part of a general antioxidant program. Other amino acids that are useful for immune enhancement include L-arginine and L-carnitine. L-arginine stimulates thymus activity and the number and activity of the T lymphocytes. L-carnitine, which can be synthesized from lysine with the help of vitamin C, also helps enhance immunity possibly by stimulating the utilization of fats, and thus increasing energy (ATP) production while preventing oxidation and free-radical formation.

    For either immune suppression or protection from colds and flus, vitamins A and C and zinc are recommended. Together these nutrients activate the thymus gland and increase production of thymosin, one of the thymus hormones, which in turn improves T cell and natural killer lymphocyte numbers and activity. Thymosin injections can also be used to stimulate the cellular immune response. If stress is the key element that weakens immunity, then additional adrenal or thyroid glandular support may help. Other possible immune supporters we may wish to use include organo-germanium (Ge-Oxy 132), dimethylglycine (DMG), and coenzyme Q10. A formula that includes all these plus other energy enhancing nutrients is Oxynutrients formulated by Dr. Stephen Levine of Nutriology in San Leandro, California.

    If we are sick with an infection or we feel like we are getting sick, I suggest increasing the supplemented levels of vitamin A to 25,000–50,000 IUs, vitamin C to 4–8 grams, and zinc to 50–100 mg. I would also add garlic, which is a natural antibiotic, and goldenseal, which is thought to improve immunity, to help clear wastes through liver tonification, and to have antimicrobial properties. After we are feeling better and ready for recovery, we can add ginseng root to help rebuild our energies. Licorice root is another herb that can be used for stress-related immune problems. It seems to support energy and adrenal balance, and has been shown to improve interferon production.

    It is a good idea not to reduce fevers unless they are very high (over 103¡F). Fevers have a purpose, in both children and adults. They help in detoxification, immune stimulation, and increasing metabolism and, in some cases, killing the micro-organism. Intake of fluids and minerals needs to be increased with fevers to counteract the body losses.

    Exercise is also very important to immune function. Regular activity increases the circulation of nutrients and the cellular immune components. And remember, muscle activity is necessary to circulate our lymph fluid. Squeezing our brain with thousands of thoughts does not make the lymph flow. Circulation of blood, lymph, energy, thoughts, and feelings is important to the vitality and health of our body, mind, heart, and spirit, and to our immune system. Don’t worry, be healthy!

    Immune Enhancement Nutrient Program

    Calories1,500–2,500 Chromium200 mcg.
    Protein60–80 g. Copper3 mg.
    Fats50–75 g. Iodine150 mcg.
    (20–30 percent
    of caloric intake)
    Iron10–20 mg.
    Fiber10–20 g. Magnesium300–600 mg.

    Manganese5–10 mg.
    Vitamin A10,000 IUs Molybdenum300 mcg.
    Beta-carotene 15,000–30,000 IUs Selenium,
    as selenomethionine
    300–400 mcg.
    Vitamin D400 IUs Zinc45–60 mg.
    Vitamin E600–800 IUs
    Vitamin K150–300 mcg. L-amino acids 1,000 mg.
    Riboflavin (B2)25–50 mg. L-cysteine250 mg.
    Riboflavin-5-phosphate25–50 mg. L-arginine500 mg.
    Niacinamide (B3)50 mg. L-carnitine500 mg.
    Niacin (B3)50 mg. Thymus gland100 mg.
    Pantothenic acid (B5)500 mg. Essential fatty acids*3–6 capsules
    Pyridoxine (B6)50 mg. or Flaxseed oil
    Pyridoxal-5-phosphate50 mg. GLA
    Cobalamin (B12)200 mcg. (evening Primrose or3–6 capsules
    Folic acid 800 mcg. Borage seed oil)**or 200–400 mg.
    Biotin500 mcg. EPA (fish oil)*** 2–4 capsules
    or 200–400 mg.
    Vitamin C4–10 g. Organo-germanium100–250 mg.
    Bioflavonoids250–500 mg. Dimethylglycine50–100 mg.
    Coenzyme Q1030–60 mg.

    *Not necessary if two or more teaspoons of fresh (uncooked) cold-pressed vegetable oils are consumed daily.

    **Use with allergies or inflammatory problems.

    ***Use if blood fats are relatively high.

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    Written by Elson M. Haas MD

    Explore Wellness in 2021