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Building Up Your Immune System for the Bird Flu and other Viral Assaults

Web Note: Robin Seydel is an herbalist, organic gardner, Board Member of the Organic Consumers Association, and Membership Director of La Montanita Coop in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What with all the talk of "bird flu" these days working to build a strong and responsive immune system can help alleviate stress concerning this public health threat and help you live a healthier life no matter what happens with this or other health issues.  Of course there are the basics, a healthy diet of whole grain, organic food, supplemented with vitamins minerals and herbs.  Adequate rest and exercise bolsters the foundation you are building.. Add to this a positive mental attitudes that includes stress reduction techniques ( yoga, T'ai Chi, mediation, dance etc.) and you have the building blocks of a structure that cannot be knocked down like a house of cards if or when those waves of infections blow through.

A strong immune system is especially important given today's world of increasing environmental pollutants and toxins, high population concentrations, overuse of drugs including antibiotics, antacids, cortico-steroids, alcohol, and "self- medication" with so called recreational drugs (including cigarettes, which are once again increasing in use).  Also we must take into account our post-modern lifestyles, a background of excessive emotional and physical stressors on which are lives are painted.

The System in Brief

The immune system is our personal superhero, coming to our aid at the first sighting of any alien invader, be they bacterial or viral. This system, often pictured as a "PacMan" cartoon gobbling up bad guys, has both autonomic and subconscious responses, is complex and far-reaching and has many organs and systems cooperating for our protection. About one sixth of our body is the space between our cells. This "interstitial" space is filed with a fluid that carries away debris and wastes produced by our tissues.

Our lymph system, in addition to healthy mucous membranes and our skin is our first line of defense.  The lymph system receives this fluid (then called lymph)  and filters out wastes with its PacMan-esque macrophages ( large cells that engulf and destroy foreign particles).  The lymph system also encompasses lymph nodes, which contain the B-lymphocytes: white blood cells that initiate antibody production in response to invasion.

Other immune system organs include two lobes found just below the thyroid and above the heart, collectively known as the thymus gland. The thymus, the primary immune system organ, is responsible for the production of T-lymphocytes that control cell mediated immune reactions so important in resistance to infection by mold, bacteria, yeast, fungi, parasites, viruses and cancer. The spleen, at approximately seven ounces, in a full-grown person is the largest organ in the in the system. The spleen produces the white blood cells that engulf and destroy bacteria, cellular debris, worn out red blood cells and platelets. It also produces other types of cells that protect us, including neutrophils (especially important in preventing bacterial infections); eosinphils and basophils (that secrete histamine and other inflammatory compounds and are involved in allergic reactions, and the monocytes (large garbage collector cells that clean up after infections).

Other important immune system players include the Natural Killer cells ( NK) so named because of their ability to destroy cells that have become cancerous or infected with viruses, the mast cells that release histamine and other inflammatory response compounds including those in allergic reactions and the specialized serum factors including interferon, interleukin 2 that activate the white blood cells.

Let Food Be Thy Medicine

How many times have we heard that phrase? The importance of whole grains, organic and unprocessed whenever possible and a diet that contains a broad array of colors and food groups representing the many vitamins and minerals needed to maintain good health bears repetition. Choosing animal products that are organic and free range will reduce exposures to hormones, antibiotics, and other unwanted pollutants as well as increase your intake of beneficial fatty acids. Much farm-raised fish not only contains high levels of pesticides, antibiotics and artificial colorants (in the case of farm raised salmon) but is damaging to water based environments and endangers wild populations of related and other species. Also endocrine-disrupting chemicals linked to cancers of all kinds and cognitive disorders concentrate in the fats of animals including our own.  Reducing exposures by limiting animal product consumption reduces stress to the immune system.  Utilizing high quality, organic, pasture raised, grass fed animal products in smaller amounts or as a condiment flavoring vegetables, beans and grains is the best way to go.

In addition to their high vitamin (including B complex, C and E) and mineral ( iron and zinc) content recommended for a strong immune system by Drs. Murray and Pizzorno of Bastyr Naturopathic University, plant foods are high in antioxidant nutrients and fiber. Two of the important antioxidants found in fruits and veggies are the carotenes and flavonoids. Like environmental pollutants, carotenes are fat- soluble. Turned into Vitamin A in the liver they protect the whole system, reduce the effects of aging, help rebuild epithelial tissues so important as our bodies first response against attackers and are important in the formation of bones (and teeth) where some of the immune system's cells are produced. There are over 600 carotenes, 30-50 of which the body can turn into Vitamin A. Beta carotene, perhaps the best known as it transforms most easily into Vitamin A is found in green and yellow fruit and vegetables, including winter squash, yams, apricots, carrots, chard, kale, mustard greens, papayas, parsley, peaches, spinach, alfalfa, cantaloupe, broccoli, beets, watercress, turnip greens, dandelion greens, garlic, rosehips and fish liver oil.

Flavonoids, like carotenes, are responsible for some of the colors of our food. They provide remarkable protection against cancer, heart disease and strokes. Their anti-oxidative action reduces free radical damage caused by highly reactive toxic molecules.  In addition flavonoids enhance Vitamin C absorption, work synergistically with Vitamin C to protect the structure of blood vessels and have an anti- bacterial effect.  Flavonoids are found in citrus fruit, especially the white material just beneath the peel, berries, onions, parsley, beans, lentils, peas, buckwheat, hibiscus flowers and green tea.

Fiber is another very important aspect of immune system support. Most importantly fiber binds with unwanted toxins including heavy metals and the body's waste materials (including destroyed bacterial and viral invaders) bulking them up for prompt elimination. Pectins, found in apples, carrots, beets, bananas, cabbage, citrus, and dried peas slows the absorption of foods, binds with and removes heavy metals, reduces the effects of radiation therapy and other toxins while helping to lower cholesterol and aid diabetics. Sources of fiber to include in the daily diet include whole grains, bran, oatmeal, seeds and nuts, beans, including lentils and peas and raw vegetables.

Herbs and Supplements

Given the state of our environment and the often, depleted soils in which our food is grown vitamin and mineral supplementation is a fine idea for building immune function. Often a good daily multivitamin will do. Be sure to get ones that are food based rather than synthetic as they are more readily absorbed. Read the label carefully. Many of those that you find at discount stores are filled with additives, preservatives, binders and fillers. Choose a reputable brand, even though it may not be the cheapest to be sure you are getting your money's worth.

The concept of the tonic, integral to herbal healing traditions but just recently finding its footing in conventional medicine, is about the building and balancing of the system as a whole over time. For the lymph system, Cleavers is the herb of choice. Also known as Goosegrass, Cleavers is excellent in a wide range of problems where the lymph system is involved, including swollen glands, as in cases of tonsillitis and adenoidial issues, and for lymph node swellings, under the arms, down the neck and in the groin. A noted lymph ststem tonic, it is used in the treatment of ulcers and tumors resulting form lymphatic congestion and reduced drainage. It can be taken as an effective long-term tonic, its alterative effect slowly building in the body.  For those who prefer homeopathics an excellent formula is Lymphomyosot.  

Other alteratives know in folk traditions as "blood cleansers" or "blood purifiers" are yellow dock and burdock. Yellow dock is another herb good for reducing glandular swelling however its tonic qualities come through it astringent purification of the blood supply. A powerful hepatic with antibacterial properties, it clears and supports the lover and related organs, increasing their ability to strain waste from the blood. High in iron and Vitamin C, it is an effective tonic in anemia and was used in the treatment of scurvy.

Listed for centuries in pharmacopoeias around the world as an effective blood purifier, Burdock is noted for clearing inflammatory diseases including rheumatism and arthritis, producing gradual changes in the body with its nutritive content, enhancement of liver function and the promotion of the excretion of wastes in both the urine and sweat. Its antibacterial properties have been isolated and it has been found to inhibit tumor growth. Utilize burdock in soups or stews on a regular basis, or chop it and throw it into your bean pot. Yellow dock has a strong flavor; regular use of yellow dock is best achieved generally with tinctures or capsules. Two other powerful immune tonics, also best taken in capsules or tinctures in clue the Chinese herbs Astragalus, Maitake and Reishi mushrooms.

Studied in China, where it has a very long tradition of use, researchers have proved Astragalus' immune enhancing effects, showing its ability to increase endurance, reduce blood pressure, improve circulation, strengthen heart contractions, and as a non- specific immune system stimulant that in mice has been shown to augment interferon response to a viral attack. In tests in Houston, Texas, water extracts (teas) of Astragalus were shown to restore T-cell function in nine out of ten cancer patients. The recognition of its immune enhancing effects is also notable in relation to its tonic effects in the pectoral areas. For those people who are prone to lung infections, it is an excellent tonic herb.

Reishi mushroom another herb with ancient uses in China has been shown in worldwide research to have anit-inflammatory, anti- bacterial, antioxitive, antiviral effects. It has also been noted as helping prevent allergic responses, enhancing bone marrow production, enhancing natural killer cells, increasing white blood cell count and as a general immune potentiator. Maitake (Grifola frondosa) is an edible mushroom known here as "hen of the woods" because in appearance it resembles the fluffed tail feathers of a nesting hen. In addition to its anti-cancer, anti-viral and immune-enhancing properties, maitake may also reduce blood pressure and blood sugar.  Unlike Echinacea which is best taken at the outset of invasion to stimulate immediate body response, these herbs are best when taken over time as preventative tonics.

Check with your healthcare professional for a program that best meets your individual needs.


Acute Sudden Onset Colds * Zinc lozenges15-25 mg ever 2 hours until symptions subside * Vitamin C, 500 mgs, every 2 hours to bowel tolerance * Echinacea tincture 20-30 drops every 1-2 hours until bedtime * Other herbs as capsules or tinctures root, slippery elm, wild cherry bark

Flu with Fever * Vitamin C, 500-1,000 mgs every 2 hours to bowel tolerance * Echinacea tincture 30 drops every 2 hours * Boiron-- Oscillococcinum- homeopathic flu remedy * Elderberry syrup or tincture * Other herbal antivirals John's Wort

Chronic or Lingering Colds and Flu * Herbal combinations from local herb companies Herbs Etc (Deep Health, Phytocillin) * BHI ( HEEL) Lymphomyosot * Herbs Astragalus (take only when you do not have any illness), Reishi and/or Shitiake, mushrooms, Schizandra Berries, Siberian ginseng, Licorice root

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