An estimated 65 million Americans suffer from a dysfunctional immune system. When our immune system is not functioning properly, our body may become an open target for a wide variety of health problems – ranging from relatively minor illnesses like a cold or allergies to a potentially deadly disease like cancer.
How the Immune System Works
The immune system is an intricate network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend the body against attacks by “foreign” invaders. Since the human body provides an ideal environment for many different microbes, it is the immune system’s job to keep them out or, if they do get in, to seek out and destroy them.
A healthy immune system has a remarkable ability to distinguish between our body's own cells (self) and foreign cells (nonself). Normally, our body peacefully coexists with cells that carry distinctive “self” markers, but will quickly attack any carrying “nonself” markers. Cells marked as nonself could be viruses, bacteria, parasites, or even another person's tissues. (This is why transplanted tissues or organs are often rejected by the body.)
Unfortunately, sometimes the immune system doesn't work properly, resulting in an immune system disorder. In addition to just having a generally weakened immune system, other types of immune system disorders include:
• Allergies – when the immune system responds to a false alarm, attacking harmless materials like pollen, dust or mold.
• Autoimmune Diseases – when the immune system mistakes self markers for nonself, and launches an attack against the body's own tissues or organs. Some autoimmune diseases include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
• Immune Deficiency Disorders – Temporary immune deficiencies can develop in the wake of common viral infections, including influenza, infectious mononucleosis, and measles. Immune responses can also become depressed by things like surgery, smoking, or stress. Of course, one of the most serious immnue deficiency disorders is AIDS.
Key Immune System Players
A number of different tissues and organs comprise the immune system. The major players include:
• Lymph Glands – Small bean-like nodes that filter the lymphatic fluid and store special cells that can trap cancer cells or bacteria traveling through your body. Many of the body's immune reactions begin in the lymph glands. When you have an infection, your lymph nodes may get larger and feel tender or sore.
• Thymus – A small organ located just behind the breastbone where T-cells mature. (That's why they are called T-cells – the "T" stands for "thymus.")
• Spleen – The largest lymphatic organ in the body – about the size of your fist. The spleen is located in the upper-left part of the abdomen and contains white blood cells that fight infection or disease.
• Bone Marrow – The yellow tissue in the center of bones that is responsible for making white blood cells which are destined to become lymphocytes.
• Lymphocytes – Small white blood cells that play a large role in defending the body against disease. There are two main types of lymphocytes: B-cells and T-cells. B-cells make antibodies that attack bacteria and toxins. T-cells help destroy infected or cancerous cells and attack body cells themselves when they have been taken over by viruses or have become cancerous.
Keeping the Immune System Strong
While it would be nice if our bodies could get the nutrients we need to keep our immune systems functioning properly just by eating a balanced diet, the fact is, today much of our food is grown in soils that have been over-planted and saturated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Then, once harvested, many of the nutrients essential to a healthy immune system are processed out of the final food products we eat.
Often we need to supplement our diets with additional nutrients, targeted specifically for the immune system support. Below are seven of the best immune support supplements available:
1. Epicor® – A Serendipitous Discovery
The powerful immune system builder, Epicor, which is a dried yeast fermentate, has a fascinating history. It began back in 1943 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when a small family-owned factory named Diamond V Mills began making supplements for animal feed. Over the next 60 years, they became a leading U.S. manufacturer of nutrition products designed to boost the digestive and immune systems of farm animals. They had an excellent reputation for using high quality, well-researched, science-driven ingredients.
At the end of 2003, however, Diamond V found itself with a unique problem. The factory workers had not used the five annual sick days allotted to them, while most of the office workers had. It didn't seem fair that the factory employees should be penalized for being healthy, so Diamond V allowed them to trade their sick days for vacation time instead.
In 2004, when Diamond V insurance adjusters reviewed the medical claims for the previous year, they also took note of the unusual situation – factory workers were obviously healthier than their office counterparts. After running some preliminary lab tests investigating what could be making the difference, it was thought that the constant exposure to the ingredient used in the factory seemed to result in the workers having much stronger immune systems.
Additional research and testing led to the establishment of a human nutrition division of Diamond V called Embria Health Sciences. Working with a team of scientists, immunologists and other dietary supplement experts, Embria Health Sciences developed a more concentrated, highly effective version of their product for humans – Epicor.
Studies Back Up Theory
As part of the research to analyze the effects of exposure to the fermented yeast culture, blood and saliva samples were taken from manufacturing plant employees who had a minimum of 10 years’ exposure to the fermentation process. The samples were analyzed and compared with samples from a control group of age- and gender-matched employees who had not been regularly exposed to the fermentation product.(1)
More than 50 immune parameters were analyzed. Among the many findings:
• The people in the manufacturing area showed immune activity significantly higher than that of the control group.
• The NK cell activity among the exposed group was strikingly higher than that among the unexposed group. The exposed workers demonstrated higher NK cell cytotoxicity – suggesting that their NK cells were more active than those from their unexposed coworkers.
• Much higher levels of secretory IgA were found in the saliva of the exposed group, indicating improved functioning of the mucosal immune system, the body’s first line of defense against pathogens.
A more recent trial, published September 2008, confirmed the earlier findings on EpiCor’s ability to support immune health.(2) Twenty-five healthy participants consumed either 0.5 grams (500 mg) of EpiCor or a placebo daily for five weeks.
• The EpiCor group experienced a decrease in minor health complaints compared to the placebo group.
• No seasonal allergies were noted in the EpiCor group, while the placebo group had an increase in seasonal allergies.
• Blood serum analysis demonstrated significant increases in measures of red blood cell health, mucosal immune defense, and anti-inflammatory support in the EpiCor group.
EpiCor – An Immune Balancer, Not an Immune Booster
There is an important distinction between a product that boosts the immune system and one that balances it. An immune booster does just what it sounds like – stimulates the function of the immune system. But in the case of some autoimmune disorders, allergies and inflammatory disease, the immune system is already overactive – attacking healthy cells and tissues. In those cases, an immune booster could do more harm than good.
Epicor, on the other hand, is an immune balancer. In essence, it puts the immune system in neutral, allowing it to respond appropriately as needed – either to boost or supress the immune function as needed.
2. ProBoost® Thymic Protein A
The thymus plays a critical role in immune function. Known as the master organ of the immune system, the thymus is a ductless gland which lies just beneath the breastbone. It grows for the first three years of life, maintains its size until puberty, then begins to shrink. Usually, by the age of 40, the thymus is only about one-sixth its largest size.
Because of its small size in adulthood, the thymus was long thought to have little importance. It wasn't until 1960 that scientists discovered its pivotal role in immune function. One technique researchers used to learn how it functions was to remove the thymus from young animals and study the results. Much to their surprise, they found that the animals experienced a profound wasting disease characterized by such things as increased infection, cancer, allergies, neuromuscular paralysis, failure to grow and autoimmune diseases.(3)
Thymic Protein A Discovered
Immunologist Terry Beardsley, PhD, one of the world's leading authorities on the thymus gland and its crucial importance for the proper functioning of the immune system, discovered Thymic Protein A (TPA) – a polypeptide that is naturally produced by the thymus. TPA programs the body's T-4 helper cells to stimulate a proper immune system response. Just as a conductor controls the perfect balance and blend of all the instruments in an orchestra, the T-4 cells orchestrate the delicate balance of the immune system.
As we age and the thymus shrinks, however, it also loses its ability to produce adequate amounts of TPA. Without enough TPA to keep our immune systems in balance, our bodies become “out of tune,” leaving us susceptible to a variety of serious illnesses.
Fortunately, Dr. Beardsley found a way to produce a complete 500 amino acid chain TPA in exactly the same form as our body's thymus produces. His discovery was so unique, he was granted both U.S. and international patents for composition of matter and use. Therefore, ProBoost Thymic Protein A is truly a one-of-a-kind product – made in only one laboratory in the world, under the direct supervision of Dr. Beardsly.
No other thymus products are biologically active because they contain only fragments of the entire thymic protein necessary to stimulate T-4 cells. Fragmented proteins will not “fit” into the receptor site of the T-4 cell and consequently, will not program it properly. Only ProBoost Thymic Protein A contains Dr. Beardsly's complete thymic protein.
TPA's Effect on Epstein-Barr Virus
An interesting 1998 pilot study looked at the effects of thymic protein A on Epstein-Barr virus. Six patients with chronically elevated EBV antibodies were treated with thymic protein A for 60 days. Following treatment, the patients showed a statistically significant reduction of antibody titers. The TPA was well tolerated and most of the participants also reported having increased energy.(4)
3. ImmunPlex™ – Undenatured Whey Protein
ImmunPlex™ is an undenatured whey protein isolate that contains many proteins, peptides, and other key nutrients that promote enhanced immune activity, energy and detoxification functions. The nutrients found in ImmunPlex – like alpha lactalbumin serum, lactoferrin, and beta lactoglobulin – are the building blocks of the body’s most potent immune cell protector, glutathione.
Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that is the cornerstone of healthy immune function. Immune lymphocytes depend on it for normal replication and function. Glutathione protects the body by targeting and destroying reactive oxygen molecules and free radicals. (Free radicals are unstable molecules that “stick to” and damage healthy cells.) Whey protein has the largest concentration of glutathione-boosting amino acids compared to any other protein.
Whey protein contains several important immune system building blocks that work synergistically to boost immune function:
• Beta Lactoglobulin
• Bovine Serum Albumin
• Lactoperoxidase & Lysozyme
4. ImmPower™ – On the Front Lines of Immune Defense
ImmPower contains AHCC (Active Hexose Correlated Compound), a unique hybrid extract developed by combining several species of mushrooms used in traditional Japanese healing to make one, extremely powerful, hybridized mushroom. The active ingredient in ImmPower is an alpha-glucan molecule with a very low weight that research shows provides unsurpassed support of the immune system’s front-line defenses including:
• Maintaining peak Natural Killer cell function.
• Supporting enhanced cytokine production
• Promoting optimal T-cell and macrophage activity.
• Increasing levels of interleukin-12 (IL-12), a powerful cytokine that is instrumental in maintaining cell health.
AHCC is widely used in Japan as an alternative treatment for cancer, hepatitis and other chronic illnesses.
5. Moducare® – Modulating the Immune System
Moducare is a pine extract that contains sterols – naturally occurring compounds found in all plants – that have been shown to enhance immune function and support the body's inflammation response.
Plant sterols and sterolins are natural fats found in all fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Chemically, they are very similar to the animal fat, cholesterol. Animals make and use cholesterol, but plants use phytosterols. Although sterols are abundant in all plants, because of the processing of most foods, naturally occurring sterols are leeched from plants.
Sterols work by increasing the output and responsiveness of T-1 helper cells, the “smart” cells which decide what needs to be attacked and destroyed. It also boosts another type of cells critical to the immune response – Natural Killer (NK) cells, which identify, attach to and inject deadly granules into harmful invaders.
Moducare is an immune balancer – it allows the immune system to regulate itself: Enhancing an underactive response and/or modulating an overactive one.
6. Olive Leaf Extract – Nectar from the Tree of Life
The olive tree, often called “The Tree of Life,” has been used for thousands of years as a natural antibiotic. According to some 1855 medical reports, tea brewed with olive leaves was also effective in treating malaria. Then after a major pharmaceutical company isolated its active components in 1969, the resulting upsurge in research led to the discovery of many additional health benefits.
The most important element in olive leaf extract is a compound called oleuropein – a polyphenolic fraction derived from the fruit, leaves, bark and roots of the olive tree. It is oleuropein that helps make the olive tree itself so strongly resistant to damage from insects and other factors. Within Oleuropein is a chemical agent called elenolic acid, which has been shown to assist the body's immune defense by helping it to balance levels of friendly bacteria.
The energy-boosting benefits of olive leaf extract are believed to be the result of its ability to help fend off fungi, which overtax the immune system, and yeast overgrowth (such as Candida albicans), which cause fatigue. It also provides nutritional support for detoxification at the cellular level when the body is under stress and has been shown to protect RNA structure.
7. Vitamin D – The Basic Defense Against Colds & Flu
And finally, with shorter days comes a greater need for supplementary vitamin D3 to support natural resistance to colds, flu and other respiratory tract infections.
Because of reduced sunshine in fall and winter months, a study was undertaken to determine if low vitamin D levels correlated with the incidence of acute viral respiratory tract infections. The researchers, representing a consortium of US University schools of medicine, found that individuals with a serum 25(OH)D concentration of less than 38 mg/ml were three times more likely to become ill with an acute respiratory tract infection.(5)
The researchers concluded: “The data in this study suggests that supplementing with vitamin D to raise the concentrations in the general population to above 38 ng/ml could result in a significant health benefit by reducing the burden of illness from viral infections, at a minimum from viral infections of the respiratory tract…”
* Karen Lee Richards is the Lead Expert specializing in Fibromyalgia and ME/CFS, for HealthCentral's Chronic Pain Connection (www.chronicpainconnection.com). Karen is co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and was Executive Editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine for four years.
1. EpiCor High Metabolite Immunogens. Scientific Research Summary. February, 2009.
2. Jensen GS, et al. A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled, Randomized Pilot Study: Consumption of a High-Metabolite Immunogen from Yeast Culture has Beneficial Effects on Erythrocyte Health and Mucosal Immune Protection in Healthy Subjects. The Open Nutrition Journal. 2008, 2: 68-75
3. Miller, J.F. 1961. Immunological function of the thymus. Lancet 2:748.
4. Riordan NH, et al. Pilot study of the effects of thymus protein on elevated Epstein-Barr virus titers. Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients. Feb./Mar. 1998.
5. Savetta JR, et al. Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D and the Incidence of Acute Viral Respiratory Tract Infections in Healthy Adults. PloS One, Jun 14, 2010. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011088. available here
Image courtesy of marin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Note: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA and is not meant to prevent, treat, diagnose or cure any condition or disease. It is very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or health support regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professional healthcare team.