Q: Will you please discuss what "immune boosters" are, and their effects and availability? K.P., West Hartford, CT
A: I'm happy to provide information on this subject, which has fascinated me since my days as a cancer researcher.
The immune system consists of many kinds of cells providing many forms of immunity against all kinds of invaders: viruses, bacteria, cancer cells, and foreign substances.
The main immune boosters are nutritional: vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Primarily, a person's protein intake (which yields the amino acids) has to be adequate, or the immune system will fail. Physicians know that declining numbers of immune cells often signal protein-calorie malnutrition.
Thanks to Dr. Linus Pauling, nearly everyone is aware of the antiviral effect of vitamin C, The vitamin has antibacterial effects, too. It whets the appetite, so to speak, of immune cells that ingest invading bacteria.
Vitamin A has long been known as "the anti-infective vitamin." I give hefty doses of it routinely to surgical patients during the first postoperative week because it reverses the immune suppression that follows major surgery. Other vitamin "immune boosters" include folic acid, pantothenic acid, and vitamins B-6 and E.
Of the minerals, the most important is probably zinc. It promotes multiplication of the all-important T-cells, or thymus lymphocytes, that become depleted in people with AIDS and other viral syndromes. Selenium and iron also play roles in immune function.
Then there are the biologicals. Holistic doctors have long used glandular extracts of thymus, lymph glands, and spleen to try to stimulate immune function. Gamma globulin shots (purified antibodies) have been available for years. Now, genetically engineered proteins are on the therapeutic horizon. It will soon be possible to inject different types of interferon into the body to fight viruses and selectively activate certain immune cells.
"The main immune boosters are nutritional: vitamins, minerals and amino acids."
I hope biotechnology does not mask the valuable knowledge handed down by generations of herbalists. There are many herbal immune boosters. Among them are astragalus, lomatia, marigold, osha, and Shiitake mushrooms. The Japanese tree mushroom (Gaaoderma, also called Reishi) is used in the Orient as an immune regulator, being prescribed both for weakness and overactivity of the immune system. I have found the echinacea herb to be a valuable adjunct to treatment of viral infections, including colds and flu, and more recalcitrant conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, which may be of viral origin.
I might add that a happy life is also an immune booster. The young science of behavioral immunology, which explores the links between the mind, brain, and immune system, is telling us quite a lot about the negative health effects of negative emotions. Vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are food for the body, but we appear to need food for the spirit as well.