by Scott Saunders, M.D.
Thousands of people fill the stands to watch the game. This is the one game that decides the best football team in the world: the Super Bowl.
It’s near the end of the game and the score is close. The center hikes the ball to the quarterback…who hands it off to a half-back…who then throws it to a tight end across the field. Inexplicably, the tight end starts running the wrong way! His own teammate tries to turn him around, but he is faster and gets away…scoring a safety for the other team! It should never happen, but it does. This can happen with the immune system, as well. We call it “autoimmune disease.”
What we call “immunity” makes us think of a system that prevents illness. A better way to consider this is to look at the immune system as the offensive line of all living things. It keeps the other side from getting past them and attacking their quarterback.
All living things have boundaries, as well. Bacteria are not always the ogres that we think they are. We hear of people with a phobia of germs, washing their hands every ten minutes to keep the bugs away. Why? Because they don’t want to get sick. However, the reality is that we always have bacteria of all sorts with us. In fact, there are more bacteria with us than there are of our own cells; and, we carry around more DNA from microbes than we do our own!
The immune system is the body’s way of keeping microbes on their own side of the line. When everything works well, the system is beautiful!  Bacteria help us to interact with our environment, including digesting and absorbing food, making nutrients for us, and repairing tissue.  However, when bacteria are out-of-place, they bring inflammation and tissue damage that causes disease.
Teaching in the Intestines
Training the immune cells is remarkably simple. The whole team of cells and proteins only need to learn what is “me” and what is “not me,” like a football player needing to know which way the ball is supposed to go. This training is done primarily in the intestines.
In the intestines, the immune cells are exposed to all sorts of bacteria, yeast, parasites, molds, foods, and environmental antigens that help it know what to expect. Since all of the proteins we make in our body are unique to us, nothing else in the world has the exact same molecules. Our immune system can use this to determine which cells and proteins belong to us, and which are foreign.
Two Different Systems
There are two primary systems of immunity.
The first does not specifically recognize foreign proteins; your innate immune system looks for abnormal cells. These abnormal cells have names like Natural Killer (NK) cells, and macrophages (big eaters). Essentially, they kill and eat other cells. They completely envelop them, release toxins such as chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide to kill them, and then digest them.
These are the cells that clean up the messes when there is trauma or infections. They may form pockets of “pus” when they go in to clean up an infection because the bacteria is making toxins to kill them, such as a staph infection.
They also get rid of all the cancer cells in the large majority of cases. Everyone makes cancer stem cells; only very few actually become cancer because of this part of the immune system. The real question of the existence of cancer is, “Why did that person develop cancer? Why didn’t the NK cells clean it up?” This is one reason it is so important to have an intact, functional immune system.
The second, acquired immunity, is the defense against invaders such as bacterial infections. Acquired immunity is made up of B-cells and T-cells. The T-cells are matured in the thymus gland and have specific receptors for foreign invaders. If the T-cells find a foreign protein and bind to it, they release hormones that cause inflammation, brining other immune cells to the area to clean up the infection.
The B-cells also have specific binding to foreign invaders, but they make antibodies, which are proteins that circulate in the blood to seek-out and bind to antigens on the infectious agents, inactivating them, and marking them for disposal.
The system is quite amazing and is hundreds of times more complex than what we have discussed. It is an intelligent system: active, and not passive. These cells don’t sit around waiting for an infection to show up. They are constantly monitoring and communicating like a good team. They listen to the coach, take signals from the quarterback, and help each other out on the field. They know the other team. They’ve been trained on the front lines in the thymus gland and in the intestinal system. They know which side they are on!
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
Though all immune cells are trained which team they are on, sometimes they run the wrong way, and score for the other team! This generally begins in [am4show guest_error=’noaccess’] the intestines.
When there is inflammation in the bowels, immune cell training is less specific. The inflammatory process captures some of our own proteins, so the immune system turns on the body and attacks its own proteins. Much like the football player running the wrong way! We call this autoimmune disease, such as thyroid problems, arthritis, lupus, and so forth.
Acquired immunity is so specific it can distinguish between very similar molecules. Many of the common medical tests are based on the specific binding of an antibody to a molecule, such as a drug store pregnancy test. The test line turns red because antibodies attached to the test strip bind to a human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) molecule — and not any other molecule. A good immune system knows which color jersey they are wearing and will never tackle their own team.
This is how we know that autoimmune disease is not from foreign antigens cross-reacting with our own. It is our own poorly trained immune system. This is why it is so important to have good bowels with the proper bacteria in them.
Influenza and Other Viruses
It happens every time. Johnny came over with a runny nose and now Suzie has a horrible cold! Or, a sick colleague comes to the office and you end up with the flu! It is interesting that exposure to infectious diseases from other people doesn’t necessarily mean we get them.
For example, only 40% of those exposed to the Influenza virus by nasal inoculation will develop a symptomatic illness. What about the other 60%? They have a strong immune system that gets rid of the infection quickly, so they get no symptoms. It turns out that the status of our immune system is the most important factor for getting viral illnesses when we are exposed. In fact, immune function is more important than the exposure itself!
Emotional Effects on the Immune System
To prevent illnesses we need to know how the immune system functions AND the things that cause dysfunction.
The immune system is highly affected by our emotions. Multiple studies show how depression, sadness, or even negative thoughts make us more susceptible to disease.
I have had multiple patients with cancer explain the emotional reasons they were in their state. Remember, the brain is in control of every system of the body. The quarterback calls the plays and the team members obey. The intelligence of the system allows the brain to dictate how it functions.
When we have negative emotions, the immune system is inhibited. 
- Short stressors like a shock or injury have little effect.
- Intermediate stressors such as exams inhibit the immune cells, but not the antibodies, making us more susceptible to the flu.
- But long-term stress inhibits both the cells and antibodies, making us susceptible to all kinds of infections, cancers, or autoimmune diseases.
When the body lacks nutrition, the immune system is the first to be downsized. So it is important that we get adequate nutrition. While the antioxidant vitamins are very important to prevent damage to the immune system, Vitamin D and A are crucial for making the immune system function.
There have been many theories of why the flu comes only in winter. It turns out this phenomenon is related to the amount of vitamin D in the body.
Vitamin D is not really a vitamin; it is a hormone made in the body from cholesterol. Cholesterol comes out in our sweat where ultraviolet rays from the sun change it and it is then re-absorbed into the body. It was once believed that vitamin D only prevented Rickets, a disease of lack of calcium in the bones. But vitamin D has effects on every cell in the body, particularly the immune system.
The most important action on the immune function seems to be the effect of vitamin D on macrophages. By activating these cells, the immune system is able to remove any threats that are internal to the cells. These include cancer and viruses. This explains why the flu happens only in the winter!
Autoimmune disease is rampant in our society. The question for most rheumatologists is not, “Do you have autoimmunity?” but rather, “How much autoimmune disease do you have?” Part of this problem is the maturation and differentiation of the immune cells in the intestines. Vitamin A plays a crucial role in the training of the cells. It’s like the offensive coach, helping the offensive line to protect the players in the back.
Also, vitamin A deficiency is a large cause of mortality in many areas of the world. A lack of vitamin A diminishes the function of both innate and acquired immunity. The macrophages don’t eat up infectious debris, the B-cells don’t make as much antibody, and the T-cells don’t bind to germs. In parts of the world where foods contain scarce amounts of vitamin A, they have a higher infant, child, and pregnant mother mortality due to infectious diseases. 
Balance is another issue of immune function. We are told that we need to take fish oil, or some other “omega-3” to prevent inflammation. However, this is only because our diet consists of ten times too much omega-6 oil. Balancing omega-3 and omega-6 oils affects the immune system to a great degree.
- Omega-6 oils produce the hormones that cause inflammation (found in corn, soy and canola oils).
- Omega-3 oils are made into the hormones that suppress inflammation (found in fish, krill, flaxseed and primrose oils).
If we have too much omega-6, then we tend to be inflamed with arthritis, lupus, heart disease, and so forth.  On the other hand, if we have too much omega 3-oil, then we may not be able to respond well to the opposing team. We need balance.
Achieve balance with sufficient quantities of each kind of oil. However, it isn’t necessary to fill up with fish or flax oil. All we would need to do is swap-out the omega 6-oils by avoiding corn, soy, and vegetable oils. Instead, we can use olive, grapeseed, or walnut oils. Coconut oil has very little of any essential oils, but is fine to use because it won’t increase the omega-6. Also, using grass-fed beef, eggs, and butter makes a difference. Remember, the cow is and produces what it eats. Grass has more omega-3 than omega-6, so we get a good ratio.
Besides oils, balance in other nutrients is important. The best way to achieve this is by taking supplements intermittently. Life works best on feast-famine cycles with all nutrients. By having a lot, the body can take up and use the nutrient, or store it for future use. And then, when there is little intake the metabolism becomes more efficient at absorption and use.
Recommendations for Building a Strong Immune System:
- Forgive everyone of everything! Don’t let past injuries destroy your future.
- Daily meditation and relaxation time is important.
- Exercise regularly – an hour of exercise 3 days per week is great!
- Eat nutritious food with lots of colors: berries, greens, and yellow vegetables.
- Avoid corn, soy, and vegetable oils.
- Use olive, coconut, grapeseed, or walnut oils.
- Don’t eat sweets, especially with artificial sweeteners!
- Do a cleanse once per year, including a modified fast and probiotics, for 20 days.
- Take a tablespoon of raw cod liver oil three times per week. (Provides vitamins A, D, and omega-3 oils)
- Take vitamin B12, 1000 mcg once per week.
A team works together to reach their goal. All members are necessary to function at their peak. Everyone needs to be going in the same direction. In the same manner, we cannot neglect our immune system and feel well.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Health is the greatest wealth.” If you are sick, it doesn’t matter what else you have. If you take care of your immune system, then your immune system will take care of you.
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Dr. Scott D. Saunders, M.D. is a practicing physician, specializing in preventative health care, who utilizes eclectic health care for the whole family, including conventional, orthomolecular and natural medicine. He is also the medical director of The Integrative Medical Center of Santa Barbara in Lompoc, CA. He went to UCLA medical school and is board certified in family medicine. View natural remedies with Dr. Saunders at: http://drsaundersmd.com