Immune Balance—What Does that Mean?

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Guest Blog by Dr. Leonard Smith

The immune system is a complex organization of coordinated responses to “foreign” invaders in the body. Foreign invaders include microbes—bacteria, fungus, parasites and viruses—as well as toxins and even food. As a matter of fact, one major role of the immune system is to not respond to food. As is seen with food allergies, however, the immune system is not always successful at this. Food allergies involve an overactive immune response to certain foods, which would normally be recognized as harmless.

The immune system is comprised of two main branches: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. The innate immune system, also known as cell-mediated immunity, involves an immediate non-specific immune response, often against pathogens. The adaptive immune system, also called humoral immunity, involves a delayed, specific, organized response involving the production of antibodies that later recognize invading microbes so that a more effective immune response can be mounted. The innate immune system involves the production of cells called T helper 1 (Th1) cells, and adaptive immunity involves the production T helper 2 (Th2) cells. T helper cells are lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. They are like the messengers of the immune system, sending signals that stimulate various immune responses.

Th1 and Th2 responses are joined by another type of T helper cell known as Th17. Th17 and Th1 responses are both associated with over-active immune responses, as is seen in autoimmune conditions, in which the body mistakenly attacks its own tissues. Both these responses produce inflammation by way of cytokines, the immune equivalent of hormones. These three types of T helper cells are all regulated and balanced by cells known as T regulatory cells, or Tregs.1

Are you confused yet? Think of all these T cells as a four-way seesaw.  Th1 and Th17 are on two prongs of one end, and Th2 and Tregs are on two prongs of the other. When all is well, this seesaw is in balance, like a harmonized symphony responding appropriately to that which the body comes into contact.  If out of balance, you may see higher levels of Th1 and Th17, an indication of underlying autoimmunity as is seen with type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus erythematous. In contrast, higher levels of Th2 and Tregs are characteristic of allergic conditions like asthma, food allergies and hay fever, and with immune suppression.

How can we balance immunity? Well, probiotics are one solution. Since over 70 percent of the immune system is in the gut, probiotics are in the right terrain for immune system communication. Probiotics help balance immune response.  Gut bacteria essentially “prime” the immune system,2 educating it so that it responds appropriately to what passes through the digestive tract—and to what may ultimately pass through the small intestine and into the body.

Omega-3 fatty acids also affect immunity, largely by helping to balance the inflammatory response—an important aspect of immunity. You see, inflammation is a necessary physiologic occurrence.  But too much inflammation spells trouble.  The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in fish oil help to quell inflammation at the right time.  They help stimulate the production of resolvins, chemicals knows to help “resolve” inflammation—or end it at the appropriate time.3

Further, the proper digestion of food is necessary so the immune system doesn’t have to work too hard.  When food is not broken down properly, undigested food particles can aggravate the gut, causing inflammation and even leaking through a permeable intestine (also known as leaky gut) and entering circulation where yet more inflammation is triggered, in a downward spiral of excess inflammation (which is at the basis of most, if not all, chronic disease).

Also important is regular bowel elimination, which can be attained by the consumption of dietary fiber—at least 35 grams per day. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains is essential, and a fiber supplement can help reach 35 grams, which can be difficult to obtain through diet alone.

In essence, the HOPE Formula—High-fiber, Omega Oils, Probiotics and digestive Enzymes—can help improve digestive health and improve immune balance. Brenda and I have been recommending this formula for years for many good reasons. With the HOPE Formula, there is hope that your health will improve.

References

  1. Cooke A, “Th17 cells in inflammatory conditions.” Rev Diabet Stud. 2006 Summer;3(2):72-5.
  2. Round JL and Mazmanian Sk, “The gut microbiota shapes intestinal immune responses during health and disease.” Nat Rev Immunol. 2009 May;9(5):313-23.
  3. Serhan CN and Savil J, “Resolution of inflammation: the beginning programs the end.” Nat Immunol. 2005 Dec;6(12):1191-7.

2 Comments

  • Reid B. Kimball

    I’ve used diet and probiotics primarily to treat my Crohn’s and have been med free since 2007.

    Since probiotics are at least 70% of the immune system and help keep it regulated, it would seem to me that the standard approach of suppressing the immune system using immune suppressing drugs for inflammatory bowel diseases is a flawed approach because of it’s lack of variability and self-tuning to the person’s ever changing conditions. What do you think?

  • Leonard Smith MD

    Hi Reid,

    A Crohn’s flare-up involves a major inflammatory process in which the immune system is on over-drive, so to speak. Sometimes it is necessary to reduce this strong immune response to help get back toward that point of immune balance. Probiotics have been found helpful for Crohn’s, but mostly in maintaining remission—again, helping maintain a more balanced immunity.

    As mentioned in the blog, all four parts of the HOPE program will help and maybe obviate the need for the anti-inflammatory prescription drugs. To review, certainly probiotics would be very important and maybe cultured drinks and vegetables as well. Enzymes help to break food down and present less antigens to the epithelial lining that is closely linked with the underlying immune system. Omega-3s have been shown by themselves to put people with Crohn’s in remission and insoluble fiber soothes and dilutes the toxic reaction between the bacterial/food biomass and the epithelial lining, while soluble fiber is converted into short chain fatty acids by the commensal (neutral) and beneficial bacteria. Butyrate is a very important SCFA produced in this process which is the food/fuel of choice for the epithelial lining of the colon.

    So with a combined approach including major work on stress reduction which facilitates good sleep and elimination, natural healing often occurs without pharmaceutical help.

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