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Currently there is a lot of discussion in the media, both mainstream and social, regarding the immune system and its role in both the prevention of infection and recovery following infection. Can the immune system be ‘boosted’?
There are some practitioners who recommend certain interventions to ‘boost’ the immune system. On the other hand, there are some traditional medical providers who claim that it is not possible to ‘boost’ the immune system. Who is right? Who do we believe? The truth, as is so often the case with contradicting viewpoints, lies somewhere in the middle. Using this as an example, it is possible to further examine how we can all use holistic methods to improve healthcare for everyone.
Before discussing the issue of the immune system, let’s first address what it means to incorporate holistic methods in healthcare. It is trendy to promote holistic methods in healthcare. What does this actually involve? Why is it important? How can it make a difference? Briefly, in order to optimize our health, we have to incorporate all aspects of wellness into our daily routines. This is based upon understanding and applying the best available information from a wide variety of sources and disciplines, including fields such as medicine, psychology, nutrition, sleep, and many others. The synthesis and application of this wealth of information is what allows us to improve our wellness. Without integrating the knowledge from all relevant fields, we cannot fully realize the entirety of what is known about human health. Unfortunately, many health related professions only emphasize their own knowledge base and do not consider complimentary areas of practice. This only serves to provide a less than optimal basis for health. The purpose behind incorporating holistic methods in healthcare is to apply the best available information from all relevant disciplines for the purpose of optimizing wellness.
Let’s start by considering the immune system as an engine of sorts, specially designed to detect, ward off, and eliminate infection and other conditions. As with any engine, or biological system for that matter, it can only work to a maximum level of performance, let’s consider this to be 100%. Also like any engine or biological system there are factors which can decrease the performance of the immune system below this maximum level to less than 100%. Some of these factors are non-modifiable given our current state of understanding, for example a genetic condition that impairs immune system function. Some of these factors are modifiable, for example lifestyle factors that impair the immune system. There are also some factors which lie between these ends of the spectrum, for example a condition like diabetes that impairs the immune system and once developed cannot typically be reversed but can be controlled to varying levels and the extent to which it is controlled determines the extent of impact on the immune system.
We will focus the discussion on the modifiable factors that impair the immune system since the non-modifiable factors are beyond our control. There are several examples of lifestyle choices that we make that can affect the immune system. Chief among these factors are nutrition, hydration, exercise, sleep, substance use, and stress management. If we don’t have proper dietary intake of nutrients and hydration then our body, more specifically our cells, will not have the necessary building blocks in order for the immune system to work at its optimal performance. Exercise and sleep allow our bodies and minds to recover, which is essential for the function of our immune system. In his excellent book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Dr. Matthew Walker describes the numerous areas of health that sleep has a significant impact upon, not the least of which is an increased likelihood of developing an infection when exposed to the common cold when we are sleep deprived. Substance use, such as smoking and excessive alcohol use can also impair the immune system. The manner in which we manage our stress can have a significant impact on the immune system as increased stress levels lead to decreased immune function.
We can consider each of these modifiable factors to result in a decrease in immune function on their own which can then add up to a significant loss of function when multiple of these factors are present. The combined result on the immune system may be a profound decrease in its ability to perform its function. This negative effect could be reversed by improving these modifiable factors. For example, we could develop a routine that includes proper nutrition and hydration to provide the immune system cells with the necessary nutrients and building blocks, sleep hygiene and regular exercise to assist with recovery, avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol intake, and starting a daily meditation practice to improve recovery and better manage stress. As these modifiable factors are improved, there is a resulting increase in ability of the immune system to perform its function, thereby ‘boosting’ the immune system, not past its 100% maximum level, but getting closer to that level. In this way, proponents on both side of the discussion regarding ‘boosting’ the immune system are correct, to a degree.
By emphasizing holistic health and using these principles to our benefit, we can obtain a greater level of health and wellness for everyone. The integration of traditional medical knowledge with these holistic methods will lead to a result that is greater than either paradigm on its own. This applies not only to the immune system, but to all aspects of our physical, emotional, and mental health.
The goal at Darin Davidson, MD Consulting is to combine the best medical knowledge with the best holistic methods to the end goal of improving the health of everyone!
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Walker, M. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Scribner, New York, 2017.
Goleman D, Davidson RJ. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. Avery, New York, 2017.