The body must contend with constant attacks by microscopic organisms. In order to defend against this onslaught, it deploys a wide range of defenses that together are called the immune system. People with diseases that cause immune deficiency, such as AIDS , fall victim to infectious microorganisms that a healthy person could ward off easily. However, even healthy people get sick from time to time, victims of infections that manage to sneak by the defenses. And some apparently healthy people nonetheless get sick quite often. If you fall into this latter category, you may wish to find treatments that can strengthen your immune system. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. To explain why it is so difficult to improve resistance to illness, we need to delve a bit deeper into the nature of immunity.
The Immune System
The immune system consists primarily of various types of white blood cells and the chemicals that they manufacture (such as antibodies). In certain conditions, such as AIDS, many of these white blood cells are damaged or dead. In such cases, the term immune deficiency is clearly appropriate. The circumstance is analogous to an army that lacks, say, guns. However, careful examination of most people who get frequent colds
(or bladder infections
attacks, for example) fails to turn up any visible deficits in the immune system. They have all the immune cells and antibodies they need in roughly the right amounts, and all the various parts appear to work just fine. So why do such people get sick so often? The short answer is, we do not know. One can hypothesize that in some people the immune system fails to function properly for a relatively subtle, invisible reason, much as a well-equipped army might lose its fighting form due to apathy or disunity. However, keep in mind that even people who develop frequent colds manage to fight off thousands of other infections every day. (If they did not, they would be dead.)For this reason, an alternate hypothesis comes to mind: that over-susceptibility to a particular type of infection may be caused by something more specific than general immune weakness. As an example, chronically inflamed mucous membranes might lead to frequent colds, since an inflamed mucous membrane may be more porous to cold viruses. Similarly, a woman’s bladder wall might allow particularly easy attachment of bacteria, leading to frequent bladder infections.In reality, though, these are all speculations. We truly do not know why some people frequently develop minor infections. For this reason, it is very difficult to find a way to fix the problem.
Many natural products are said to boost general immunity. However, while we can scientifically study the effect of a single treatment on a single illness, at the present state of knowledge there is no way we can even know
that a treatment strengthens the immune system in general. Scientists can measure the effects of an herb on individual white blood cell types and note changes in activity, but they do not know how to interpret the results of those measurements as a whole. After all, the immune system is a system
, and systems are notoriously complicated to analyze. Current knowledge does not allow us to predict the ultimate effect of fine changes in the parts. To acknowledge this limitation, scientists tend to use the term immunomodulatory rather than immune-stimulating when they refer to a substance that causes measurable alterations in immune function. This terminology notes a change (modulation), but does not jump to conclusions regarding whether that change is good, bad, or indifferent. Hundreds or thousands of herbs have immunomodulatory effects, so many that we will make no attempt to list them here. In many cases, these may represent nothing more than the body’s reaction to the herb as a foreign presence—an immune reaction to the herb itself, in other words, with no special benefits. In some cases, observed immunomodulatory effects could
indicate an alteration in immune function with potential benefits under certain conditions, but it is as yet impossible to know. Theoretically, it is possible that some natural substance could boost all aspects of immunity. However, if it did, it would be a highly dangerous substance! The immune system is balanced on a knife edge. An immune system that is too relaxed fails to defend us from infections; an immune system that is too active attacks healthy tissues, causing autoimmune diseases. A universal immune booster might cause lupus
, Crohn’s disease
, Graves’ disease
, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
, multiple sclerosis
, or rheumatoid arthritis
, among other problems. Rather than an immune booster, one might rather prefer a treatment that somehow fine-tunes the immune system. Does such a treatment exist? No one really knows, although claims abound.