With the current coronavirus pandemic, the public is more afraid for their health and wellbeing than I have ever seen.
It is all over the news and social media. It seems impossible to get away from it.
Why do these pandemics keep occurring? What is wrong?
While we really can't stop this virus or future organisms from spreading across the world, we CAN do more to get and keep our own immune system as healthy as possible.
I will discuss how to do this below...
In order to understand our immune system and how it works, we need to discuss some topics.
Most of us were taught the germ theory in school, so this should sound familiar.
In the late 1800s, Louis Pasteur described a microscopic world of organisms that cause disease. He developed the pasteurization of milk, which involves heating milk to very high temperatures which kills the germs and bacteria inside the milk and thus prevents infections.
The core concept of the germ theory of disease is this: Microorganisms (germs) are the cause of infectious disease. They invade humans, other animals, and other living hosts. Their growth and reproduction can lead to disease.
This has become the foundational belief for much of modern medicine. Antibiotics, vaccines, and other antimicrobial treatments are based on this concept.
The bugs are bad. If we want to get and stay healthy, we need to kill the bugs and do whatever we can to avoid contact with the bugs.
That is what we were all taught. That is what we are doing in the world now, right?
What about the terrain theory?
Antoine Bechamp, who was a contemporary scientist of Louis Pasteur, believed that the focus should be on the health of the person, NOT on the bug. He famously said, "treat the patient, not the disease."
Bechamp noted that the germs that terrified Pasteur were opportunistic in nature. They were everywhere and even existed normally in humans. Only when the tissue of the host became damaged or compromised did those germs manifest as a symptom of disease. He believe they were a result of the disease, not the cause.
His thinking went something like this: The severity of the infection will correlate with the health status of the patient. In other words, the unhealthier the person, the more out of balance a body is, the more susceptible they will be to disease. Also, the disease will be much more severe in that person compared to a person who is in balance and healthy.
To prevent illness, Bechamp advocated not the killing of germs but the cultivation of health through diet, hygiene and healthy living.
When treating a patient with an active infection, he was less concerned with killing the organism and focused more on restoring the health of the patient's body through lifestyle choices. As the person's health was restored through diet, hygiene and detoxification, the infection would go away on its own. There was no need to directly kill the bug.
The 2 scientists had a long and often bitter rivalry regarding which of them were right. Ultimately, society accepted the germ theory and the terrain theory was mostly forgotten.
The irony of the story is that at the end of his life, Pasteur renounced his germ theory. His last words were "the microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything."
So, which theory do you endorse? Does it have to be one or the other, or is there some truth in both?
Have you noticed that every few years the latest "killer bug" arrives on the scene, threatening to destroy humanity? Here are just a few of the big ones from the last 20 years:
Why does it seem like these are hitting us in waves? What is going on?
That may seem like a really weird question to ask, but it deserves discussing.
My mother told me countless stories about her childhood in the 1930s and 1940s. She and her siblings rarely wore shoes, they ate a bunch of dirt, only bathed every few days, and played in the cattle stable which was full of cow manure.
She said she barely remembered any of them ever getting sick.
I have always been amazed that our dogs or cattle could drink some of the dirtiest, nastiest water I had ever seen, yet it didn't make them sick. Why not?
The answer, at least in large part, is because of our microbiome.
Over the past several years, the medical system has finally begun to acknowledge the importance of the microbiome.
Inside and out, our bodies are covered with microbes - bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses.
In fact, there are over 100 trillion of them! Microbes outnumber our human cells by 10 to 1. That results in about 5 pounds of material.
The microbiome is the genetic material contained in all of those microbes. There is 200 times more genetic material in those microbes than the number of human genes our body contains.
These organisms help us digest our food, regulate our immune system, protect against diseases, produce neurotransmitters, produce hormones, and even produce many of the vitamins that are essential for our health.
If this complex colony of organisms gets out of balance in any way, our health will be affected.
An analogy would be to look at your lawn. As long as your grass is healthy and thick, weeds and other invaders will not be able to spread. If it gets some bare patches or other issues, very quickly some opportunistic weeds will start to take over.
Autoimmune diseases are another example. Autoimmunity is associated with a dysfunction of the microbiome. The wrong kinds and amounts of microbes accumulate on or in the body over time, which changes the gene activity and metabolic processes. This results in the immune system attacking parts of the body instead of foreign invaders.
Autoimmune diseases seem to run in families. It is now believed that it occurs not by inheriting defective DNA, but instead by inheriting a family's unhealthy microbiome.
Our microbiome is critical to our health. It is also not a stagnant, unchanging group of microbes. Rather, it changes almost by the minute.
For example, if you touch the ground outside, some microbes from your skin will transfer to the ground while some from the ground will transfer to your skin. In this way, your body is in constant communication with the environment. Your body assesses these new microbes and uses them to further fortify your immune defenses.
The same thing happens with our diet. We we eat foods that are full of beneficial bacteria, our body adds those microbes to the flora in our colon.
If we eat things such as a high sugar or processed food diet, our gut flora is actually damaged and some of the good bacteria are killed.
On a side note, some bacteria in the gut promote a leaner body while others promote the body to gain weight. Sugar in the diet has been shown to promote an increase in the bacteria that cause weight gain. So, weight gain is not just a matter of someone eating too many calories.
Many prescription and over the counter medications have been shown to have a severe impact on the bacterial balance in our gut. These include:
A lab in Germany tested the effect of 835 different non-antibiotic medications on 40 of the most common gut bacteria. About 25% of the medications restrained the growth of at least one bacteria, while about 5% affected the growth of at least 10 of the 40 bacteria.
Medications are not without risks.
The rates of allergies and asthma in westernized countries are skyrocketing. You have most likely even noticed this in your own family. This is felt to be due to things such as improved hygiene, decreased physical activity, and poor diet. All of those things affect our microbiome which affects our immune function.
So are we too clean? Possibly. Are we being exposed enough to the good microbes in our environment. Probably not.
Liberally using hand sanitizers can also alter the good bacteria in our microbiome.
During the current pandemic, we are being told to stay inside, wear a mask, wash our hands often, and use hand sanitizers.
We had to protect the at-risk population from a dangerous new virus. But we can't and shouldn't do these things long-term if we all want to have a strong, resilient immune system.
Okay, so in light of everything we have discussed, what can you do to boost your immune system?
Sugar increases inflammation which impairs our immune system.
Healthy fats such as those found in olive oil and salmon boost the body's immune response by decreasing inflammation.
Foods such as yogurt, kombucha, sauerkrat, kefir and kimchi are rich in beneficial bacteria that help populate our gut microbiome. One study in children showed that those who drank only 2.4 ounces of fermented milk daily had 20% fewer infections than the control group.
Regular, moderate exercise reduces inflammation and helps your immune cells regenerate. Examples include brisk walking, biking, jogging, and swimming. Your goal should be to get 150 minutes of exercise each week.
Dehydration causes headaches and worsens focus, mood, digestion and other bodily functions. All of these increase your susceptibility to illness.
Stress increases inflammation and impairs immune functions. It is critical to manage your stress if you want to have an optimal immune system. Activities that help manage stress include meditation, exercise, yoga, and starting a hobby you enjoy.
You can never supplement yourself to good health, but it is often necessary to add a few good-quality supplements to your daily regimen to help ensure your immune system is operating at an optimal level.
Optimizing vitamin D levels reduces the chance of developing an autoimmune disease and improves your immune system. The optimal level is 50-80 ng/mL of 25-OH-vitamin D. In most people, this can be achieved with a supplement dose of 2000-5000IU per day. Sometimes it may require a higher dose for a short period of time.
One study showed that taking 1000-2000mg of vitamin C per day reduced the duration of a cold by 8% in adults and 14% in children.
One review showed that supplementing with 75mg of zinc per day in patients with a cold resulted in a 33% reduction in the duration of the cold. Zinc works by helping prevent viruses from entering the cells of the body. A typical daily dose is 30-60mg but more can be taken during an acute infection.
A meta-analysis showed that elderberry significantly reduced the symptoms during an upper respiratory infection. Typical doses are 1 TBSP 3-4 times per day of syrup or one 175mg lozenge twice daily.
This study showed that supplementing with garlic reduced the incidence of the common cold by about 30%.
Probiotic supplements boost our immune response and reduce the amount of viral shedding.
Not only does melatonin play a role in our sleep and circadian rhythm, it helps to regulate our immune system and has antioxidant functions. A typical dose is 1-5mg taken an hour before bedtime.
Omega 3 fatty acids boost our immune system in several ways. A typical dose is 1000-2000mg daily.
If you are taking several prescription or over the counter medications, talk to your medical provider to see if it is possible to reduce or eliminate as many of them as you can. Each could potentially be affecting your microbiome as we discussed earlier.
If you want to have a laugh with a friend or family member, refer them to this article!
The Center for Functional Medicine was started for precisely this sort of topic. We are designed to identify what issues are impairing your immune system, and help you design a program to improve your health.
If you are interested in talking to us about your health and improving your immune system, you can go to our website (www.cfmamarillo.com) or call us at 806-350-7807.
Dr. Whelchel is a family physician who specializes in functional medicine, especially hormone optimization. He has over 20 years experience in private practice managing patients with various medical issues. His passion is helping patients reach their full potential of wellness and quality of life. He grew up in the Texas Panhandle where he currently lives. He is married and has 3 awesome children.