Immune System Dysfunction

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Our bodies are composed of wonderfully designed components, and to choose one system over all the others as superior is indeed difficult. However, it is hard not to be impressed with the immune system. This complex yet practical network functions to protect our bodies in numerable ways. Yet, we often take it for granted and even subject it to abuse that causes it to work less efficiently than it is supposed to. A strong, functional immune system is one of the most important keys to our overall wellness. Let’s take a look at what can happen when the immune system is not working properly, and some tips for keeping or restoring it to tip-top condition.

What is Immune System Dysfunction?

In the simplest terms, immune system dysfunction occurs anytime your body’s immune system is not working up to par. This can be the result of many factors, but to break it down, there are two major types of immune system dysfunction: primary and secondary. Primary immune system dysfunction is the result of a direct problem with the immune system, often genetic in nature. Something is inherently wrong whereby the system is unable to perform sufficiently. Secondary immune system dysfunction is the result of another issue, such as a medical condition that weakens the immune system, side effects of certain treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or simply foolish health and lifestyle choices that lead to a poorly operating immune system. A third type of immune system dysfunction is called autoimmune disease. When this occurs, not only does the immune system fail to protect you properly, but it turns on healthy tissues to boot. Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are two prime examples of autoimmune diseases.

Immune system problems go by many names. Primary immune system dysfunction is caused by one of over 100 different forms of conditions that damage the functioning of the immune system. Therefore, it is often called “primary immunodeficiency,” “primary immunodeficiency disorders,” or ” primary immune disorders.” Secondary immune system dysfunction is sometimes known as a “compromised or weakened immune system” or “low immune function.” All of these terms can get quite confusing at times, so why don’t we take a look at what this all means. Looking at each of the different types of immune system dysfunctions may help clear things up a bit.

Primary Immunodeficiency

The disorders that cause primary immunodeficiency are typically quite rare, and they are almost all inherited, genetic conditions. Most folks with a primary immune disorder are born without a complete immune system, and from birth they are more susceptible to infections than a person with a normal immune system. How common is this? Not very. It is estimated that only 25,000 to 50,000 Americans suffer from primary immunodeficiency disorders. Many of these individuals experience permanent damage to organs such as their ears or lungs, and some are thus disabled. Others have to take impeccable care to keep themselves isolated as much as possible from germs, and many struggle with opportunistic infections on an ongoing basis.

These conditions cannot be spread to others such as some “acquired” immune system disorders like HIV/AIDS. They are genetic diseases that are the result of faulty DNA. Individuals with these types of diseases are either missing parts of their immune system, or their system is complete but is not able to function as designed.

Typical symptoms of a primary immune disorder include:

  • Failure to thrive (in newborns and infants)
  • Poor thyroid function or thyroid disease
  • Frequent infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infections, and / or skin infections.
  • Poor digestive function
  • Malnutrition
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Delayed development
  • Blood disorders such as anemia or low platelet counts
  • Blood infections
  • Internal infections of organs such as the liver

If you suspect you or a loved one might have a primary immune disorder, there are some warning signs you should be aware of:

  • Multiple ear infections (8 or more) within a one year period.
  • Two or more bouts with pneumonia in a year.
  • Long-term use of antibiotics with no effect.
  • Persistent thrush in the mouth or elsewhere on the skin
  • Recurrent deep skin or internal organ infections
  • Family history of immune disorders

If you recognize a pattern that is similar to these symptoms, it is likely that you or your child may be a victim of a primary immune disorder.

Autoimmune Disease

In a nutshell, autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system malfunctions, and it attacks healthy cells and tissues as if they were invading germs and infectious agents. The components of the immune system, such as white blood cells, normally are sent out to fight germs that seek to harm the body. But, when a person has an autoimmune disease, the body turns on itself and agents of the immune system attack and damage healthy body parts. This is what causes the inflammation and pain of rheumatoid arthritis, which is one of the most common autoimmune diseases. In order to keep the immune system from causing more harm, many treatments for autoimmune diseases seek to suppress the immune system and weaken it. This opens the door to a vicious cycle because while this suppression may help the autoimmune condition, it opens up the individual to attack from legitimate infectious agents due to the overall weakening of the immune system. Thus, autoimmune diseases can be very tricky conditions to treat.

Secondary Immunodeficiency

This is probably the most widespread type of immune system dysfunction, and it is often caused by coexisting medical conditions such as diabetes or certain heart and circulatory conditions. Illnesses such as these tax the immune system, and therefore weaken the entire body’s defenses. An example of this is the difficulty many diabetes patients have with wounds healing, especially in the extremities.

Another major contributor to secondary immunodeficiency is the use of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in the treatment of cancer. Unfortunately, these “remedies” are often so toxic that while the patient may see some improvement in the cancer, the cure is worse than the cause. The immune system is already working overtime in a cancer patient, and mainstream cancer treatments are very hard on the overall health of the victim, and especially devastating to the immune system. Sometimes cancer patients die or get sicker from the treatments rather than the original illness! Something is very wrong with this picture.

While some may not agree, I believe the largest percentage of secondary immunodeficiency is the result of the poor dietary and lifestyle choices that many of us Americans consistently make. As I once heard it put, “We dig our own graves with a knife and fork.” The Standard American Diet” (SAD) leads to many illnesses, and one of the worst is an overall weakening of the immune system that only exacerbates the problem. Eating high-fat, high-sugar, and low-fiber diets produces obese, unhealthy people who worsen the process by compromising their immune systems to boot. No wonder cancer rates are so high in this country!

What Treatments Are Available for Immune System Dysfunction?

There are many potential remedies for a compromised immune system available through the mainstream medical establishment. I will not go through them all, as I would like to primarily focus on what you can do to naturally boost your immune system and keep it operating at peak efficiency. As with most wellness issues, it is not a question of how can I fix this, but rather how can I make wise choices and avoid this. However, there are a couple of treatments that I would like to mention that may provide hope for folks with primary immune disorders that they were born with:

  • Bone marrow transplants: This therapy has proved quite effective on some forms of primary immune disorders. In essence, replacing a patients bone marrow with that of a healthy donor, can literally give them a new, functional immune system. This is the theory, at least. It doesn’t always work, and a very precise match, usually from a close relative, is needed. However, in some cases, bone marrow transplants can produce life-saving results.
  • Gene therapy: This remedy is still in the experimental stages, but what is basically involved is the replacement of faulty genes with healthy ones. Researchers are still working out the bugs, but initial studies show quite a bit of promise for this treatment in the future.

If you are fortunate enough to have a complete, functioning immune system, there is much that you can do in order to improve its stamina and turn things around even if you have not taken very good care of yourself. The first step is a decision to do whatever it takes to make the necessary changes in your diet and lifestyle. Here are some tips to get you going in the right direction:

  • Learn to stay away from high-fat, sugar-laden junk foods, and fill up on whole grains, beans, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and other natural foods. The idea is to get adequate amounts of protein and fiber without resorting to animal fat, empty calories such as simple carbohydrates, and perhaps most importantly when it comes to your immune system, stay away from sugar! Studies have proven time and time again that sugar is one of the immune system’s worst enemies. Sugar directly impacts the ability of your immune system components, such as white blood cells, to effectively do their job and fight off infections.
  • Carotenes and other antioxidants are particularly good for the immune system. One of the main reasons for this is that they nourish and protect the thymus gland, which is a critical part of your immune system. Load up on dark green leafy vegetables, and any darkly colored vegetables such as tomatoes and red peppers. Veggies from the cabbage family are also high in carotene, including broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
  • Deal with your stress! One of the worst compromisers of the immune system is physical and emotional stress. You’ve got to learn how to release the stress in your life through physical exercise and mental relaxation. Try some humor. Clinical studies have shown that people who know how to laugh and have a good sense of humor have stronger immune systems and are generally more healthy.
  • Get plenty of sleep: A lack of sleep not only makes you sluggish and cranky, it can also significantly impact your immune system.

There is not greater secret to overall wellness than learning how to live in agreement with the inherent healing properties of your body, mind, and spirit. Your immune system is a great gift that has been provided to you to help you stay healthy and well. Cherish it and nurture it. If you take care of it, it will take care of you.

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