Immune Modulation - A QUESTION OF BALANCE


It used to be the case that if someone mentioned immune modulators, the market they had in mind consisted almost exclusively of cold and flu products. No longer. Today, Americans are drawn to immune enhancers for a variety of reasons. For many, such products provide a type of insurance directed toward health maintenance much as daily vitamin and mineral supplements are taken for insurance against nutritional deficiencies. For others, immune stimulants are intended to address more serious issues. In recent years, a rash of stories have made the public more aware of the drawbacks of conventional treatment with antibiotics and, more ominously, of the looming potential failure of antibiotics to provide the sort of defense against infection which has come to be expected. Whether in infection or cancer, more and more of us are looking to give more "punch" to our immune systems.


The immune system is the defensive army the body uses to protect itself against infection. It defends against the daily attacks of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. These tasks require a major commitment of the body's resources, yet the role of the immune system does not end with its defense against external invaders. The immune system also protects against the damage caused by exposure to ultra violet rays and radioactivity, removes worn out cells and scar tissue, renews the skin, and acts as an internal policeman to guard against the development of cancers. Why does one person catch a cold, but not another? What causes allergies? How does cancer develop? The immune system plays many different roles, some of which are only now being uncovered.

These facts might lead one to believe that good health depends largely upon making the immune system more active. If you want to improve your health, you need to stimulate immune function, right?


Immune Balance

Scientists now understand that the immune system can be overactive, as well as underactive, and that balance is the key. On the one hand, the immune system needs vigilante macrophages, natural killer cells and other "soldiers" to be on alert to attack invading organisms before these can take hold in the body. For instance, the cold virus is most successfully combatted if the immune system can react and eliminate it before it has had a chance to multiply. On the other hand, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases where the body attacks itself afflict millions of Americans. Immune overactivity causes unpleasant side effects, such as allergies and inflammation, and can lead to immune exhaustion and collapse, one aspect of HIV/AIDS infections. One of the most important roles of antioxidant supplementation is to control the side effects of excessive immune system activity. Several products very popular in Europe, such as extracts of butcher's broom and horse chestnut, similarly act in part by reducing the destructive side effects of immune function. The answer to maintaining health, therefore, is to balance the body's immune system so that it is neither overactive nor underactive.

Balancing the immune system, however, is a bit harder than simply stimulating it. Fortunately, there are a few supplements that do this and more. One of the most extensively tested of these supplements is called Sterinol™. Developed by Patrick Bouic, Ph.D., head of Immunology at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, Sterinol™ consists of a proprietary blend of phytonutrients called sterols and sterolins. The sterol family of compounds includes fatty substances such as beta-sitosterol found in saw palmetto. Sterolins are sterols with a glucose (sugar) molecule attached, something that greatly improves absorption into the body. Taken together, sterols and sterolins are more active than when supplemented as single pure substances.

Research into the impact of mixtures sterols and sterolins on the immune system goes back several decades. It grew out of observations made on the benefits of many items found in the diet, as well as in special herbs. Fruits and vegetables are natural sources of these compounds. The sterols and sterolins can have profound effects upon health, but typically they are removed from vegetable oils (they make the oil murky), thrown out with the water when vegetables are cooked, and destroyed by enzymes when frozen fruits and vegetables thaw. The fibers found in fruits and vegetables also bind tightly to sterols and sterolins, making them difficult to absorb from the diet.


Sterinol™ has been the subject of extensive clinical trials demonstrating that it both supports immune function and helps to reduce excessive immune activity. For instance, it is widely recognized that subjecting the body to extreme stress, such as running a marathon, dramatically reduces immune function. High intensity athletic endeavors that overtax the body make athletes more prone to infections. Therefore, one test of immune support is the ability to prevent a drop in immune function in athletes following the running of a marathon. An actual trial of the sterol/sterolin combination showed that these plant compounds not only prevented a drop in immune function, but also lowered the production of pro-inflammatory substances in the body and reduced the production of cortisol, the so-called "stress hormone."

Other clinical trials have shown that Sterinol™ is useful in the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis, helps to control rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions, benefits those with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), and may even be salutary in those who are pre-diabetic and diabetic. In other words, these plant compounds help to support a weakened immune system while acting to tone down an overactive one. Perhaps the most impressive use to date, however, is against the HIV/AIDS condition. Dr. Luc Montagnier, the man who discovered HIV, has reviewed the research on the use of sterols/sterolins in this area and concluded that they hold great promise. In HIV patients given Sterinol™, T-cell counts stop dropping, the patients gain weight, and they "exhibit a feeling of well being."

Sterinol™, of course, is not the only supplement that has been shown to balance the immune system. Moducare also contains a similar group of sterols and sterolins. Moreover, many plant extracts contain significant antioxidant components. For instance, chamomile extracts (German chamomile) are useful as antiinflammatories and calm some forms of allergies. Chamomile is particularly interesting because of its calming and immunoregulating effects, effects that complement its antioxidant benefits.

Much more significant as immunomodulators are the flower pollen extracts sold under the names Cernitin™ and Prostaphil™. Although primarily known as treatments for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), i.e., prostate enlargement, flower pollen extracts have been thoroughly studied for their anti-inflammatory properties and their abilities both to boost flagging immune functions. One of the findings of this research is that pollen extracts act as immunoregulators and can reduce immune hyperactivity.

In fact, many of the benefits found with purified sterols/sterolins much earlier were observed with these special pollen extracts. These extracts originally were used in hospitals with both the young and the old undergoing convalescence. Similarly, pollen extracts have been shown to boost athletic recovery and to protect the liver against environmental toxins. A number of products contain pollen extracts, including Jarrow Formulas Prostate Optimizer™, and can be used to improve general immune functioning, improve athletic recovery and reduce excessive inflammation as well as protect prostate health.

Another very interesting compound called Tolpa Peat Preparation (Tolpa Torf Preparation or TTP) is produced in Poland and is an extract from peat moss. A large number of clinical trials in Europe have shown that TPP is very useful in cases of respiratory tract infections, chronic bronchitis, chronic sinusitis, vaginal infections, lower leg ulcers, and even as a dentrifice or toothpaste to treat gum disease. TPP does not merely increase immune response. In some cases of immune overactivity, such as bronchial asthma, TPP has a quieting effect rather than a stimulating one. Unfortunately, the Torf Corporation of Warsaw is presently still attempting to bring its product to the United States as an FDA approved drug.

More readily available immune modulators include, perhaps surprisingly, many probiotics. Few individuals realize that probiotic organisms can stimulate immune function, and fewer still know that these special bacteria can also tone down excessive immune activity. Such benefits may help to explain why populations that regularly consume fermented foods appear to be healthier.

Finally, we should not forget what is perhaps the most famous of all immunomodulators, the reishi mushroom. Quality extracts from the right species of reishi help to alleviate allergies, reduce chronic bronchitis, inhibit the release of histamine, and aid in other immune-related sensitivities, such as rheumatism and food sensitivities. For these purposes, the extracts must be made from the mushroom itself and not from bio-mass materials, that is, not from materials grown in tanks.

Immunomodulators complement the benefits found with antioxidants, and vice versa. A wellrounded diet and supplements program should include both types of compounds. This need not be a difficult endeavor. Besides adding more fruits and vegetables to the diet, a delicious and relaxing tea can be made from chamomile. The reishi mushroom can similarly be added easily to the diet by being incorporated as a flavoring for many dishes. A daily probiotics supplement (such as Jarrow Formulas room-temperature stable Jarro-Dophilus EPS) should be on the shelf next to the multi-vitamin/mineral tablets.