The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines immunotherapy as the, “treatment or prevention of disease that involves the stimulation, enhancement, suppression, or desensitization of the immune system”.
The immune system has allowed humans to survive against viruses, bacterial and fungal infections, and many other types of bugs, for tens of thousands of years. Homo sapiens are the literal definition of the old adage, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, and while our immune system has evolved, it is far from perfect, and could benefit from a little help in the form of immunotherapy. Three conditions that may benefit from immunotherapy are described below are malaria and allergies.
The immune system
When the immune system encounters an intruder, it quickly rallies the resources available, in the form of white blood cells. These cells come in all different shapes and sizes and respond to certain categories of pathogens. The most familiar are the non-specific macrophages which gobble up anything that is not recognized as safe by the body, such as our own cells. Others, such as natural killer cells, are much more selective and often destroys cells infected by a virus. When they encounter a new pathogen, the body will create antibodies to that particular character. The next time they invade, these antibodies bind to the antigens presented by the intruder and signal the immune system, resulting in a faster and more powerful response.
This defense process only works when the body can see an intruder, but some pathogens have evolved to hide amongst our cells. For example, malaria, an intracellular parasite, makes use of this form of stealth. Upon infection, the parasite invades red blood cells, causes them to stick to the walls of the blood vessel, and begins to grow and proliferate as they steal nutrients. However, because they are within the red blood cell, the body fails to mount a response because it does not see the cell as compromised.
Another scenario involves allergies, exaggerated immune responses to a completely harmless allergen such as pollen. They can also be subject to immunotherapy where the goal is to train the body to recognize an allergen as harmless. Increasing doses of the allergen are injected into an individual to normalize the body’s immune reaction.
As with any drug, side effects must be taken into account. Some of these include skin reactions, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms.
So is immunotherapy good or bad?
A more appropriate approach is to weigh the costs and benefits with your primary care provider. Here are some other tips to consider:
- A shot of immunity in your diet. Mushrooms carry a variety of health benefits, with the ability to modulate the immune system being one of their most well-known functions. For example, consumption of shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) daily has been shown to improve how quickly a class of immune cells known as T-lymphocytes multiply, increases the number of some of our natural tumoricidal agents, and decreases the production of inflammatory proteins. Mushrooms are easily attained from your local grocer, so adding a few to your nightly recipe can not only improve your health, but might add some character to an otherwise everyday dish. In addition, products such as Echinaforce work to modulate and support the immune system to help prevent and relieve symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI), such as the common cold and the flu. Echinaforce products also help to support the immune system in times of stress, lack of sleep and for smokers.
- Symptomatic relief. Homeopathic products such as Allergy Relief can come in the form of a tincture, tabs, or a nasal spray. They work to remove the toxins that are preventing the optimal function of the immune system. If the immune system can perform better, then it may be able to respond to allergens more appropriately.
- It goes without saying that physical activity has numerous benefits for the body. In a review of studies looking at exercise, researchers determined that physical activity increased the number of natural killer and other immune cells present in the body, as well as specifically increasing the activity of the natural killer cells. The types of exercises conducted by patients in the study included aerobic activity, such as biking, in addition to strength and resistance training.