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Preventing Degenerative Disease

Autoimmune Diseases

Dr. Ray Strand: You've heard the saying: "One's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness." This is no truer than in the immune system. Many clinicians believe that every disease is essentially the result of a breakdown of our immune system. But in the bizarre case of autoimmune disease, the immune system actually becomes the body's worst enemy itself by attacking normal cells and tissue. If it attacks the joint space, we call it rheumatoid arthritis, if it attacks our bowels, we call it Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis; if it attacks the myelin sheath of our nerves, we call it multiple sclerosis; and when it attacks the connective tissue of our body, we call it lupus or scleroderma.

Why and how does this happen? I learned in medical school that autoimmune diseases were the result of an "overactive" immune system that begins attacking "self" instead of "non-self." But it made more sense to me that in the case of autoimmune disease, the immune system, rather than being overactive, had instead become confused and was now attacking the body rather than foreign invaders as it was designed to do.

In a recent review article on autoimmune diseases reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors pointed out that no one really knows for certain why the immune system literally turns on "self." But many researchers not only believe that oxidative stress is the underlying cause of every autoimmune disease, but that it also could be the culprit that causes our immune system to actually attack us.11

Several studies have documented the fact that the root cause of autoimmune diseases is oxidative stress.12 As you may anticipate, the antioxidant levels in persons with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, MS, Crohn's, and scleroderma are significantly decreased. Low antioxidant levels have also been shown to increase one's risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. The clinical indicators of oxidative stress are also very high in these patients, especially during a flare-up period of these diseases.13

Antioxidant supplementation would therefore be ideal for patients with these autoimmune diseases. Not only can antioxidant supplements optimize the natural antioxidant defense system, but they also can enhance our immune system and help control the inflammatory response. In other words they can help bring oxidative stress back under control and circumvent this entire vicious cycle.

The Immune System: Our Great Protector

Our immune system guards us against viruses, bacteria, fungi, foreign proteins, and abnormal cancer cells. It is a sophisticated interplay of many different kinds of immune cells. Even though the scope of this book does not allow me to go into much detail about the intricate workings of the immune system, I still believe it is important for you to know who the basic players are. Here is a brief job description of each.

The different Players in Our Immune System

Macrophages (or phagocytes) are the Pac-Manlike white cells that are the first line of defense. They can quickly attack any foreign invader (virus, bacteria) and actually gobble it up, But sometimes macrophages are not sure if they have attached themselves to a foreign invader or not. They definitely do not want to destroy something that is part of the body (as in Mark's case). This is when they call for help from the T-helper cells.

T helper cells are from a group of white cells called the lymphocytes A T-helper cell comes along and attaches itself to the macrophage and tries to help it deter mine if the particle the macrophage has in its grasp is friend or foe. If the T-helper cell determines that it is an enemy, it will secrete hormones called cytokines (they stimulate the inflammatory reaction), which literally signal the immune system to kick itself into high gear. This stimulates the B cells into action and attracts more macrophages and T-helper cells to come to the rescue.

B-cells have the ability to shoot down the intruder with enzymes that destroy it by creating oxidative stress. Some of the B-cells will return to the lymph nodes to create antibodies against these intruders. If this intruder ever shows up again, our immune system is ready for it because of these antibodies.

Natural killer cells can destroy anything in their path. They flood infected cells with toxins and destructive enzymes, which effectively destroys all foreign invaders or cells that are growing abnormally, such as cancer cells.

T-suppressor cells are the riot police that come along after the foreign invader has been destroyed and tries to calm down this tremendous immure response. They are critical for the control of collateral damage. If this highly reactive response goes unchecked~ tremendous damage to the surrounding normal tissue could occur. This is what makes the inflammatory response so dangerous. Though it is absolutely necessary to control potential infectious intruders, if the inflammatory response gets out of control, it can cause great harm.

You have already learned that nutritional supplements can significantly enhance the body's natural antioxidant defense. In this chapter you will also begin to realize that these same nutritional supplements can significantly enhance our body's own immune system. Dr. Karlheinz Schmidt stated, "The optimal function of the host defense system depends upon an adequate supply of antioxidant micronutrients."' It only makes common sense that if our immune system is going to be able to protect us as God intended, we need to have all the nutrients present at optimal levels.

Nutrients and Our immune System

Vitamin E

Macrophages that are deficient in vitamin E release more free radicals and do not live as long. Our immune system uses this production of free radicals to destroy these foreign invaders by actually creating oxidative stress. This is the "good" side of oxidative stress as long as it remains under control. Vitamin E deficiency also affects the differentiation of our T-cells in the thymus; this leads to an imbalance of T-helper to T-suppressor cells. The poor production of T-suppressor cells is one of the main reasons that the inflammatory response can get out of hand. Remember that the T-suppressor cells are the riot police that are essential to cooling the immune reaction and so limit collateral damage. Some researchers believe that poor T-suppressor cell function is at the heart of the autoimmune response.7

Studies show that supplementation with vitamin E corrects these deficiencies in our immune system and helps clear infections. Clinical studies have also demonstrated that the immune-enhancing effect of vitamin E supplementation was even greater in the elderly and in individuals who had malabsorption syndromes.3 Mark's disease, for instance, involved both the small bowel and colon, which essentially created a malabsorption of these nutrients. Vitamin E supplementation can also protect against the immunosuppressive effects of cortisol, which is released in great quantities during a stress reaction.


A well-known property of the carotenoids is the fact that they are capable of protecting the surrounding normal tissue from potential damage created by the inflammatory response of the immune system. Supplementation of the carotenoids can increase the number and effectiveness of the T-helper cells and the natural killer cells, which, as you have already learned, constitutes an important part of our defense system against cancer cells. This greatly improves the tumor surveillance of our immune system.

Vitamin C

Dr. Linus Pauling has been influential in making everyone aware of the importance of supplemental vitamin C and its ability to enhance the immune system. Although we are still arguing whether massive doses of vitamin C are helpful for the common cold, the enhancing eff'ects on the immune system

are fairly well established. Vitamin C has been shown to improve the function of the macrophages.~ This significantly improves the first line of defense against bacterial infections.

It is wiser to take good doses of vitamin C daily rather than massive doses only when you think you are coming down with an infection. In one study those taking 1 g of vitamin C daily for more than two months showed a striking enhancement of several aspects of the immune system. Vitamin C also has the ability to regenerate vitamin E and handle the excessive free radicals within the plasma. Both of these properties further enhance vitamin C's ability to improve the immune system.


Supplementation with the precursors of glutathione (N-acetyl-L-cysteine, selenium, niacin, and vitamin B2) have shown significant enhancement to the overall immune system. Even patients with HIV infections have experienced this positive eff'ect.5

Coenzyme Q10

As we age, CoQ10 levels decline and make the mitochondria (the furnace of the cell) especially vulnerable to oxidative damage. CoQ10 is critical for the optimal function of the immune system because of its major role in the production of energy in the cells of the immune system. Supplementation of CoQ10 has been shown to reverse these problems and significantly enhance the immune system.'


Just about every aspect of our immune system needs zinc. A deficiency actually suppresses several parts of the immune system: the number lymphocytes decreases, the function of many white cells is severely reduced, and levels of thymic hormone, which is a strong stimulus of the immune system, fall.

Many people reach for their zinc lozenges whenever they get a cold. Studies have shown that taking these lozenges every two hours can shorten the length of a cold by several days. Researchers believe that zinc not only boosts the immune system but also inhibits the replication of the virus.7 But a word of caution is necessary here: if a person consumes a high dose of zinc for too long, it can actually suppress the immune system. I am not against short-term use of high doses of zinc or even vitamin C with colds; but I believe consistent long-term use of optimal doses of these nutrients in supplementation is better for the antioxidant defense system and the immune system.

When all of the players of our immune system are functioning at their peak capacity, our overall health is obviously the beneficiary. Children are able to optimize their immune system via nutritional supplementation within six months. Aging is generally associated with an impairment of our immune responses, which leads to increased frequency and severity of infections. In fact infections (especially of the respiratory tract) are the fourth most common cause of death in the elderly.8

The British Lancet recently reported a study in which elderly patients received either optimal levels of nutritional supplements or a placebo. Those patients who received the nutritional supplements had significant improvements of their overall immune response and enjoyed fewer and less severe infections compared to those who received the placebo. It took at least a year of supplementation to optimize their immune systems, but in the end the benefits were dramatic.9 This study, along with several others, confirms the fact that our immune system is extremely dependent on these micronutrients, as is our antioxidant defense system.

The Inflammatory Response

You have seen throughout this discussion that inflammation is a serious foe. You understand that heart disease is really an inflammatory disease and not a disease of cholesterol. Mark's devastating problems were all the results of inflammation of the bowel. In Chapter 1 l you will read that millions of us are developing arthritis because of increased inflammation in our joints. And the underlying cause of asthma is essentially inflammation.

Simply put, most of us just have too much inflammation in our bodies. We need to bring this excessive inflammation back into balance, and nutritional supplements are the key

The inflammatory response is the result of a complicated chain of events involving the immune response, which releases tremendous amounts of free radicals, caustic enzymes, and inflammatory cytokines. We have looked at the basic immune response, but we now need to look at how to handle the prolonged inflammatory (chronic inflammation) response that these cytokines create.

Antioxidant supplements are our best tool. They improve our immune system, they help control the inflammatory response, and they build up our antioxidant defense, which in turn protects our normal cells from inflammation's destruction. But there is another important aspect of this inflammatory response we need to look into: our bodies' natural anti-inflammatory system. That's right. Has it ever crossed your mind as you reach for the bottle of Advil that your body makes its own anti-inflammatory products?

Let's take a look at what those products are.

Essential Fatty Acids

Not all fats are bad. In fact an essential fat is just that-essential to the body. The body cannot manufacture these fats and therefore must get them from food. The body uses fats for the production of healthy cell membranes as well as certain hormones called prostaglandins. The two most important essential fatty acids are omega-3 fatty acids, called alpha-linoleic acid, and omega-6 fatty acids, called just linoleic acid. Our bodies turn omega-3 fatty acids into prostaglandins that are primarily anti-inflammatories. Omega-6 fatty acids become prostaglandins that are primarily inflammatories.

The generally accepted optimal ratio of dietary intake of omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids is 4:1. This means we should take in four times as much of omega-6 as we do omega-3.

Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in the western diet; they are in our meats, dairy products, and processed foods. We get omega-3 fatty acids from vegetable oils such as flaxseed, canola, pumpkin, and soybean oil. These fats are also found in such cold-water fish as mackerel, sardines, salmon, and tuna. As you might guess, the average American consumes a few more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s-a lot more, in fact. On average we consume a ratio of 20:1 or even 40:1 of these fats in our diet!

This results in our bodies producing significantly more inflammatory products than anti-inflammatory products. Our bodies are simply too inflamed. The imbalance in the consumption of these essential fatty acids is the main reason for the imbalance in our body's production of these hormones. That is why many individuals in the industrialized world need tc take flaxseed oil and fish oil in supplementation in an attempt to bring these back into balance.

Here is another unknown fact: essential fats also have the ability to actually decrease our total cholesterol levels and our LDL (bad) cholesterol levels This means that not all fats are created equal. I not only encourage my patients to supplement the omega 3 fatty acids but also to decrease their intake of saturated fat. When you combine these two efforts, the inflammation in the body readily comes back under control and your cholesterol levels improve.

Several studies have shown significant clinical improvements in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and almost any disease that involves inflammation when they consume these important essential fats in supplementation."~ This is a very important aspect of maintaining your health or redeeming your health if you have already lost it.

We have looked at various aspects of our immune system and how it is supposed to work. We have also looked at the problem when this normal inflammatory response gets carried away. But now we need to look at the very worst scenario-what happens when our immune system mounts a mutiny and actually starts to attack our own body.

"What Your Doctor Doesn't Know About Nutritional Medicine May Be Killing You."
Dr. Ray Strand