immune health study


In this post, I detail key factors involved in the immune system. For ease of reference, the details in this post are separated into 2 parts (click on a line below to scroll directly down in this post)

Part 1: How to look after and enhance your immune health

Key factors that influence immune health
Dietary and lifestyle factors that influence proper immune function
Nutrients that support immune health
Herbs and botanical adaptogens
Other Nutritional aids for Immune health

Part 2: Full details about the immune system

Functions of the immune system
The two major systems within the immune system
Organs and glands that make up the immune system
Actions of white blood cells
Inflammatory response
Immune response

Core advice for enhancing your immune system

Click on the lines below to scroll directly down to find core advice


Key factors that influence immune health

The key to safeguarding the health of your immune system is to address where are occurring. Imbalances in key body systems such as hormone, digestion and detoxification interact and determining your immune health. The expression of those imbalances are like the branches on the tree below – where roots causes and body system imbalances (ie the Pillars of Health) become evident in disease.  


This approach to health I explain in more detail in my post on the Functional Medicine model of health. A core and key benefit of this approach is using it to uncovering those root issues determining the health of your immune system – in other words, the factors suppressing your immune system.

Immune System Suppressors

Immune system suppressors disrupt the functional harmony of the systems in your body and predispose it to infection, cancer and diseases. These suppressors include:

  • imbalances in lifestyle and hormones
  • emotional / psychological factors that include overwork, multiple stress, poor quality diet, lack of sleep and lack of exercise
  • core factors that leave your body more vulnerable to attack and with a reduced ability to defend itself

Put simply, these factors and imbalances lead to immune weakness by depleting your body of energy and vitality as well as using up key nutrients needed for proper immune function. And they include the following :

  • Ageing
  • Hormones imbalances such as excess cortisone, adrenaline or insulin
  • Lack of proper rest and sleep
  • Stress responses to your life circumstances (eg work, social, financial)
  • Medical intervention, Pharmaceutical use and Drugs
  • Allergies and Chemicals in the diet and environment
  • Improper Diet and food intake
  • Improper exercise

Stress and immunity

  • Stress responses are mediated by perception and emotional and psychological factors that include traumatic experiences and mood habits, such as intense anger, low esteem, persistent depression, loneliness, etc
  • Stress stimulates Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
  • Stress hormones adrenaline and corticosteroids (eg cortisol)
    • inhibit white blood cell formation and function
    • cause thymus gland to shrink
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) enhances immune function
    • PNS dominates during rest, relaxation, visualization, meditation and sleep
    • Potent immune-enhancing compounds are released during deep sleep

Medical intervention, Pharmaceutical use and Drugs

  • Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and some antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and steroid medications have direct immuno-suppressive effect or have side effects that are negative in terms of cellular, organ and body system function
  • illegal and legal drugs (such as alcohol and nicotine) have direct negative effects on both organ, cellular and body system function

Infections, Allergies and Chemical and Pharmaceutical use

  • Infections put pressure on and deplete the immune system
    • recent as well as chronic and persistent infections lead to both immunodeficiency and the triggering of allergies and auto-immune disease
  • Drug, Pharmaceutical Use and Chemicals in the diet and environment lead to
    • direct damage on body cells and function (eg the liver)
    • toxic overload and impairment of liver break these chemicals down and excrete them
    • continued circulation, exposure and damage caused by these chemicals to your body
    • poor immune function and a triggering of food intolerances and increased allergy reactions
  • Food allergies lead to immunodeficiency
    • increased allergenic compounds stimulate White Blood Cell proliferation in the membrane and lining of GI tract that release inflammatory compounds
    • allergenic compounds combined with inflammatory compounds cause the GI tract to become more permeable
    • increased GI permeability prompt an upward spiral in immune activity leading to decreased nutrient absorption and decreased immune function
    • decreased immune function is a trigger for increased allergies and auto-immune disease
  • The biggest source of allergens are from dietary sources such as milk, dairy, wheat, gluten, corn, citrus, nuts, eggs, processed food and food additives


  • Excess iron
  • Allergy foods
  • Inflammatory foods
  • Overeating, Sugar and Dietary Fat (ie High saturated and Poly Unsaturated vegetable fat intake)
  • Malnutrition and deficiencies in Vitamins A, C, E, B5, B6, B12, Folic acid, Zinc, Selenium, Essential Omega 3 Oils, Protein


Dietary and lifestyle factors that enhance proper immune function 



  • Exercise and the lymph system
  • Exercise stimulates the lymph system and metabolic rate and is important for proper circulation of both nutrients and lymph fluid
    • The lymphatic system functions as secondary circulation system and is a network of vessels that plays a major role in the immune system
    • The lymphatic system is the primary site for cells relating to adaptive immune system including T-cells and B-cells, the production of antibodies and the recruitment of other immunological cells such as macrophages. It also contains waste products of cellular activity and lymphs drain into the blood just below neck
    • The lymphatic system depends upon on breathing and muscular contraction to pump lymph fluids around the body – body movement and deep breathing with diaphragm speed up rate of circulation and lymph node filtration
  • Light to moderate exercise is best for immune system health (eg Tai Chi, Yoga)
    • The key is to adapt your exercise to what your body needs and balance Yin exercises (eg Tai Chi and Yoga) with Yang exercises (eg strenuous cardio-vascular and/or weight training)

Most importantly, body energy mobilised during light or moderate exercise, can transform our immune health. For more details, see my post exercise and how energy flows

  • Note that:
    • Excessive exercise (leading to exhaustion) depresses the immune system for hours after exertion leading increased risk of infection – so exercise within your limitations and feel comfortable
    • Exercise increases ROS (ie free radical) production – so ensure you have sufficient anti-oxidants intake (see below for more details about anti-oxidants)


Meditation and Laughter

  • Meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis, relaxation and a positive mental attitude all promote immune function
  • Laughter: positive emotions enhance immune system
    • Learn to laugh alot and inject humour
    • Read and watch funny things – preferably with someone else
    • Play (eg with children or be childish)
    • Find humour in situations and enjoy laughing immediately

Adequate restful sleep

Social interaction and involvement


Whole food diet rich in plant foods

  • This is the best diet for providing key immune-supportive anti-oxidants and vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients such as
    • Bioflavonoids:
      • Phytonutrients that have a synergistic effect which potentiates anti-inflammatory properties and improves cellular defence against microbes
      • EG Bioflavonoid Quercetin found to function as an immune supporter and anti-histamine
      • Bioflavonoid deficiency leads to decreased phagoctyte function, reduced cellular protection and slow wound healing
    • Carotenes
    • Anti-oxidant protection of thymus gland
    • Enhance immune function

Decrease sugar

  • Sugar reduces neutrophil activity (neutrophils engulf bacteria)

Decrease saturated fat

  • Saturated fat suppresses immunity


Sufficient but not excessive protein

  • Protein and amino acids form immune tissues and antibodies
  • Combine your intake with key vitamins and minerals required for protein production in the body: B6, B5, Folic acid, Magnesium, Zinc
  • Protein is needed for
    • Making White Blood Cells (WBC), antibodies and chemical messengers such as antiviral interferon
      • interferon is produced by T lymphocytes and macrophages
      • interferon is also released by virus infected cells in order to protect uninfected cells from viral takeover and mobilize the immune system
    • Glutathione production:
      • Glutathione is abundant in WBCs
      • Elevated glutathione levels enhances immune function
  • Key amino acids
    • L-Arginine stimulates thymus activity aswell as the number and activity of T lymphoctytes
    • L-Glutamine boosts immune function and helps fight infection in endurance athletes and critically ill patients

Water is necessary to flush out impurities and clear out toxins

Fiber is necessary clear out toxins

Essential Fatty Acids:

  • GLA – increase anti-inflammatory prostaglandin E1 (PGE1)
  • EPA – slightly reduce immunity (eg use excess immune response), decrease PGE2  involved in inflammatory, irritating, and false / unnecessary immune responses


Nutrients that support immune health

  • If you are ill or above the age of 65 – consider taking a high potency, high quality vitamin and mineral supplement
  • For younger people, a whole foods diet will provide the majority of nutrients you need
  • Overall, ensure you get enough of the following nutrients and consider buying high quality individual supplements to boost your intake as needed

The most critical immune supporting nutrients – Vitamins A, C, E, D and Mineral Zinc

Vitamin A

  • Needed for cells of skin and mucous membranes (first line of defence)
  • Needed for white blood cells function
  • Enhances immune system activity, including thymus function, antibody response and tumor-fighting activity
  • Needed especially for fighting viruses and reverses immune suppression resulting from high glutocorticoids levels (stress), severe burns and surgery

Vitamin C: the most important anti-oxidant nutrient

  • Turns on WBCs to attack antigens
  • Boosts interferon levels, antibody levels, response and secretion of hormones from thymus
  • Secreted during stress and used up during infection
  • Helps in antibody responses and White Blood Cell functions
  • Increases production of antiviral and anticancer immune compound interferon
  • Increased intake of Vitamin C is needed when dealing with infections and in particular viral infections, colds, progressive disease, stress or undergoing surgery which all use up and decrease levels of this vital immune supportive vitamin

Vitamin E

  • Encourages WBC proliferation and improves antibody formation
  • Can boost immune response
  • In excess can inhibit immune response – thus can used to treat autoimmune disorders (RA, lupus, multiple sclerosis

Vitamin D

  • Important for improved resistance and healthy immune function against diseases and helping to reduce your likelihood of developing viral infections like the flu, according to 2010 research


  • Acts against viruses, especially common cold: reduces ability of viruses to reproduce and boosts other aspects of immune function
  • Deficiency causes decline in T cells levels, Thymus hormone levels, enzyme production and activity, specific WBC functions
  • Needed for proper absorption of nutrients
  • Sorbitol, mannitol and citric acid bind with zinc and reduce its effectiveness
  • Excess can lower immune function

Additional vital nutrients – B-Vitamins, Copper, Iron, Iodine Selenium


  • Required for forming anti-bodies
  • Essential for normal cell division needed in manufacture of new WBCs
  • B6 the most important B vitamin: aids immunity and antibody formation
    • Deficiency leads to lessened cellular immunity, slow energy metabolism
  • B12 directly stimulates immune function
    • Deficiency leads to decreased lymphocyte proliferation and bacteriocidal activity by PolyMorphoNuclear leukocytes (ie PMNs or neutrophils)
  • B5 helps combat stress
    • Deficiencyleads to lowered humoral imunit and increased irritation of stress
  • B1, B2, B3 overall immune support and antibody production
  • Folic acid is necessary for normal cellular function
    • Deficiency leads to reduced Red Blood Cell production and increased risk of cancer


  • Improves resistance to infection
  • Excess intake needs to be balanced with Zinc intake
  • Deficiency leads to lowered resistance to infection

Iodine is required in neutrophil activity


  • Improves resistance against infections by increasing cellular metabolic efficiency and immune activity. Its also supports lymphocytes and neutrophils (phagocytes) and can improve bacterial killing
  • Excess enhances microbial growth, reduces phagocyte activity and is immunosuppressive (ie increases oxidation)
  • Deficiency leads to decreased cellular immunity and neutrophil activity


  • Antioxidant protection of thymus gland
  • Deficiency reduces levels of cellular and humoral immunity, lowers antibody levels
  • Works in part by promoting WBC production of interleukin-2 that causes WBC proliferation and attack of antigens

Key nutrient Combinations:

Vitamin A and Zinc

  • Needed for: cellular immunity, increasing T cell activity, increasing function of phagocytic White Blood Cells and tissue healing
  • Beta-carotene (Vitamin A precursor) aids in wound healing and protection against carcinogenesis
  • Deficiency in Vitamin A leads to reduced cellular immunity, slow wound healing, increased infection rate and lowered IgA levels (leading to lowered defence of mucous membranes eg GI tract)
  • Deficiency in Zinc leads to increased infection rates, slower wound healing, decreased T and B cell function and decreased thymus gland hormones

Vitamin E and Selenium

  • Needed to stimulate antibody production and strengthen cellular immunity as well as for tissue healing
  • Deficiency in Vitamin E leads to decreased antibiody production and response
  • Deficiency in Selenium leads to increased cellular carcinogenesis
  • Deficiency in both Vitamin E and Selenium leads to lowered cell membrane integrity and lowered antibody response

Vitamins A, C and Zinc together:

  • Activates thymus gland
  • Increases production of thymosin (thymus hormone that programs T lymphocytes)
  • Improves T cell and Natural Killer cell numbers and activity
  • Useful in treating immune suppression and protection from colds, flu and viral infections


  • Vitamins C and E, Zinc, Copper, Manganese enhance superoxide dismutase enzymes that reduce superoxide (ie free-radical) activity
  • Selenium supports production glutathione peroxidiase enzyme which stimulates immune response, protects against toxins and counteracts peroxides (ie free-radicals)
  • Vitamin B2 assists in maintaining electron balance and avoids ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species or free-radical) formation
  • Sulfur containing L-cysteine and methionine are ROS trappers
  • Amino acid L-Carnithine increases utilization of fats in ATP energy production, prevents oxidation and ROS formation. Note that L-Carnithine is synthesized from amino acid lysine, a process that needs Vitamin C


Herbs and botanical adaptogens

  • These powerful plants stimulate the immune system during infection and cure chronic infection. They also bring immune system back to normal after infection and when you may be suffering from immune suppression (eg stress)


The following are the most potent immune enhancing herbs and botanicals and should only be used for short periods (up to 2 months maximum) 

  • Reishi Mushroom
    • The most important effect of the reishi mushroom is that it can boost your immune system (see this study) to treat viral infections
    • Traditionally it is used to treat a depleted immune system and to nourish it back to full health
    • Reishi acts by affecting the genes in white blood cells, which are critical parts of your immune system. In addition, these studies have found that some forms of reishi may alter inflammation pathways in white blood cells. And this study has shown that that molecules found in the mushroom can increase the activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells whilst this study found that reishi can increase the number of other white blood cells (lymphocytes) and these studies (12) found the fungus improved lymphocyte function
  • Echinacea is effective against infection and providing proven treatment in:
    • Prevention and therapeutic treatment of viral respiratory tract infections
    • Treatment of temporary immunodeficiency and increased susceptibility to infections – eg adults experiencing immunodeficiency due to advanced age, undue stress or excess sports as well as children in day care or nurseries
    • Adjunct therapy to enhance effectiveness of anti-biotics in bacterial infections, chemotherapy and radiation induced immunosuppression, and Herpes infections
  • Astralagus
    • Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat viral infections
    • Enhances immune system and prevents viral, bacterial infection
    • Treats common cold by reducing duration and severity of symptoms
    • Stimulates all aspects of immune function, especially cell-mediated immunity
    • Treats chemical and radiation (eg chemotherapy) damage to immune system
    • Strengthens and heals lungs
    • Important note: do not take during acute infection or during cold or flu

The following herbs can be used for any duration

Siberian ginseng – eleuthero

  • Strengthens immune system and regular use prevents colds and infections
  • Reverses bone marrow suppression and decreased white blood cell count in patients undergoing cancer therapy
  • Enhances athletic performance – increases endurance, enhances mitochondrial activity, speeds recovery and prevents immune suppression from excessive training

Prince Seng

  • Treats frequent colds and lung infections
  • Enhances immune reservoir (in combination with reishi, schisandra, dang shen, jiaogulan or eleuththero) and has broad non-specific ability to promote immune system competence

Shiitake mushroom

  • Stimulates natural killer cell activity to combat common infections such as colds
  • Builds resistance to viruses and other diseases and is immune boosting, assisting to fight infection and disease

Schisandra berry

  • Adaptogen with dual effect of nervous system – stimulating to enhance reflexes, work performance and mental activity as well as calming, reducing stress and anxiety and preventing stress induced immune depletion
  • Enhances endocrine and endocrine-mediated immune functions that are affected by stress, anxiety, anger, depression and fear
  • Note that schisandra berry should not be taken with acute viral or bacterial infections (eg colds, influenza, bronchitis, pneumonia

Jiaogulan (gynostemma)

  • Enhances immune system function and reverses / prevents immunosuppression
  • Antioxidant: enhancementment of Super Oxidase Dismutase (SOD)

He shou wu

  • Immune enhancing – enhances T lymphocytes and macrophage activity


  • Improves immunity
  • Tones liver and helps clear wastes
  • Antimicrobial activity

Licorice root

  • Improves interferon production
  • Supports energy and adrenal balance


Other Nutritional aids for Immune health:

Garlic is antibiotic, anti-microbial and has immune enhancing properties

Raw honey has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial qualities

Thymus gland support – the Thymus gland governs T cell programming

  • poor nutrition, disease, stress and exposure to toxins all damage the thymus, causing it to shrink
  • Prevent shrinkage by providing anti-oxidants:
    • Betacarotenes (ie Vitamin A), Vitamins C and E, Selenium, Zinc
  • Consider supplementing with calf thymus extracts
    • Polypeptide content important: should be 500 to 750mg
    • Improves and treats low immune function due to allergies, recurrent respiratory infections, lowered immune function (due to chemicals, chemotherapy or radiation), hepatitis, HIV, acute and chronic viral infection, low or high rates of helper to suppressor T cells, impaired cell mediated immunity

Functions of the immune system

  • Interacts with internal environment, protect us from our external environment, distinguish between friend and foe
  • Is influenced by genetics, but not determined by it (ie phenotype vs genotype)
  • Proven links between psychology and the nervous and immune system: Psychoneuroimmunology
  • May become overactive (eg auto-immune disorders, allergies) or underactive
  • Is linked to liver function as liver helps to detoxify many substances in the body that could be taxing to the immune system

The two major systems within the immune system that regulate immune responses

Nonspecific Immune Defence

  • Not mediated by antigen stimuli
  • Provides physical and chemical barrier to invasion / first line of defence
  • Skin, mucuous membranes, mucus, stomach acid, neutrophils

Adaptive Immune Defense

  • Antigen specific as well as mediated by antigen proteins and sugars
  • Macrophages, T-cells, Natural Killer cells, B cells, plasma cells, antibodies, complement, interferon


Organs and glands that make up the immune system and their function

Principal organs

  • Bones: white blood cell production
  • Thymus gland: T cell programming; poor nutrition, disease, stress, exposure to toxins damages thymus, causing it to shrink; slow rate of shrinking with anti-oxidants – beta-carotene, Vit C and E, Selenium, Zinc
  • Lymphatic system: functions as secondary circulation system and is a network of vessels that collect fluid found in spaces between cells; primarily contains waste products of cellular activity; lymph fluid travels through nodes that filter lymph to remove impurities; nodes contain macrophages; during infection, nodes swell due to increased macrophage activity and foreign substance trapping function (ie swollen “gland”); lymphs drain into blood just below neck; depends on breathing and muscular contraction to pump lymph around body – body movement and deep breathing with diaphragm speed up rate of circulation and lymph node filtration
  • Spleen: most important function is to destroy worn-out blood cells and return some of their breakdown products to the liver, destroys and removes bacteria and viruses, filters out old cells (ie red blood cells) and debris in blood, is blood reservoir, produces compounds that enhance immune system activity, produces some white blood cells
  • Tonsils: trap bacteria that enter via nose and throat, immune cells destroy bacteria and become important memory cells in immune response
  • Peyer’s patches: in wall of small intestine. Macrophages there capture and destroy bacteria in intestine, preventing them from penetrating intestinal wall

White blood cells:

Leukocytes or WBCs (White Blood Cells) – 4000 to 11,000 in blood / mm3

  • Lymphocytes – 3000 to 7000 / mm3, 40 to 70% of WBCs; reside primarily in lymphatic tissue and function in the adaptive immune system response as B cells (antibodies) or T cells (involved in fighting tumors and viruses via direct attack); or as NK (Natural Killer) cells.
  • Neutrophils –  1500 to 3000 / mm3, 20 to 45% of WBCs; function as active phagocytes, neutrophil numbers increase rapidly during infection, particularly bacterial and fungal infection
  • Eosinophils – 100 to 300 / mm3, 1 to 4% of WBCs; function is to kill parasitic worms (by deluging them with digestive enzymes) – number increases rapidly during allergies and infection by parasitic worms ingested in food (eg raw fish) or entering via skin; might phagocytise antigen-antibody complexes and inactivate some inflammatory compounds
  • Basophils – 20 to 50 / mm3, 0 to 1% of WBCs; contain Histamine (inflammatory chemical that makes blood vessels leaky and attracts other WBCs to inflammatory site); function to release Histamine (vasodilator chemical) at sites of inflammation; contains heparin, an anticoagulant

NK (Natural Killer) Cells: can lyse and kill cancer and virus infected body cells

  • Can act spontaneously against any target cell (by recognizing certain sugars, or their lack, on target cell surface)
  • Do not need specific target cells (unlike adaptive immune response cells like T or B cells)
  • Are not phagocytic. They attack the target cell’s membrane and release lytic chemical called perforins. Shortly thereafter, the target cell’s membrane and nucleus to disintegrate
  • Kill by secreting a phospholipase enzyme, which dissolves the lipid protection of cells containing viruses or other germs. The NK cells may also release interleukins, such as interleukin 2 (IL2), which act as mediators in T lymphocyte functions and proliferation as well as other function
  • Zinc may help in the production and function of NK cells as well as T and B cells

Monocytes – 100 to 700 / mm3, 4 to 8% of WBCs; function as active phagocytes

  • Become macrophages in tissues; involved in long terms tissue clean up; increase in number during  chronic infections such as tuberculosis

Platelets – needed for blood clotting; initiate clotting cascade by clinging to torn area; help control blood loss from broken vessels. Blood vessel wall breaking causes

  • Vascular spasms and narrowing of blood vessel
  • Collagen fibers exposed and platelets adhere to this forming plug
  • Clotting cascade inititiated
  • Tissue factor + PF3 (phospholipid) + Vit K and Calcium
  • Form fibrin clot

Some of the actions of the white blood cells

Inflammatory response (IR) – triggered by body tissue damage due to physical trauma, intense heat, irritating chemicals, infection by viruses and bacteria

Injured cells release inflammatory chemicals histamine and kinins which:

  • Cause vasodilation and leakage of vessels and capillaries (causing localised redness and edema / swelling)
  • Activate pain receptors
  • Attract phagocytes and WBCs

IR – functions to prevent spread of damaging agents, disposes of cell debris and pathogens, and sets stage for tissue repair

  • Neutrophils drawn to area by inflammatory chemicals begin clean-up by engulfing damaged or dead tissue cells and / or pathogens
  • Monocytes follow Neutrophils out of blood to area and become macrophages involved in final disposal of cell debris as inflammation subsides
  • Clotting proteins leaked from blood and activated to form fibrin wall to prevent spread of pathogens and harmful agents
  • Fibrin acts as scaffold for tissue repair


Inflammatory Response

Leukotrienes and prostaglandins (E2 series) are other chemicals that are implicated in inflammatory and allergic reactions. More of these are produced when a diet is high in arachidonic acid, mainly found in saturated animal fats

Eicosanoids – regulatory molecules made from fatty acids


  • Prostaglandins
  • Prostacyclins
  • Leukotrienes – immune system messengers used in inflammatory processes and illness
  • Thromboxanes


  • Stimulate production of steroids and other hormones
  • Regulate fluid pressure in eye, joints and blood vessels
  • Regulate response to pain, inflammation and swelling
  • Mediate immune response
  • Regulate body secretions and their viscosity
  • Dilate or constrict blood vessels
  • Direct endocrine hormones to reach target cells
  • Regulate smooth muscle and autonomic (involuntary) reflexes
  • Help in construction, fluidity and permeability of cell membranes
  • Regulate rate of cell reproduction
  • Help in transport of oxygen to tissues
  • Maintain proper kidney function and fluid balance
  • Keep saturated fats mobile in bloodstream
  • Prevent blood cells from clumping together
  • Regulate nerve transmission
  • Provide energy for heart muscle

Type of prostaglandin or eicosanoid made depends on dietary consumption of fat

PGE1 (Prostaglandin 1)– anti-inflammatory and is made from Omega 6 fat Linoleic Acid (LA)  from nuts, seeds, grains, animal products, most vegetables, fruit

  • LA needs enzymes to desaturase it to PGE1
  • LA desaturated to GLA (Gamma Linolenic Acid) and DGLA (Di-Homo-Gamma-Linolenic Acid
  • Enzyme that desaturates LA prefers to desaturate Omega 3 acids
  • Direct DGLA precursors (ie food sources rich in GLA) promote PGE1 production

PGE2 (Prostaglandin 2) – made from Arachidonic Acid  (AA) itself made from animal meats, dairy, eggs, peanuts and is:

  • Pro-inflammatory
  • Constricts blood vessels
  • Clumps platelets
  • Associated with chronic inflammation

PGE3 (Prostaglandin 3)most beneficial : Anti-inflammatory, Relaxes blood vessels, Prevents platelet clumping and is made from Omega 3 fat Alpha Linolenic Acid (Omega 3) from Flax Seed, Chia seeds, Walnuts, Soy, Dark greens

  • ALA needs enzymes to desaturase it to PGE3
  • EPA (EicosaPentraenoic Acid) and DHA (DocosaHexaenoic Acid) require less desaturation, thus are more readily available for use in making PGE3
  • EPA and DHA from cold water fish (Salmon, Cod, Tuna, Mackerel, Sardines)

The same enzymes are used in desaturating fatty acids

  • LA to GLA; LN to SDA (stearidonic acid)
  • Di-GLA to PGE1 or Arachidonic Acid (converts to PGE2 and Leukotrines); formation of EPA (converts to DHA and PGE3)
  • Enzyme that elongates DGLA in formation of AA preferred for use in Omega 3 chain that forms EPA, DHA and PGE3
  • Omega 3 consumption can act as inhibitor of AA production when ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 upregulated
  • GLA (Omega 6) food sources more readily converted to PGE1 and can inhibit conversion of DGLA to AA
  • Direct precursors to DGLA preferentially produce PGE1
  • Omega 6 inhibitors of AA are GLA sources: Borage Oil, Evening Primrose Oil, Black Currant Seed Oil

Arachidonic Acid (AA) cascade

  • Essential for forming pro-inflammatory PGE2 needed during infection and injury
  • Excess forming of PGE2 leads to chronic inflammation
  • Formed from Omega 6 fatty acids supplied in diet from polyunsaturated vegetable fats and saturated animal fats

Excess consumption of Omega 6 fatty acids leads to

  • Excess PGE2 production and chronic inflammation
  • Inhibition of enzymes needed to produce anti-inflammatory PGE3 from Omega 3
  • Same enzymes needed to produce PGE2 and PGE3
  • Enzymes can be directed or inhibited from producing either PGE2 or PGE3 through reducing availability of AA

Dietary advice:

  • Restrict sources of Omega 6 fatty acids in diet
  • Increase Omega 3 intake in order to saturate use of enzymes toward PGE3 production

Factors involved in the Inflammatory response

Cell membrane phospholipids acted on by Phospholipase A2 (PhA2) enzyme prompting

  • Release of AA and use in forming Leukotrienes and proinflammatory PGE2
  • Production and use of regulatory enzymes in AA cascade
  • PhA2 enzyme inhibited by Vit E, Quercetin, Licorice, Turmeric and Corticosteroids

Regulatory enzymes act on AA

  • CycloOxygenase (COX) 1 and 2 produce PGE2
  • COX 2 is highly inflammatory and activity poses oxidative risk (ie ROS production)
  • COX 1 and 2 inhibited by EPA, DHA, Ginger, Turmeric, Black Willow, Wintergreen, Non-steroidal drugs (NSAIDS) and Acetaminophen

LipOxygenase (LO) enzymes produce Leukotrienes

  • LO activity poses oxidative risk
  • LO inhibited by Vit E, Quercetin, EPA, Garlic, Onion, Turmeric, Boswellia, Sulfazine

Nutritional, botanical, & synthetic inhibitors of the arachidonic acid cascade.


  • Vitamin E
  • EPA
  • DHA
  • Quercetin

  • Licorice
  • Turmeric
  • Ginger
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Boswellia
  • Black willow
  • Wintergreen

  1. Aspirin
  2. Ibuprofen
  3. Sulfasalazine
  4. Indomethacin
  • Corticosteroids
  • Acetaminophen

Immune response

  • Immune response involves the adaptive body defences and is targeting to protect the body from specific antigens.
  • An antigen is a substance capable of mobilising our immune system and generally are large molecules that is recognised as being foreign to the body. The immune system has a memory provided by regular “inventories” of antigens (or self-antigens) that are recognised as being part of and friendly to the body

When an immune response is activated, the immune system:

  • Recognises and acts against specific particular pathogens of foreign substances
  • Is systemic in involving the whole body and not being restricted to the initial infection site
  • Has memory, whereby initial exposure to an antigen primes the body to react more vigorously against those same antigens when it identifies them in subsequent meetings

The adaptive immune system uses lymphocytes, macrophages and specific molecules to identify and destroy substances in the body that are not recognised as being of the body. The ability to do so depends upon its ability to recognise foreign substances (antigens) in the body by binding to them and communicating with other cells so that the system as a whole mounts a response specific to those antigens.

Lymphocytes are made in the bone marrow and develop immune-competence (the ability to recognise, react to and destroy specific antigens) either:

  • in the bone marrow, spleen, lymph nodes (and elsewhere) as B cells making and deploying anti-bodies
  • in the thymus gland as T cells
  • The programming to become immune-competent appears to be completed by genetic factors in the bone marrow and thymus gland – thus is antigen generated, but genetically determined in terms of the cells it views as targets.

Macrophages (“big eater” immune cells) are formed in the bone marrow and act as antigen presenters and pathogen / foreign cell neutralizers. They also release cytokines. Unlike lymphocytes that circulate the body, macrophages take up residence in lymphoid organs. Activated T cells release chemicals that cause macrophages to become phagocytes or killer cells that devour foreign cells.

Humoral and Cellular Immunity 

Humoral immunity

Humoral or Anti-body mediated immunity is immunity provided by anti-bodies present in the body’s humors or fluids.

  • Immature B lymphocytes develop antigen specific receptors through a binding of antigens to them, whereby they multiply, developing clones
  • In primary immune response, antigen binding occurs to receptors on specific lymphocyte B cells (that are as yet immune-incompetent and immature)
  • This binding sensitises or activates the B cell to form clones
  • This activated lymphocyte B cells then multiplies and grows rapidly to form identical copies with identical antigens specific receptors. These clones then either:
    • form plasma cells secreting antibody molecules in primary humoral response
    • form memory B cells which are capable of forming anti-body producing plasma cells (or memory cells) in response to future encounters with the same antigen / secondary immune response

Antibodies defend against extracellular pathogens by binding to antigens and making them easier targets for phagocytes and complement. They are proteins produced by B cells or by their plasma offspring in response to an antigen and are capable of binding specifically with that antigen

  • Antibodies are formed into classes by their structure that form different biological roles and reside in different locations in the body:
    • IgB antibody is the most abundant antibody
    • Only IgM and IgG can fix complement
    • IgA plays a major role in preventing pathogens gaining entry into the body
    • IgE are involved in allergies and trigger the release of histamine and other chemicals that mediate inflammation and certain allergic response (in GI tract, Respiratory tract, tonsils and skin)
  • Antibodies are released into body fluids (blood, lymph, saliva, mucus, etc) where they attach to antigens causing neutralization, precipitation or agglutination:
    • Neutralization: blocks harmful effects of exotoxins or viruses
    • Agglutination: results in cross-linking of antigens causing clumping
    • Precipitation: results in large, insoluble complexes that settle out of solution
    • These processes mark the antigens for destruction by phagocytes or complement.

Complement are groups of blood borne proteins activated after binding to antibody-covered antigens. When activated, complement causes lysis of the microorganisms (creating holes in cell surface allowing water in and resulting in cell bursting) and enhances inflammatory response. Complement also enhances phagocytosis by:

  • releasing chemicals that attract neutrophils and macrophages
  • opsonisation (releasing other chemicals that make foreign cell membranes sticky and easier to phagocytise)
  • Complement is both directed by anti-body binding and can also bind without the need for anti-body identification (to certain proteins or sugars on antigen surface.

Cellular immunity

Cellular mediated immunity involves lymphocytes acting to protect living cells. It has specific foreign target cells

  • Lymphocytes
    • lyse / destroy and disintegrate the membrane and nucleus of the foreign cells through releasing perforins
    • release chemicals that enhance the inflammatory response and activate other immune cells
  • Immature lymphocytes become active T cells of this division after receiving immune-competence in the thymus gland
    • Thymus gland acts as a harbour for these cells to multiply and grow as well as a selector in destroying those cells capable of binding with self-antigens (antigens of the body)
  • T cells, unlike B cells, cannot bind directly with antigens – the antigen must first be “presented” by macrophages (or another antigen presenting cell) to helper T cells
    • Helper T cells firstly bind with the antigen fragment presented by bearing receptors for the same antigen
    • They must also simultaneously bind with specific glycogen proteins on the macrophage surface in order to become “sensitised”
    • In doing so they become activated and release cytokines
  • Cytokins:
    • stimulate the production of other immune cells (growing and division / cloning of B cells and cytoxic T cells)
    • identify antigens to guide anti-body B cell production in acquired immune response
    • stimulate the proliferation and activity of other helper T cells
    • attract other types of protective white blood cells (eg neutrophils) into the area
    • help activate B cells
    • help activate cytotoxic T cells that specialise in killing infecting cells (eg virus-infected, cancer, and foreign graft cells).
    • enhance the ability of macrophages to engulf and destroy microorganisms (the cytokines release turn macrophages into insatiable phagophages)
  • Macrophages also release cytokines that play an important role in this process in enhancing T cell activation.

Regulatory  / Suppressor T cells release chemicals that suppress activity of both T and B cells and are vital for winding down the immune response. Most T cells die, but a few members of each clone become memory cells with immunological memory for specific antibodies

Helper T (Th): Suppressor T (Ts) ratio: monitors immune function

  • Too many regulatory T cells and not enough helper T cells often found in AIDS and means system cannot mount effective defence against infection
  • Elevated Th to Ts can indicate infection
  • too many helper and not enough regulatory cells causes immune response to be excessive (eg in allergies or auto-immune disorders like Rheumatoid arthritis or lupus)
    • Reducing any active allergic response through avoidance, desensitization, and detoxification may help to reduce the immunosuppressive effects of existing allergies

Acquired Immune response

Memory cells are responsible for immunological memory and are responsible for secondary immune response and are capable of responding quickly and efficiently to subsequent infections or meeting with the same antigens

  • Memory cells are descendants of activated T cells or B cells following an initial or primary immune response – through:
    • active immunity (long lasting)- naturally acquired via bacterial or viral infection; artificially acquired from a vaccine
    • passive immunity(rapidly degradable) – borrowed antibodies acquired from a mother to a fetus or from anti-venoms and anti-toxins in immune serum; commercially produced monoclonal antibodies (used for treating cancer for example)
  • In primary response, helper T cells identify antigens and guide B cell antibody production (antibodies produced to match specific antigen identified)
    • After an initial time lag in which plasma cells and T cells are beginning their process of replication (about a day), they multiply extremely rapidly
    • B cells begin production of antibodies (to specific antigen) and production levels rise over 3 to 5 or more days
    • However they both die rapidly: anti-body levels, for example, peak after a few days and then begin to decline rapidly.
  • In secondary response, the initial time lag for replication is less than a day and is much more intense in the numbers of immune cells produced
    • These cells also last a lot longer: antibody levels
      • For example, having reached a peak in number much quicker than in primary response, they then remain active in the blood for weeks or months after

Loss of self-tolerance and auto-immune disease

This is where the immune system losses the ability to tolerate self antigens and sensitized T cells and antibodies are produced to attack the body’s own cells. This occurs following:

  • Inefficient lymphocyte programming – self-reactive B or T cells escape and circulate
  • Appearance in the circulation of self-proteins that were not previously exposed to the immune system – due to gene mutations that change the structure of self-proteins or as a result of alterations in self-proteins by bacterial or viral damage or by hapten attachment (attachment of incomplete antigen, found and in synthetic detergents and chemicals and in natural sources such as poison ivy)
  • Cross reaction of antibodies produced against foreign antigens with self-antigens

In other cases such as with allergies, abnormally vigorous immune responses cause tissue damage. Allergies can also be as a result of acute sensitivity, whereby IgE antibodies bind to mast cells releasing a flood of histamine, causing small blood vessels to become large and dilated and leaky.

In cases where the diffusion of the antigen circulates throughout the body, prompting a response that is no longer local (instead involves the whole body), anaphylactic shock occurs and death can result

Asthma and Hay fever

  • Asthma affects bronchi of lungs causing swelling of mucous lining and excess production mucus leading to breathing difficulties
  • Hay fever involves allergenic reaction of nasal passages
    • Reduce exposure to airborne allergens
    • Identify and eliminate food allergies and synthetic additives – taxing immune system
    • Eliminate or reduce intake of animal products – saturated fat has suppressive effect on immune system whilst also enhancing inflammation and inflammatory responses
    • Eat more fish
    • Increase intake of B6, Selenium, Magnesium (eg in multi-vitamin and mineral supplement)
    • Increase intake of Vit C
    • Increase intake of bioflavonoids – from rich sources like grape seed, pine bark, green tea , gingko bilboa due to anti-oxidant protection

Autoimmune diseases – such as Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

  • Possible causes are genetic abnormalities, dietary factors, food allergies, bacterial overgrowth, leaky gut syndrome, immunisation
  • Autoimmune diseases overlap in symptoms, causes and treatment
    • EG lupus, spondylitis, scleroderma, polymyalgia rheumatic, mixed connective tissue disease all affect connective tissue (collagen structure) of bones, muscles, cartilage, tendons, internal organs
    • Treatment involves removing food allergens and lipid profile of diet (eliminating / lowering saturated fats, boosting essential fat acids)
    • Food allergies and aggressors in disease can be nightshade family foods (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers)
    • Omega 3 EFAs suppress production inflammatory compounds involved in disease (and response to allergens) – Flaxseed and fish oil needed in diet; Animal foods such as wild game (venison, elk, buffalo) and fish have good lipid profile and EFA content
    • Autoimmune disease inflammation can be caused by ROS damage necessitating Vit C, E, Vit A, Selenium, Beta-carotene
    • Bromelain, Curcumin, Ginger recommended for anti-inflammatory compounds
    • Cat’s claw helps reduce swelling in joints
    • Copper and Zinc: component of anti-oxidant superoxide dismutase that help reduce inflammation
    • DHEA depletion seen to be predisposing factor to lupus and RA – supplementation needed to prevent them, counter long term corticosteroid use and prevent bone loss (osteoporosis)

Adapted from:

Marieb, E.N. (2009). The essentials of human anatomy and physiology. Chapter 12 (pp 402 to 437) and Chapter 10 (pp 339 to 358). San Francisco, C.A.: Pearson Education

Murray, M. (2001). Total body tune-up. Chapter 5: Eat the right balance of fats (pp 177 to 184), Chapter 6 (pp 145 to 184). New York, N.Y.: Bantam Press

Murray, M. (2005). Encyclopedia of Healing Food. Pp 121 to 124; 297 to 299; 335 to 342; 611 to 615. New York, N.Y.: Atria Books

Haas, E. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Chapter 16: Immune enhancement (pp. 633 to 640). Berkeley, CA: Celestial Healing Arts.

Bland, J.S. (1999). Genetic Nutritioneering. Chapters 3 and 4 (pp 31 to 65). Los Angeles, CA: Keats Publishing

Bland, J., Costarella, L., Levin, B., Liska, D., Lukaczer, D., Schlitz, B., Schmidt, M., Lerman, R., Quinn, S., Jones, D. (2004). Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, Second Edition. Chapter 4: Fats (pp. 69 to 94), Omega 3 and Arachidonic acid cascade (pp. 74 to 78), Short and Medium Chain fatty acids (pp.87 to 91). Gig Harbor, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine.

Additional resources:

This post is sourced from my university study paper on the immune system – so more information is available here.

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