By James B. LaValle, R.Ph, CCN
It’s that time of year again, when viruses and bacteria run rampant and immune boosting seems to be the watchword of the season. But before you load up your shopping cart with immune stimulating supplements, be aware that pushing your immune response into overdrive 24/7 may not be the best way to avoid getting sick. In fact, you could be getting too much of a good thing, triggering inflammation and causing your immune system to respond inappropriately.
Instead, strive to balance your immune system so that it provides the right response at the right time. Adopting a diet filled with nutrient-dense foods, incorporating physical activity into your daily life, and managing stress can all support a balanced immune response. But because life can get in the way of our best intentions, it’s also smart to add a daily dose of supplemental plant sterols and sterolins, simply known as phytosterols, to keep your immune system on an even keel.
The Power of Phytosterols
According to a 2021 study in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, these simple plant nutrients improve the balance of Th1 and Th2 cells, enhancing cellular immunity and down-regulating an overactive immune response. The study cited research that phytosterols also modulate inflammation. What’s more, phytosterols have been clinically shown to help maintain a normal ratio of the adrenal hormones cortisol and DHEA, subsequently protecting against the immune-dampening effects of stress.
Several clinical trials have found that a combination of plant sterols and sterolins provide significant benefits to those with chronic illness. During one early clinical trial in the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, 43 patients with pulmonary tuberculosis⎯an infectious bacterial disease that affects the lungs⎯were randomly divided into two groups. The first group took a proprietary blend of sterols and sterolins while the second group took a placebo. After six months, those in the treatment group showed a significant increase in T-cells and specialized immune cells called eosinophils. More recent research shows that phytosterols selectively increase levels of a specific protein called CD4 lymphocyte found on the surface of T-cells, macrophages, and other immune cells. Together, this suggests that plant sterols and sterolins can play a positive role in treating patients suffering from a compromised immune system.
But healthy people can also benefit from the immune-balancing benefits of plant sterols and sterolins. This was shown in a group of athletes gearing up for a marathon. People participating in marathons and other endurance sports typically experience a post-event dip in their immune function, due to increases in cortisol that occur with excessive physical activity. However, during the study, which appeared in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, those runners who took a pre-race course of phytosterols showed considerably less immune suppression, lower cortisol and higher DHEA than those in the placebo group. More importantly, the athletes in the phytosterol group came down with fewer upper respiratory tract infections after the race compared to their placebo-pumping counterparts.
Where can you find these immune-balancing phytosterols? In a perfect world, you could get all of the plant sterols and sterolins you needed from a diet high in fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. Unfortunately, many phytosterols are lost with food processing, and even if you eat right, the phytosterols found in food are often bound to fiber, making them difficult to absorb by the digestive tract. Adding insult to injury, sterolins—compounds that enhance the immune-enhancing properties of plant sterols—are easily destroyed when frozen or when exposed to heat. It’s also important to make sure your supplement provides the proper ratio of 100:1. Research clearly shows that this ratio exhibits the best immuno-modulatory activity. So this is a case where a phytosterol and sterolin supplement may be the only way to get the immune benefits seen in the studies. A supplement called, Moducare offers sterols/sterolins in this ratio.
When the Sniffles Do Strike
While the proper ratio of phytosterols and sterolins can support a healthy immune response, even healthy people can find themselves battling an occasional cold or a bout of the flu. The following herbs and nutrients can give you an edge over your symptoms while also arming your body with the tools it needs to get well.
Kyolic Aged Garlic Extract (AGE) been shown in clinical studies to reduce the duration of the common cold or bout with the flu by as much as 61% while also decreasing the number of symptoms by 21%. AGE can also be taken preventively. More recent data showed that a daily dose of AGE, taken for six months, increased the number of T-cells, especially NK cells.
Vitamin Csupports both the innate and adaptive immune systems. This vital nutrient is accumulated by certain immune cells called phagocytes, as well as by T-cells. Vitamin C is so effective that when Israeli doctors gave it to a group of competitive swimmers with upper respiratory infections, 47% of those taking a daily dose of C experienced less severe symptoms and a more rapid recovery than those who didn’t supplement.
Vitamin D is so important for preventing illness, that there is a receptor for this key nutrient on almost all the cells of the immune system. And yet, many people are deficient. According to researchers at Penn State University, vitamin D helps modulate both innate and adaptive immunity. Plus, it acts as an anti-inflammatory and may even help to prevent autoimmunity, which can stem from a chronically overactive immune system.
Zinchas a long been known as nutrient the body needs for immune support because it helps convert ordinary white blood cells into specialized immune cells. In 2019, Australian researchers noted that this essential trace mineral provided strong protection against viruses. Earlier studies also report that zinc may help tame an infection by preventing out-of-control inflammation.
Probiotics help immunity by activating regulatory T-cells; immune cells that help reduce damaging inflammation by releasing an anti-inflammatory cytokine known as IL-10. Probiotics are particularly beneficial for combatting upper respiratory infections (URIs), especially if you can start them a few weeks ahead of cold and flu season. During one 2018 double-blind, randomized trial, 136 participants received either a daily probiotic drink or a placebo for 12 weeks. Those who received the probiotic experienced significantly fewer URIs compared to the placebo group. To take advantage of these immune benefits, look for a probiotic blend that includes Lactobacillus gasseri KS-13, Bifidobacterium bifidum G9-1, and Bifidobacterium longum MM-2.
As you can see, nature has many solutions to help you maintain a balanced immune response. Phytosterols that keep immunity strong by keeping it balanced, and as a bonus also help keep inflammation in a healthy range. And for those times when you succumb to a bacterial or viral attack, you can arm yourself with the five nutrients mentioned above, to help lessen the symptoms, and/or shorten the duration of your illness.
Bio: James B. LaValle, R.Ph., CCN, is an internationally recognized clinical pharmacist, author, board certified clinical nutritionist and naturopathic doctorate with more than 35 years of clinical experience. In addition to his LaValle Metabolix Practice he works with players and teams from the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, NHL and is the Clinical Director of the Hall of Fame Health and Performance Program. He is best known for his expertise in metabolic and integrative medicine, with an extensive background in natural products, lifestyle drug/nutrient depletion and uncovering the underlying metabolic issues that keep people from feeling healthy and vital. LaValle is an appointed faculty member and course educator for the Integrative Medicine postgraduate program at George Washington University School of health sciences. He is author of more than 20 books including, “Cracking the Metabolic Code,” and serves as a scientific adviser for Probiotics.com.
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