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Immune System: Boost or Suppress?

By Cherie Binns

With flu season in full swing and news of the coronavirus spreading, I am hearing a lot from people about keeping their immune systems optimally charged to stave off colds, the flu, and stomach viruses. We are indoors much more this time of year in most parts of the country and that means sunshine and fresh air are not helping us as much to keep ailments at bay. We are also in gatherings of people in enclosed settings during these fall, winter, and spring months. That can expose us to things we might not otherwise pick up.

With multiple sclerosis our immune systems are already in overdrive. That very fact is what contributes to damage in our central nervous systems. When the ramped-up immune system attacks itself and causes lesions in the brain and spinal cord, we do not want to do anything to boost that immune system further. In fact, boosting the immune system has the potential to make our disease-modifying therapies less effective.

We should not be looking to boost our immune system with supplements but should actually steer clear of certain herbal preparations when we have MS. An article appeared a few years ago in the MS Focus magazine on this very subject.

Herbal supplements such as AHCC, echinacea, elderberry, andrographis, astragalus, DHEA, CoQ10, ginseng, and gingko biloba should generally be avoided. Certain mushroom products including shiitake, tremella, maitake, and turkey tail have been identified as having immune boosting properties so should not be consumed in large quantities when immune systems are in overdrive. Garlic consumed in large quantities, has been shown to prevent colds and flu in individuals with immune systems that are not compromised.

Exercise, it seems, can both boost and modulate (normalize) our immune systems by enhancing T cell production (a white blood cell instrumental in fighting infections). Exercise also improves mood, circulation, and respiratory function (essential in combating airborne illnesses such as colds and flu). Smoking is another factor to take into consideration. The very act of smoking or vaping strips protective cells from our respiratory tract, which opens it to the chance of a virus or bacterial attack. Stress reduction plays a role in how our bodies are receptive to infection. Persons with lower stress levels are not nearly as prone to infection as those for whom stress or anxiety are a problem. Sleep goes hand-in-hand with stress reduction for helping arm us to fight illness.

Dr. Allen Bowling is an MS neurologist who has written a couple of books on complementary and alternative medicine and how it pertains to MS. He has conducted a number of Clinical trials using supplements or alternative therapies to treat MS and I highly recommend his work. He has a website one can easily get lost in. On this site he shares all the research into boosting the immune system with MS that he has conducted or gathered. He also has lists of immune boosting herbs or foods to avoid if you have MS.

In short, good hand-washing combined with exercise, fresh air, stress reduction, and a good night’s sleep will go further in protecting you from illness than taking supplements that boost your immune system and, in so doing, also have the potential to trigger an MS flare-up.