As a naturopathic physician, I am often asked about my opinion regarding vaccines. There is a perception that I might favour natural treatments over vaccines. Many people are surprised when I tell them that vaccines play an important role in a preventative natural health plan, and that I support the vaccine schedule. Immunization and supporting the immune system with natural remedies do two different, but complementary things.
The Immune System
Our immune system can be divided into two different categories: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. Our immune system is capable of protecting us from losts of microbes, such as viruses and bacteria. It has been estimated that a small cut to the hand can expose us to millions of different bacteria. Without our immune system, we would quickly get sick from all the bacteria and viruses that are all around us.
The Innate Immune System
The innate system is the first line of defence for our bodies. It is the generic guard who is always present. It acts quickly and non-specifically. Specific cells like macrophages eat and break down microbes, while other cells like neutrophils and NK cells work to kill sick and infected cells before they can spread. In addition, our skin, sweat, tears, digestive secretions and microbiome help to prevent viruses and bacteria from entering our body. Lastly, dendritic cells help to activate the adaptive immune system.
The Adaptive Immune System
The adaptive immune system is the quarterback of our immune system. Unlike the innate system, it isn’t always active, and can be slow to activate. However, when it does activate, it is much more potent than the innate system. This is because it learns to recognize individual microbes that could make us sick. Once we are exposed to a microbe, dendritic cells present it to our adaptive system. This is in order to teach B-cells how to identify it. B-cells then circulate our body until they encounter the microbe, at which point they release antibodies which communicate with T-cells. T-cells then swiftly attack the intruder. Our immune system makes T-cells that are unique to specific microbes. This specificity makes the adaptive system very effective at recognizing dangers and eliminating them quickly. Unfortunately, it can take a long time to make B-cells and T-cells. During this period, our body must rely on the faster, but less effective, innate system to keep us healthy.
Vaccines Teach the Adaptive Immune System
Vaccines teach our immune system how to recognize specific viruses or bacteria, such as measles or pertussis. This process is called immunization, and is a similar process to what happens when we encounter a bug in the community. The difference between the two is that you aren’t likely to get sick from a vaccine. When we are given a “shot”, we are given a weak form of the microbe so our immune system can be exposed to it. This is just enough to teach our immune system how to recognize a microbe, but not enough to make us sick. After the “shot”, our adaptive immune system can then go ahead and make antibodies so that we are ready to fight off the microbe if we ever come in contact with it.
Natural Immune Support
Natural immune support does not teach our bodies how to protect ourselves from specific microbes, but it does help to make sure that our immune system is robust. Here is a list of common ways we can support the immune system:
Washing your hand regularly can minimize the amount of microbes you come in contact with. It is important to scrub for 30 seconds using soap. Avoid touching your face and cough into your elbow to avoid spreading microbes.
Whole Foods Based Diet
Every part of our immune system is made from nutrients in our food. If you don’t get enough of those nutrients, your body won’t be able to form the cells that make up your immune system. Make sure you eat lots of colourful fruits and vegetables, high quality proteins, healthy fats and whole grains.
Stress hormones, particularly cortisol, suppress the immune system. Keeping your stress under control is an important factor to good health in general.
There are many benefits to exercising regularly. It also helps to reduce the frequency and severity of infections, as well as to improve immune function.
Low quality sleep is associated with increased frequency, severity and duration of infections. There are many naturopathic ways to improve your sleep.
There is no magic bullet (or pill) to keep you healthy, but here are some select nutrients have been shown to help. It is always preferable to get your nutrients from your diet, but in select cases, supplementation can help.
- Vitamin C taken over a long period has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of colds
- Vitamin D interacts directly with immune cells and can reduce the frequency of the flu
- Zinc is an important component of the innate immune system and can be used on a short term basis to improve immune function.
There are many medicinal herbs known to help our immune system to remain strong and to help fight off infections. Here are a few well known ones:
- Echinacea purpurea can help increase the number of t-cells your body can make, and reduce the duration and severity of colds.
- Garlic contains a compound called allicin, which has been shown to reduce the frequency of colds if taken for extended periods of time. It can also help to stimulate certain t-cells
Remember, vaccines and immune support are not the same thing, but they do work well together. We can’t always prevent ourselves from getting sick, but supporting our immune system together with vaccination is a tough combo for any bug to beat. Immune support will help to keep your immune system robust, whereas vaccines help teach your immune system to recognize specific bad microbes. As a naturopathic physician, I offer Immunization consults to address questions from my patients about the effects of vaccines.