Enhancing your Immune System Health

Author: Janice McColl, B.S.P., M.Sc., M.H.

We usually think of the immune system as the body’s defense mechanism against foreign invaders – such as viruses, bacteria, infections, and cancer cells. We depend on the immune system to fight off disease and keep us healthy. But sometimes the complex mechanisms of the immune system get out of kilter. When the immune system is weakened through stress, lack of sleep, nutritional deficiencies, or strenuous exercise, we are prone to get colds and other minor infections. The function of the immune system also declines as we age, and may be quite weak in the elderly. In other cases, the immune system can malfunction, turning against our body’s own tissues, causing autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and lupus.

Since the immune system plays such a crucial role in our health, researchers are continually looking for ways to help it function optimally. One promising area of research is in the field of essential fatty acids (EFAs), which have shown remarkable immune-modulating effects in numerous settings. The most important EFA supplements are flax seed and flax oil (containing ALA); fish oil (containing EPA and DHA); and borage oil or evening primrose oil (containing GLA).

EFAs are polyunsaturated fats that work through complex mechanisms to regulate cell functions throughout the body. Immune cells contain high amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids in their cell membranes. EFAs are intricately involved in the immune response, partly because they produce hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins, which control cellular processes on a minute-to-minute basis. EFAs also regulate cytokines, which are released from immune cells in response to injury, infection, or exposure to foreign substances. Dietary fatty acids may also help regulate the cell communication and gene expression involved in immunity.

Both the amount and type of fatty acids in the diet influence the growth and activity of immune cells. Most research has focused on ALA, EPA and DHA, and to a lesser extent, GLA.  An imbalance between these fatty acids can produce inflammation and immune system dysfunction. Recent research has clearly demonstrated that supplementation with EFAs can help normalize the function of the immune system.

For example, researchers at Tufts University in Boston measured the immune response in elderly subjects in a study in 1999. They noted clear effects of enhanced immunity after supplementation with ALA and GLA.

Several investigations have indicated that GLA, ALA, EPA and DHA could all have favorable effects for patients with lupus, a disease of the immune system that causes inflammation in the skin, joints, kidney and brain. Patients with lupus tend to have low concentrations of these fatty acids. A 34-week, double-blind study involving 27 patients with lupus showed promising results for fish oil (containing EPA and DHA). Fourteen of the 17 patients using fish oil saw their condition improve, while 13 from the placebo group were rated worse or experienced no change. These results were published in the Annals of Rheumatic Disease in July 1991. A 1994 study published in Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes, and Essential Fatty Acids confirmed the benefits of EPA and DHA for lupus patients – these fatty acids induced clinical remission in all 10 patients examined.

In addition, a 1995 study published in Kidney International showed that flaxseed is a potential treatment for inflammation of the kidneys caused by lupus (lupus nephritis). The researchers concluded that 30 grams of flaxseed per day was well tolerated and improved blood circulation and kidney function, while also reducing inflammation.

Borage, evening primrose, fish and flax oils have also proven useful in the nutritional management of other disorders involving the immune system, such as, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and multiple sclerosis. Even allergies, asthma, and skin problems like eczema are due, at least in part, to malfunctioning of the immune system. These conditions also respond well to EFA therapy.

Proper functioning of the immune system depends on adequate amounts each EFA. For general maintenance of health, a “multi-EFA” supplement may be convenient, such as a balanced blend of flax, fish and borage oil. Specific immune system problems may require a higher dose of one or more EFAs.

Research has only just begun to identify the full benefits of essential fatty acids. However one thing is clear: these “good fats” are a cornerstone of good health and strong immunity.