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The Tranquil Way | Who's the culprit, the immune system or the germ?

Published:Thursday | October 27, 2016 | 12:00 AMDr. Douglas Street


Many of us as parents would have experienced a fight between two siblings and both of them blaming each other for the incident. At times the more innocent looking one may be the guiltier. Is this case when it comes to infections?

It is well-known that the actions of our immune system cause us harm. Inflammation, which is produced by the immune system as a 'fight' response damages our body tissues, interferes with the functions of our body systems and distorts many processes, such as healing. Inflammation is produced by the immune system as a response to the presence of certain 'germs' (some bacteria, fungi, viruses etc). This inflammation is usually seen as necessary but is it really? Are these 'germs' inherently harmful or is the problem the way the immune system responds to their presence?

Inflammation is also produced when our bodies are exposed to certain chemicals such as cleaning chemicals, and even certain environmental changes, such as drop in temperature. Inflammation produced by the body during rheumatic fever can cause damage to the heart valves and other structures and there are many other such examples. But what about pneumonia? What about Helicobacter pylori, the apparent occasional culprit in some stomach ailments? Who's the culprit?

There are times when it is deemed appropriate to use a medication that suppresses the reaction of the immune system in certain infections and this approach seems to produce better results. Should this be done on a more regular basis? Part of the problem with the medications that are used in these cases is that they suppress the actions of the immune system and this is viewed as potentially harmful as it is then weaker. But suppose the immune system is modulated so that this negative effect is avoided? There are natural supplements that can modulate the immune system in this way, such as antioxidants among others. Should we be looking at this as a way of getting better outcomes in treating infections?

The immune system has a tendency to over-react to many things and this causes many problems for the body, including allergies. There are several foods that can worsen this tendency to over-react (such as dairy products) and there are some foods and supplements that can reduce this such as reishi mushroom, probiotics and turmeric to name a few. Should we be utilising them more, especially when treating infections?