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The Immune System: How it works and how to best support it. Part 1: The Immune System and The Lungs

Updated: Nov 24

Viral threats and how to deal with them in the body has become a topic of discussion in almost every arena the past nearly two years now, and when it comes to this topic there are a number of very important things to consider. In this article I will be discussing the in’s and outs of developing a viral protocol for you and your family. I believe in order to understand and formulate a proper plan of attack for a viral invader of any type, we must first understand a few specific things about our immune system, it’s parts, and how it actually functions in the body.

There are two parts to our immune system, and each part needs to be supported separately.

The first part of our immune system is called the “innate immune system” and the other part is called the “acquired immune system,” or “the adaptive immune system.

The innate immune system is the part of our immune system that fights off new germs, such as the so called “new” viruses like Covid-19. These new viruses are invaders the body has never seen before, novel viruses, man-made viruses, or viruses that are only prevalent in another part of the world, or have only shown up in animals previously etc, that our particular immune system hasn’t been exposed to or had the opportunity to develop any type of immunity towards.

The second part of the immune system is the “acquired immune system.” The acquired immune system is made of cells and antibodies that are primed, ready and waiting to fight infections in the body. These cells are primed and ready as a direct result of our past exposure and experiences with these particular bacteria, viruses, etc. As a result of these past experiences the body has learned how to fight and best deal with them, and keeps an army of antibodies (the bodies equivalent of highly trained special ops fighters) in reserve in case exposure ever occurs again. This second part of our immune system allows the body to “learn” how to respond to an invasion, and remember what worked and didn’t in the past and use that information to prevent future infections, or at least help those future infections be milder in nature due to the quick, pre-programmed responses these fighter antibodies have in our bloodstream.

Vaccines are also meant to activate the acquired immune system, with the desired outcome being that the body learns about these viruses and develops antibodies in response to them which can then be used at a later date if the person is again exposed to that same “germ”, virus, disease, etc. Whether or not vaccines are actually effective can be debated of course, but we can all agree on the fact that they at least attempt to act on the acquired immune system to prevent, or lower the severity of future infections of the same exact type.

So to summarize: the acquired immune system is developed when the body is exposed to a virus, bacteria, etc., the body learns how to fight it off, and then uses that experience to make those specific fighter cells for that specific infection. The body then makes extra fighter cells to keep in reserve in case this same disease or viral variant comes back around, and it also stores the “recipe” so to speak for the fighter cells so that it can make more later if exposed again. It is truly a brilliant system!

For viruses like the Covid-19 or the “Corronavirus" as it is being called, until a person has become ill with the virus at least once, the body is not using the acquired immune system to avoid or fight it off. This is because we know Covid-19 is one of the following:

A new virus

A man-made/man-altered virus,

Or a virus that previously only occurred in animals

Whichever of the above is true about this particular virus, what we can agree on is the population has not previously been exposed to this virus. Because of this, the main form of defense and system of attack for the body when dealing with these new viruses and all their mutations is the innate immune system. Only once the virus has been acquired so that the immune system can learn about it and develop a response strategy, can the adaptive immune system act in response.

The innate immune system is comprised of our body's physical barriers to the outside world such as our skin and our mucous membranes, as well as several types of specific immune cells such as Natural Killer cells (NK), Dendritic Cells, Macrophages, Phagocytes, T-cells, and Mast Cells. Some of these cells produce types of proteins that kill viruses and other invaders; all of these cells work together to help the body defend against foreign invaders that it has no previous experience dealing with.

To properly understand how to support the innate immune system, we must first understand a bit about what our innate immune system is comprised of, and what it’s main goals and functions are. Here is a brief overview of what some of the immune fighting cells found in the innate immune system do:

Natural Killer Cells are a type of lymphocyte, meaning they are lymphatic cells or white blood cells, and as their name would imply, they are trained killer cells. These cells are programmed specifically to hunt and destroy human cells that have been infected with a foreign pathogen. They play a huge role in preventing infections and all kinds of diseases, as well as being largely responsible for the prevention of tumors.

There are multiple factors that can cause NK levels to be too low in the body, the main factors being autoimmune disorders and genetic disorders. These types of disorders can cause NK cells to be less responsive, improperly responsive, or simply found in lower levels than they are in healthy individuals, and this can make those with autoimmune/genetic disorders more prone to certain types of viruses and tumors.

T-Cells are a lymphocyte that is made in the bone marrow and matures in the Thymus gland, which is where they get their name “T-Cells” from. (Thymus Cell) T-cells mature in the thymus gland and this is where they develop into helper, regulatory, cytotoxic, or memory T-cells. After these cells fully mature in the thymus, they are then sent out to penetrate tissue and circulate in the bloodstream and lymphatic system. They are similar to many other lymphatic cells in many ways, but what separates T-cells from other lymphatic cells, is the presence of a T-cell receptor on the surface of the cell. These T-cell receptors allow these lymphatic cells to communicate with other immune cells in a very unique way. When the receptors on these T-cells get stimulated by appropriate antigens (like Dendritic cells talked about below) the helper T-cells secrete another type of chemical messengers called cytokines, which instructs and helps the body develop more antibody-producing cells in response to an invasion by a bacteria, virus, or other pathogens. Regulatory T-cells act by controlling immune reactions. (hence their name) Cytotoxic T-cells are activated by various cytokines, and bind to and kill infected cells and cancer cells.

Dendritic Cells (or DC’s) are a type of messenger cell. They process antigen material (proteins, peptides, etc.) and they use these materials to help T Cells, (a lymphocyte that is very crucial in the body’s immune response) communicate with the rest of the body. Dendritic cells do many amazing things in the body and can be found in almost all bodily tissue, but for this article, I will simply be mentioning a few that relate to the immune response specifically. DC’s work in the body to detect homeostatic imbalances and process antigens which they then present to T cells. To simplify, this means that DC’s act as a reporter, reporting activity in the body and what it means to other cells, and directing them as to the best action to take. These Dendritic Cells establish a link BETWEEN the innate immune system, and the acquired or adaptive immune system so the two can work together and communicate. These DC’s cells sort of act like an old-time phone operator, plugging in and unplugging various chemical messengers to the correct place they need to be to effectively communicate in order to organize an effective attack or immune response to an invader. DC’s also secrete other chemical messengers such as cytokines and growth factors, which work to modify the body's ongoing immune responses. DC’s influence these responses based on their interactions with other immune cells like Natural Killer Cells, and other lymphoid cells. So again to simplify; as these DC’s float around the body, they” talk to “ (communicate with via chemical messengers) all the immune soldiers in every part of the body, and they get back reports of what is happening, what protocols are working, what is not working, where the body needs reinforcements, which systems are compromised, etc., and they then translate and transmit this information to other cells in the immune system so that everyone can be on the same page. It’s like having a system-wide email so EVERYONE knows how the battle is going.

A Macrophage is a large white blood cell whose primary purpose is to locate microscopic foreign bodies and eat them. These cells actually engulf unknown particles and digest them. When these cells eat and digest pathogens in the body, they release a chemical that alerts the rest of the immune system that a war is taking place and that they are working to consume the unwanted invaders. So in this way Macrophage cells act both as fighters cells and as an alert system in the body to help rally troops.

Phagocytes are cells that help the body fight against intruders by consuming them. Some types digest them in a similar fashion as Macrophage cells do, and other Phagocytes ingest foreign bodies and then die. When these cells die they also release chemical warning signals into the blood alerting other cells of the type of intruder that caused their demise, so the rest of the body can be prepared and help ward off an attack.

Mast Cells: are found in every part of the body, but are found in especially large numbers in the parts of the body that deal regularly with the outside world, and have the most exposure to outside toxins. These areas include the skin, the digestive tract, and the lungs. Mast Cells act as alarm bells, identifying any foreign intruders and alerting the rest of the body, via chemical secretions, that a foreign pathogen is attempting to take over. When Mast Cells identify an intruder and release their chemical warning signals to the body, these chemicals cause the body to respond with “symptoms”. Many of these symptoms are not a result of the virus or pathogen itself, but rather they are an indication of the body rallying its resources to fight off the intruder. The chemicals that are released by Mast Cells can cause excess mucous, fever, sweating, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and many other symptoms. The goal of each of these very finely tuned chemical warnings are to send reinforcements to the area most likely to be affected by whatever pathogen is attempting to invade. If the invader is coming through the mucous membranes and lungs, the chemicals will inform the body to cough, and produce extra mucous to prevent more pathogens from entering the body and to flush the ones who already invaded out. Many people often mistake this immune response with “being sick” or “symptoms of the flu, when in reality they are symptoms of our bodies doing their job and getting rid of the problem. In fact, for many of these viruses, if allowed to stay in our system and wreak havoc, their sneaky invading protocol does not include ANY violent symptoms. Rather many viruses slowly break down the body's defenses from the inside and try to re-train your cells to take commands from the virus and protect the virus instead of itself. Over time, this causes organ failure and severe symptoms, but the immediate symptoms such as vomiting, or cold and flu symptoms are rarely a result of damage from the virus and are most often simply the body’s immune system doing all it can to rid the body of the invaders BEFORE the virus is able to cause significant cellular damage and begin re-programming the cells.

For example, food poisoning does not “cause” vomiting. Rather the body's response to the pathogen in the food causes the body to release chemicals that will make the body purge BEFORE the toxins are allowed to do damage to the body. If the body did not vomit out food poisoning, the toxins would slowly poison the liver, kidneys and other organs and a slow, painful decline and possible death would occur. As I will talk about more later, it is VERY important not to try to stop or slow down many of the “symptoms” associated with viral infections, because these symptoms are not indications of the pathogen doing damage, but rather of the body attempting to rid itself in the most efficient way possible of the intruders.

Supporting our detox pathways, and helping the body flush as quickly and efficiently as possible is where the main focus should be, rather than trying to mitigate symptoms.

This being said, in some situations, it is absolutely necessary to mitigate one symptom in order to keep the whole body in a position where it can heal. Being able to get fluids in, being able to get rest at night, getting nutrition in, all of these things are necessary for the body to be able to do it’s work and fight off the intruders. So sometimes we take supplements, herbs, and medications that will soothe a symptom such as a cough, so that we can get the sleep we need for our bodies to heal. And this is valuable and necessary. But using our natural medicine chest to prevent any symptoms is not realistic, nor healthy. Trying to avoid the symptoms of our body doing its work to keep us alive and rid itself of intruders is what I view as black magic, and it always comes at a steep price.

Cytokines: while cytokines are not cells in our bodies, but rather a chemical response or “messenger, I think it is very valuable to give them a quick mention here as so many of our cellular responses and a huge part of our immune response is both dependent on, and potentially harmed by these lovely little things we call cytokines.

A cytokine is a name applied to a very broad category of proteins that are very important in cell signaling and communication. They are involved in many systems of the body such as the endocrine system and others, not just immune system signaling, but we will focus on their role in the immune system here. Two of the main functions of cytokines when it comes to the immune system are signaling the immune system to ramp up the production of fighter cells and other lymphocytes, and signaling the body to have an inflammatory response. Many people often think of an inflammatory response as being bad, but inflammation is a crucial part of the immune response, and the body's ability to heal in general. Inflammation brings more blood flow, more nutrients, and more attention to an injured or infected cell, and allows the body to repair much faster. Basically inflammation is the body's equivalent of responding to an emergency in the same way an emergency response team would respond to a highway accident. When an emergency happens and teams respond, they clog up the entire highway because they bring everything they MIGHT need with them to the accident. In the same way, inflammation is the body mobilizing what it needs or may need to the site of injury or infection. What the body mobilizes, and how much it mobilizes are controlled in huge part by cytokines. Cytokines tell the body what emergency tools need to be mobilized, and how many. This is a beautiful and powerful thing that saves our lives on a daily basis. However, when the body gets dis-regulated via prolonged illness, nutritional deficiencies, genetic mutations, severe infections, etc., cytokine production can sometimes get out of hand. When the body is not properly detoxing, the pathogens (dead or alive) stay in the bloodstream and cause the cells to respond as if a new pathogenic attack was occurring, and cytokine production can ramp up too high, which causes a host of unwanted symptoms and a cascade of negative effects in the body. When this happens, we need to flush out both the excess dead immune cells causing the excess cytokine response as well as flushing excess cytokines out of our system. To do this we can employ nutritional, herbal, and sometimes medicinal help to lower cytokine levels and allow the body to come off of “high alert.” It becomes important to lower cytokines in the bloodstream because they can cause significant damage to internal organs over time if the body is producing them in excess. For example, excess cytokine production in the lungs can result in too much fluid, which can result in breathing difficulties and eventually death. Other symptoms of excess cytokine production include high fever, enlarged spleen, excessive bleeding, low counts of all types of blood cells (red, white and platelets) and if left unchecked potentially multiple organ failures. Cytokines are valuable and needed messengers, but when production is improperly ramped up they send out the message that WAY more help is needed in the body than is actually required, and havoc and excess inflammation and damage occur as a result. It’s similar to the havoc that bringing 800 ambulances full of paramedics to a one-car crash would cause. It’s simply TOO MUCH. And having too many ambulances on the road or too many "cooks in the kitchen" so to speak often results in more accidents and harm.

When excess cytokine production occurs in a way that is harmful to the body, rather than beneficial as it is intended, this is called a “cytokine storm.”

Just like many people often mistake the body's immune response as “symptoms” of a virus or bacteria causing damage, in the same way, MANY of the symptoms attributed to infections themselves are actually a result of cytokine storms or overproduction.

Many things can contribute to or cause a cytokine storm. The Influenza A virus has been one of the most studied in its ability to trigger unwanted cytokine storms in the body, and quite a few studies have been done to attempt to determine how to stop these unwanted cytokine storms. And there are various protocols, supplements, and diet changes that can help greatly in reducing or eliminating these cytokine storms and the host of symptoms they can bring.

Remember, we don’t want to eliminate cytokines, as they are valuable chemical messengers that help our immune system respond properly to invaders. But like with many other chemicals in the body, when they get out of balance, they can wreak havoc, and that is what we are attempting to identify and eliminate.

Excess cytokine production can be due to multiple factors, one common cause is Killer Cells being defective and overproducing inflammatory proteins that trigger the immune system improperly.

To wrap up our discussion on cytokines, there are three areas of focus that can be utilized to help bring the body back into a place of homeostasis after or during a cytokine storm.

First, introducing powerful natural anti-inflammatories can help reduce symptoms of cytokine storms, as well as helping bring the body and particularly the nervous system back into a place where it can rest and repair, which is vital for cytokine regulation.

Second, flushing or detoxing the body of excess cytokines is important.

And Third, scientists have discovered an accelerator switch, in the form of HMGB1, which is the molecule that triggers the release of inflammatory cytokines under a wide variety of circumstances. When we want to target excess cytokine production, utilizing natural remedies that contain safe, powerful HMGB1-fighting substances can be very helpful. (More on that in the herbal section.)

The last part of the immune system I would like to talk about here is the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway, which regulates the innate immune response to injury, pathogens, and also controls the restriction of blood supply to tissues in the body. It is the motor arm of the inflammatory reflex, the neural circuit that responds to and regulates the inflammatory response. This pathway and its potential to restrict blood flow via chemical messengers do many things, but in this context, you can think of it as the opposite reaction in the body as inflammation. Inflammation is increased blood flow, and the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway helps regulate the immune response and reverse or restrict that blood flow in the body when necessary.

The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway uses the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (Ach) to interact with innate immune cells such as macrophages. When Ach interacts with these immune cells, it signals them to suppress proinflammatory cytokine production.

Without going into more grueling detail on the cholinergic anti-inflammatory response, I would just like to state here there are several actions we can take that help to slow down the translocation of NF-kB (which is the main transcription factor for protoinflamatory cytokines and proinflammatory genes) during cytokine storms. In other words, we can help stimulate the body to reverse its inflammatory response and excess cytokine production by utilizing our bodies Ach, as well as utilizing other natural chemicals found in nature to trigger this “reverse inflammation/immune response.”

Vagal nerve stimulation has been proven to inhibit this neural pathway, which results in a down-regulation of the immune response, lowers cytokine production, and has even been shown in some cases to reverse the symptoms of sepsis. In addition to vagal nerve stimulation, there are several plant and natural remedies that are able to suppress the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines by mimicking the binding of acetylcholine, which can be highly beneficial when dealing with a severe cytokine storm.

Now that we’ve had a brief overview of some of the details of our immune system, and what certain cells do, (keep in mind as long as it was, this is a VERY brief overview, as the immune system is a highly complex system with thousands of actions, messengers, and responses.) let’s now look at how we can best support our bodies and immune systems, and how we can utilize specific herbs, foods, minerals, and habits to best support your immune response before, during and after an attack from a virus or foreign pathogen, like one of the types of the Coronavirus.

It is important when dealing with viral intrusions, to realize that your BEST line of defense to keeping your body healthy is staying in a regulated, rested place and reducing stress levels. A good offense is the best defense, and being rested, hydrated, and as stress-free as possible is by FAR the best defense against any virus. The body has an amazing way of fighting off pathogens if it has what it needs, or moving through a viral attack quickly if it is nourished and rested.

Also, it is very important to remember that the worst symptoms associated with the virus as well as its fatality rates are almost exclusively linked to the aggravation of secondary conditions. So, when we are looking into preventing or treating viral infections like the coronavirus, it is imperative that we put a great deal of focus on any current secondary conditions that we have. If you have a heart condition, the likelihood of you suffering from heart symptoms or damage as a result of any severe viral infection goes up astronomically. If you suffer from Crohn's disease, the likelihood of you suffering severe intestinal issues or complications from a viral attack is greatly increased. And the list goes on. Viruses are extremely intelligent pathogens and are exceptionally opportunistic, and steps need to be taken to support those areas in the body that are functioning at less than optimal levels on a day to day basis.

When looking for areas to support the body during or before a viral attack occurs, we must not only focus on previously diagnosed conditions or issues but also areas of weakness that have not warranted a diagnosis or previous treatment. For example, You might have a sensitive stomach or a nervous system that gets dis-regulated or slides into panic attacks easily. Or you might notice that you are prone to inflammation or heart palpitations when you get stressed or do not have enough sleep. All of these are signs and symptoms that can point you in the direction of which area of your body needs focus and particular attention and support during or to prepare for a viral attack.

Because of the disposition of viruses in general, but specifically, the Covid-19 virus to attack the weakest points of the body, my recommended viral protocol focuses primarily on the support of all the body’s systems, and particularly supporting any weak or known problematic systems, rather than exclusively or even primarily trying to “kill viruses.”

I would like to mention here that my passion is empowering people to utilize the gifts that nature provides each of us via wild herbs or “weeds” as many would call them. The gifts found in our backyards are truly astounding, and in most cases, there is no need to search for rare or hard to find herbs and spices to support your body. For this reason, I have primarily included easy to find or buy herbs and remedies in this viral protocol. This in no way discredits many other rare or amazing herbs that fight viral infections and support the body in profound ways. I have included a few harder to find/grow plants in the lists simply because of their superior benefits. But for the most part, the herbs you will find recommended below are easy to obtain or depending on where you live, they may be readily available to wild harvest. Accessibility and affordability are just as important as efficacy in my opinion. If you can’t get your hands on the plant, it doesn’t matter how much it could help your body fight a virus, and in many cases, it’s more advantageous to start earlier with simpler, easy to access remedies, rather than waiting until a crisis and trying to “hit it with the big guns.” There is no such thing as “the best” herb for any specific action, it is all dependent on when you take it in the infect