Immunity and Ayurveda
Immunity is the body's natural response to protect and maintain homeostasis in the system. It is the ecological relationship between the body-mind and the world in which it lives and interacts. It is a wholistic system interconnected with the psychological-endocrine-neurological systems in the body. A healthy connection results in a healthy internal environment which leads us to a long, successful life and fulfillment of our life's potential.
Our immune system is facing a unique historical challenge as we encounter increased environmental, industrial, social, pharmaceutical and dietary stressors that are now known to have a negative impact on our immune systems. This microcosmic challenge is a reflection of the larger environmental challenge that our macrocosmic world is also facing. The pressures of global population increase, industrial expansion and destabilization of many natural ecosystems is clearly stressing the earth's natural immunity. How we care for ourselves can have a direct impact on the earth's health and visa versa.
Symptoms of Depressed Immunity:
- Regular or persistent bacterial, fungal, viral or parasitic infections
- Slow healing wounds
- Auto immune diseases
- Inflammatory disorders
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic degenerative conditions
Impaired immune system response is present in such diseases as cancer, candidiasis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, AIDS and TB.
How the Immune System Works
In order to protect us from foreign invaders the immune system must be able to differentiate from 'self' or 'non-self' or what is 'us' and what is 'not us'. In order to fulfill this objective the immune system galvanizes the cooperation of numerous cells, organs and chemicals to work coherently to protect us against disease. There are two categories of immunity; a natural, innate, non-specific immunity and an acquired, adaptive, specific immunity.
Non-specific immunity is a natural immunity which is a genetic type of immunity, or the immune system we are born with. For example, cows appear to have a unique species immunity to small pox, but it can be fatal in humans. This innate immunity includes the skin, certain chemicals in the blood and special immune system cells that attack foreign substances in the body.
Non-specific immunity is partly regulated by macrophages that engulf foreign bodies in a process known as phagocytosis. Guduchi ashwagandha and garlic all increase the action of phagocytosis. Natural Killer (NK) cells are a part of this non-specific system that act independently of other chemical messages and act as the first line of defense against many diseases. Licorice and garlic assist NK cell activity. Specific chemicals are used by this aspect of immunity to keep The body healthy: interferons, interleukins and Tumor Necrotic factor.Ashwagandha, turmeric and green tea have all been shown to positively affect these immune system workers.
Specific immunity was a later development in our evolution and has resulted in particular activity at a cellular level resulting in lymphocyte activity against invading foreign substances known as antigens. It is an induced response that has to be learned by the body and that also creates a memory. For example, the adaptive immune system creates a response to a pathogenic infection by a disease to which the body can become immune after recovery (e.g. chickenpox) or via vaccination, or from receiving antibodies via your mother's breast milk. T-lymphocytes are released by this specific immunity and they Have 'killer', 'helper' and 'suppressor' activity. Kalmegh, garlic and licorice modulate T-cells. B-lymphocytes are produced by the bone marrow in adults and live in the spleen and digestive tract. They are transformed into plasma cells which create immunoglobulin anti-bodies when they meet a foreign invader. A memory of these invaders is formed in order to recognize the invaders when they next appear. Ashwagandh and licorice modulate B-lymphocyte activity. Punarnava, guduchi, turmeric, garlic and licorice all help to modulate antibody response.
Important Components of the Immune System:
- Lymph system
- Bone marrow
- White blood cells
- Complement system
The Integrated Nature of the Immune System
The endocrine and nervous systems are in continual feedback with the immune system and their state of balance regulates the immune response. So, the balance of our hormones and the functioning of our neurons is implicated in how our immune system responds to foreign substances. The brain and immune system have an incessant dialogue so that immune mediated chemicals inform the brain what to do and visa versa. It is clear how we can under perform when faced with an intolerable level of negative stress. Certain studies have shown how different emotional states affect the immune system.
Loneliness reduces NK cell activity. Lonely students have reduced NK cell activity and higher levels of Epstein Barr virus. Excessive stress reduces immunity. Caretakers of dementia Patients suffer from reduced immunity. People under extreme academic stress show reduced levels of lymphocyte and interleukin production and higher cortisol levels. Bereavement causes reduced immunity with reduced lymphocyte activity in men and post-bereavement depression causes increased cancer and death. Marital conflict also affects immunity raising blood pressure, cortisol and NK cell activity.
Allopathic Treatment of Immune Disorders and Their Side-Effects
Immunosuppressive medication: Corticosteroids, such as prednisolone and dextamethasone. These are often used to treat inflammatory digestive, skin or arthritic conditions. Corticosteroids work by blocking the action of inflammatory prostaglandins. They can depress the immune system, reduce T and B-lymphocytes, increase susceptibility to infection, osteoporosis, peptic ulcers, fluid retention, acne, moon face, increase blood pressure, reduce efficacy of insulin and can lead to atrophy of the body's ability to produce corticosteroid hormones.
Immune suppressants and antimetabolites, such as cyclosporine and methotrexate - Cyclosporine is used as an immunosuppressive drug after organ transplants or to treat certain auto-immune diseases. It can lead to increased susceptibility to infection, tremors, facial swelling, nausea and kidney damage. Methotrexate helps to block the metabolism of cells and is used to treat cancer, arthritis and psoriasis. The most frequent reactions include mouth sores, stomach upset, low white blood counts, headaches, itching, skin rash, dizziness, and hair loss. Methotrexate can also cause severe toxicity of the liver and bone marrow.
Anticancer drugs, chemotherapy and radiotherapy - As they are cytotoxic these drugs literally prevent cell formation and hence may halt the growth of tumors. But this action also opposes the natural regenerative force of life, new cell formation. This can lead to a range of side-effects including nausea, hair loss, red and white blood cell depletion, platelet reduction and bone marrow depletion.
Antihistamines - Used to suppress allergic symptoms. They act on H1 receptor sites by preventing histamine from attaching to these sites and theoretically preventing the body from responding to allergens. They are used to relieve mild to moderate symptoms but can cause drowsiness. An example is diphenhydramine.
Antibiotics - These are the mainstay of treatment in acute bacterial infections including tetracyclines, macrolides (erythromycin), penicillins (amoxicillin or ampicillin). Antibiotics may be routinely dispensed without specific bacterial strain analysis. Common side effects are disturbed intestinal flora leading to outbreaks of Candida albicans, other yeast infections and diarrhea. Rarer reactions are severe allergic reactions.
Antivirals - Antiretroviral drugs used for treating AIDS can cause hepatic injuries, renal and genitourinary diseases, allergies, fever, anemia, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, skin levels problems, photosensitivity, elevation of cholesterol and triglyceride leading to coronary artery diseases.
The Ayurvedic Perspective of Immunity
Ayurveda has a beautiful understanding of our immunity. It is considered within a completely holistic sense, and unlike the allopathic quantitative understanding of immunity, includes both a qualitative and quantitative perspective. The Ayurvedic view of immunity is based on the concept of inherited reserve and acquired reserve. It is literally known as 'vyadhi-kshmatva' or 'self-avoidance of disease'.
"The immunity, vyadhi-kshamatva, is a strength within all of us that resists the causes of diseases and their aggressive tendencies." Chakrapannidatta
The Ayurvedic concept of immunity involves the health of the ojas, the heart (hridaya), the eyes (chakshushya), digestive strength (agnibala) and tissues (dhatu).
The quality of your inherited (sahaj) and acquired (yukti) organ reserve is generically known as ojas. Ojas holds a special place in Ayurveda as it nourishes and orders the functioning of the body. Just as ghee is the most refined essence of milk so ojas is considered to be the most superfine essence of all inherited organ reserve, digested nutrition and experiences.
"It is ojas which keeps all living beings refreshed. There can be no life without ojas.... It constitutes the essence of all the tissue elements." - Charaka Samhita
If it is depleted, disease can set in.
"When ojas is low the person is fearful, weak, worried, has deranged senses, poor complexion, weak mind, is rough and thin."
When maintained at an appropriate level its beneficial qualities are seen in the luster of the eyes, strength of the body, suppleness of the limbs, resistance to disease, efficient digestion, potent fertility, vital energy and lucidity of the mind. It is the seat of prana and agni helping to sustain their potential in the body. It is considered to sustain life and to provide strength or bala. Bala is closely related to ojas. In fact, Sushruta views ojas and bala as being identical and uses the terms synonymously. Bala also possesses the quality of resisting diseases because it is able to inhibit their root cause, the doshas.
Ojas has sweet (madhura), heavy (guru), cool (sheeta) and unctuous (snigdha) properties. Based on the principle of samanya-vishesha, ojas is built by substances or experiences with similar attributes, such as ghee, milk, nuts, love, contentment and calm. It is also nurtured by non-violence, preservation of reproductive fluids, knowledge, self-control, understanding of the truth and sexual abstinence. Conversely it is reduced by dry (ruksha), astringent (kashaya), light (laghu) and hot (ushna) qualities. Hence, ojas can be depleted by: excessive alcohol, fasting, eating food only tasting of one flavor, excessive exposure to the wind and sun, over work, under nourishment, orgasm, extreme sports, depression, fever, infections, sadness, irritability, anger, anxiety and stress.
The Heart (Hridaya)
Ayurveda understands that the 'seat' of ojas is in the heart and that emotional balance and nourishment is an integral part of efficiently functioning immunity. It is said that eight drops of ojas (para ojas) resides in the heart and that this is the regulator of all the ojas in the body. It can never increase and must be maintained for preserving health. The type of ojas flowing around the body is known as apara ojas. It is said to be half a handful (anjali). This type of ojas can increase and decrease.
From the heart, the channels of prana, manas and rasa all extend out revealing it as the source of breath, mental balance and nutrition. The heart, as well as being a governing organ of blood circulation, is also the seat of consciousness. This emphasizes the importance that Ayurveda places on using treatments that nourish both the physical and emotional heart in order to maintain health of the immune system.
The Eyes (Chakushya)
The eyes absorb external experiences and feed directly into the heart. Using positive visualizations and herbs that nourish the eyes both play a part in supporting the immune system.
A healthy digestion helps to feed the tissues (sapta dhatu), which in turn feeds the heart and nourishes immunity. If digestion is impaired then it cannot metabolize the appropriate nutrients required for nourishment of the tissues and hence results in the depletion of ojas. If the digestive fire becomes impaired in any way then toxic accumulations, known as ama, can clog the channels and obscure nutritional absorption and emotional assimilation.
The health of the tissues leads to the final nourishment and support of the immune response. With good digestion of food, the tissues maintain a healthy state. With exceptional health, the tissues can actually help to replenish any depletion of ojas caused by aging and the ravages of time.
The Functional Principles (Dosha)
Vata immune problems will manifest in people where there is a poor response to a disease and general depletion. This often involves chronic degeneration, wasting and weakness. This requires immune stimulants and immune tonics. Tulsi and ashwagandha are good examples.
Pitta immune problems will manifest with inappropriate and extended inflammation. This will require reducing the inflammatory cascade and reordering the immune response. Kalmegh and guduchi are good examples.
Kapha immune problems will manifest with abnormal growths and mucus secretions. This will require clearing treatments that reduce congestion and remove stagnation. Pippali and ginger are good examples.
Good immunity in an Ayurvedic context comes from:
- Avoiding the causes of poor immunity (nidana paravarjana)
- Balance of the dosha (tridosha hara chikitsa)
- Balanced digestion (sama agni)
- Reduced toxins (ama pachana)
- Keeping the channels of circulation open (srotas mukho vishodhana)
- A strong heart and balanced emotions (hridaya manas bala chikitsa)
- Nourishing the tissues (dhatu poshana)
- Avoidance of negative habits and behavioral patterns that can reduce your inherent reserve (asatmeya indriya samartha hara)
The following should be cultivated in life in order to maintain good immunity:
- Having access to: pure air, pure water and pure food.
- Creating emotional stability: love, peace of mind, balanced relationships.
- A regular lifestyle (dinacharya): Ayurveda lays much emphasis on prevention in order to prevent the degenerative cascade that can occur. This is an orderly routine that balances personal hygiene, nourishment, exercise, relaxation, creativity, wealth and love.
- Protection: Your daily activities should be 100% healing with active avoidance of immune depressing chemicals and foods to keep your immune system intact.
- Detoxification: daily, seasonal and whenever required. Deep purification if there is strength (shodhana and panch karma), gentle purification in more depleted states (shamana), daily regulation of the elimination of toxins (amapacana).
- Tonify daily, seasonally and as much as possible.
- Herbs and foods: Sweet in taste, sweet in post-digestive effect, cooling, heavy and unctuous all help to build ojas.
(All taken with milk and/or ghee)
- Balya: Strengthening treatments giving power to the digestive fire (agni) and tissues (dhatus): sweet nourishing tonics such as bala, ashwagandha, shatavari.
- Brimhana: Building treatments including snehana and oleation techniques to nourish the tissues using unctuous and oily substances such as figs, milk, honey, ghee, chyvanaprash, hemp seeds, linseeds, almonds and walnuts.
- Jeevaniya: Life-enhancing herbs and treatments that include anti-oxidants: amalaki, tulsi, turmeric, guduchi, ashwagandha.
- Agnivardhaka: Herbs and foods including all the six tastes that strengthen digestion to assist absorption of nutrients including ginger, pippali, cinnamon, cumin, fennel.
- Medhya: Nourishes the heart and brain to feed ojas with intellect promoting herbs such as brahmi, amalaki, licorice, calamus, shankapushpi.
- Chakshusya: Nourish the eyes to feed your heart using amalaki and bilberries.
- Hridaya: These herbs directly nourish the heart to feed ojas: arjuna, rose, amalaki, punarnava, cinnamon.
- Rasayana: These rejuvenative treatments nourish rasadhatu which is the first tissue responsible for creating a feeling of pleasure in life. In turn it nourishes the heart which feeds the production and protection of ojas. Herbs such as guduchi, amalaki, haritaki, bibhitaki, shatavari and licorice are beneficial.
- Vrishya: Aphrodisiacs to rejuvenate the reproductive tissue including kapi kacchu, ashwagandha, gokshura and shatavari.
- Shukrala: Fertility enhancing treatments directly feed shukradhatu which nourishes the heart and ojas including shatavari, vidari kanda and ashwagandha.
- Exercise: Moderate exercise is known to improve immunity.
- Yoga: The benefits of regular yoga practice are invaluable to a healthy immune system.
- Breathing: Regular exercises to bring prana into the system and regulate the flow of vitality around the entire system.
- Meditation: Meditation has been shown to improve cellular immunity in geriatric patients. Relaxation and assertiveness Training improves helper T-cells in HIV infected men. Melanoma patients who learnt stress management had improved NK cell function and greater survival rates.
- Emotional expression: Supportive-expressive therapy doubled survival time in women with metastatic breast cancer. It also improved mood and reduced depression, anxiety and anger. Writing about emotional upsets improves immunity and health.
- Regular massage: Massage improves NK cell activity in HIV infected patients. Massage increases weight gain in premature babies. Massage decreases cortisol and increases serotonin levels. Massage reduces pain and anxiety in cancer patients.
- Surround yourself in a pleasant environment: Stressful visual stimulation depresses specific antibodies while uplifting stimulation enhances antibodies. Lavender oil has been shown to reduce aggressive behavior in patients.
- Seasonal detoxification.
- Correct amount of sleep.
- Making peace with everyone around you.
Diet to boost immunity and offset negative effects of immunosuppressive treatments. The foundations of a healthy immune system are based on a whole food diet. An important factor in immunity is the avoidance of poor quality foods that have been refined, heavily processed, denatured and are stale or rancid. Some examples are margarines, low quality oils, refined sugars or packaged food. Avoid over-eating and intoxicants. Eat a diet rich in vitamin A, B, C, E, iodine, selenium, manganese, zinc. Increase chlorophyll rich foods (spirulina, chlorella, cereal grasses as appropriate), sprouts, omega-3/GLA oils and shitake mushrooms.
- Anti-oxidants: grape seeds
- Vitamin E 400iu 2x/day
- Vitamin C 1000mg 2x/day
- Supplement with digestive enzymes with food or use Hingvastak.
Essential for any type of compromised immunity condition is a diet that removes toxins and regenerates any deficiencies. The following guidelines are an example of a dedicated effort to health and healing that can also be delicious.
- Follow a primarily vegan diet. All food should be organic.
- Wholegrains: millet and roasted buckwheat are alkaline and can benefit the acidity associated with this condition along with brown and white basmati rice, barley, amaranth
- Good proteins: mung beans, aduki beans
- Super foods: sprouted beans, 5 soaked and peeled almonds each day, micro-algae, seaweeds
- Vegetables: carrots, asparagus, ginger, cooked garlic, cooked onion, beetroots, celery
- Beta-carotene: yellow and orange vegetables such as carrots, squash, pumpkin
- Cruciferous vegetables: the Brassica family including cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts are high in indoles and isothiocyanates that are anti-cancer agents.
- Chlorophyll foods: dark, green leafy vegetables, micro-algae-spirulina
- Sulphur: Allium family including garlic, onions, chives
- Oils: omega-3 oils such as hemp seed oil and linseed oil
- Fruit: fresh blueberries
- Dairy: some ghee
- Avoid: sugar and excess sweet foods, high protein diet, salt, low quality oils and fats
Massage and Castor Oil Packs
The following treatments can be used at home for gentle detoxification:
- Daily self-massage with sesame oil followed by a hot bath after the oil has been absorbed. Massage the abdomen in a clockwise motion during the bath. Massage deeply around the colon, liver and lower abdomen.
- Castor oil packs are used for removing cysts, lumps and growths from inside the body. Soak a flannel in warm castor oil, place on affected part, cover with plastic bag, cover with hot water bottle, cover with towel. Relax. Can be applied for 1/2 hour, 3 times per week.
- Castor oil purgation is a strong treatment but is very useful for clearing congestion, reducing menstrual pain and regulating the movement of vata downwards. Take 1-3 teaspoons castor oil. Swallow with warm ginger tea before bed. Usually this procedure results in 2 to 3 bowel movements the next morning. Only do this on a day when your schedule is clear and if you are feeling relatively strong. Definitely do not do this if pregnancy is suspected.
Recognizing the Signs of Successful Treatment and Good Health
- A healthy appetite and a balanced desire for food without cravings
- Appreciation of the flavor of food and feeling satisfied after eating
- Good digestion without any signs of discomfort, belching or flatulence.
- Clear voice
- Relief from any pain or discomfort
- Proper functioning of the senses: hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling
- Clear complexion
- Appropriate length and quality of sleep; 6-8 hours/night
- Regular elimination of stool, urine and sweat
- Constant energy with good stamina & ability to exercise
- Enthusiasm for life
- Balanced emotions: neither too happy with success nor too sad in times of difficulty
- Regularly compassionate, generous and calm
Please note: Articles appearing in the Banyan Vine do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Banyan Botanicals. This information is intended to apprise qualified health practitioners of possible Ayurvedic approaches. It is not intended as medical advice.