Written By: Dr. Adam McLeod, ND, BSc (Hons)
When it comes to stimulating the immune system there is a true beauty in randomness. I often have patients come to office who have been using the same immune stimulating supplement for years. Although this supplement may be effective, this is not necessarily the best way to activate the immune system, especially when it comes to fighting cancer.
To understand why this is we must look at the mechanism as to how these supplements work. Although the precise mechanism varies between some of the most potent natural immune stimulators, there is a common theme that quickly emerges. Each of these supplements excite the immune system after interacting with the immune cells. This reaction generally occurs because the immune system has not been exposed to this foreign molecule. In an effort to react to this new molecule, the immune system becomes more active against cancer cells as well.
After repeated exposure to a molecule the immune system will start to recognize that it is no longer necessary to over react to its presence. The immune system will deliberately tone down its reaction. This is why patients using mistletoe will initially have massive skin reactions to small doses. After using the therapy for several months they often have to use much larger doses to get any reaction at all. This is a classic example which clearly shows that when you continue to use the same therapy, your immune system will not be stimulated as strongly.
The good news is that there are many different natural therapies which can be used to stimulate the immune system. Mistletoe is very effective at not only stimulating the immune system but also at supporting it during chemotherapy and radiation1,2. Astragalus is effective at stimulating the immune system and it is particularly potent in the lungs5,6. Low dose naltrexone is well documented to activate the immune system and make it more effective at fighting cancer3,4. These are just a few examples of natural immune supports commonly used in an integrative cancer setting.
Different combinations of these supports can be used to keep the immune system active. I will often change the immune supports used every six months to keep the immune system reacting to new molecules. There are exceptions to this where a specific immune support is certainly indicated for long term use, however other immune supports can still be used in conjunction and modified accordingly.
It is essential to recognize that when it comes to immune support, less is more. It is not helpful to add more supplements into the protocol just because it has been shown to stimulate the immune system. If you throw everything at the immune system all at once then it is likely that it will stop reacting effectively to all of them. A more effective approach is using a few well documented supplements and changing them every few months. By changing up a simple protocol on a regular basis it is a more effective and it is also cheaper for the patient.
You must have professional guidance when developing a plan to support your immune system. Every one of these natural supports has potential contraindications. You need a Naturopathic Doctor to help you develop a safe and effective treatment plan. Dr. Adam McLeod is a Naturopathic Doctor (ND), BSc. (Hon) Molecular biology, Motivational Speaker and International Best Selling Author. He currently practices at his clinic in Vancouver, British Columbia where he focuses on integrative oncology. http://www.yaletownnaturopathic.com
1) Hajto T, Lanzrein C: Natural killer and antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity activities and large granular lymphocyte frequencies in Viscum album-treated breast cancer patients. Oncology 43 (2): 93-7, 1986.
2) Hajto T, Hostanska K, Frei K, et al.: Increased secretion of tumor necrosis factors alpha, interleukin 1, and interleukin 6 by human mononuclear cells exposed to beta-galactoside-specific lectin from clinically applied mistletoe extract. Cancer Res 50 (11): 3322-6, 1990.
3) Brown, Norman, and Jaak Panksepp. “Low-dose naltrexone for disease prevention and quality of life.” Medical hypotheses 72.3 (2009): 333-337.
4) Berkson, Burton M., Daniel M. Rubin, and Arthur J. Berkson. “Revisiting the ALA/N (α-Lipoic Acid/Low-Dose Naltrexone) protocol for people with metastatic and nonmetastatic pancreatic cancer: a report of 3 new cases.” Integrative cancer therapies 8.4 (2009): 416-422.
5) Block, Keith I., and Mark N. Mead. “Immune system effects of echinacea, ginseng, and astragalus: a review.” Integrative cancer therapies 2.3 (2003): 247-267.
6) Chu, Da-Tong, et al. “Fractionated extract of Astragalus membranaceus, a Chinese medicinal herb, potentiates LAK cell cytotoxicity generated by a low dose of recombinant interleukin-2.” Journal of clinical & laboratory immunology 26.4 (1988): 183-187.