Posts Tagged ‘Immune system’

The Microbiome

April 8, 2020

This post is the sixth on an essential book by Jeffrey Rediger, M.D. titled Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing. The microbiome is an entire microscopic ecosystem that is living and thriving inside our bodies. Dr. Rediger writes, “It is complex, smart, and influential, to the point that it could be determining your ability to heal…or not.” Trillions of bacteria reside on the outside and inside of the body. Most of them live in the gut, but they are speeded throughout the body, an interconnected web of life that in many ways functions like an additional organ. The vast majority of these bacteria are actually beneficial bacteria. They work for us, digesting food, producing certain vitamins and neurochemicals that our bodies need, and even preventing “bad” bacteria from gaining a foothold. These beneficial microorganisms, which live in symbiosis inside the body, actually account for up to 3% of the body mass. For every human cell in the body, there are one hundred bacteria cells.

Individual microbiomes are as unique as a fingerprint. The microbiome is shaped at birth, when it was colonized by the bacteria in the mother’s birth canal as the baby moved through it. From that time forward, the microbiome has been shaped by the environment, by the foods eaten, the places visited, and the kinds of jobs worked. Every new environment adds to the ever shifting microbiome, ideally making it richer and more diverse. But one thing can massively set back the microbiome: antibiotics.

Although antibiotics are a major leap forward for medicine and a lifesaving intervention, come with their own set of adverse effects. And one of those is that in the process of wiping out “bad” bacteria, they also wipe out “good” bacteria that support healthy immune function. Dr. Rediger writes, “In fact, approximately 80% of the immune system cells are in the gut, and we are finding more and more evidence that a healthy, rich, diverse micriobiome can shape an immune system that is more effective against both external threats like viruses and infections, as well as internal threats like mutating cells that may turn into cancer if not caught.”

Continuing on he writes, “So how do the ‘good bacteria’ in the microbiome pay a role in shaping a healthy immune system? The one hundred trillion bacteria that live in the body come with their own set of DNA. Collectively, the DNA of those bacteria are their ‘genome.’ We are beginning to discover that the human genome, which comes preprogrammed to resist certain diseases and can be taught to resist others through exposure to them or through vaccines, doesn’t actually have enough ‘code’ to protect us from all the disease threats that exist. It’s like we’ve filled up our hard drive already; we just don’t have the space. We rely on the genome of our microbiomes —our gut brains—to store information, tactics, and disease-fighting knowledge for us. Wipe that out by taking too many antibiotics, and it’s like burning a library.”

Continuing still further, “A single round of antibiotics can impact gut bacteria for up to a year. Of course, antibiotics and other immunosuppressive interventions that affect the microbiome—like chemotherapy—are at times necessary, even lifesaving. The trick is using them and using them wisely. And the problem is that instead of taking care of our lives and bodies so that we are less likely to get ill in the first place, we’ve created a trigger-happy culture in medicine that leaps to these sorts of later interventions. The microbiome is essentially an extension of our immune system. And yet, our default approach to treating major illnesses usually involves decimating the microbiome while we do so.

Dr. Rediger concludes, “There are still many deadly blind spots in medicine today, holding us back from lifesaving progress in medicine. And one major holdover blind spot is that we continue to operate on a model of pathology: we fixate on tearing down disease at all costs instead of building up flourishing health and immunity. Since Pasteur’s time, we have developed a philosophy of medicine that is primarily a science of disease rather than a science of health and vitality. We’ve become locked into this mode where destroying the microbe is our only tool—and we all know the adage, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything gets treated like a nail.”

The situation has degenerated to the point that completely antibiotic superbugs have emerged. In early 2017, a Nevada woman developed an infection that failed to respond to any of the increasingly strong antibiotics used by her doctors. And more and more of these incurable infections will be seen as the bacteria we’ve been coexisting with learn to dodge available medications. “Superbugs” are being created.

Dr. Rediger writes, “Spontaneous remissions gives us enormous insight into how we can bolster our immune systems to prevent these diseases from taking hold, or roll back their damage if they already have. As new studies into the immune system emerge, I continue to find how the kinds of things that stimulate natural killer cell activity line up with the kinds of changes that survivors of incurable diseases make before they experience their spontaneous healing. Certain diet changes, such as increasing one’s nutritional level, turn out to support natural killer cell activity, as does reducing (or more effectively managing) stress. Studies even show forgiveness to be linked to a spike in natural cell killers.”

How to Talk to Your Immune System

April 7, 2020

This post is the fifth on an essential book by Jeffrey Rediger, M.D. titled Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing. Dr. Rediger writes, “Successes in immunotherapy today tell us that the power to overcome incurable illness may very well be locked inside each of us. Immunotherapy is a highly technical, precise way of targeting specific cells in the immune system and making them work against cancer. While you can’t practice immunotherapy yourself at home, you can communicate with your immune system, perhaps even—like so many of those who experience spontaneous healing—to the point of changing the way it functions, turning the tide against the disease.”

The key question is why do our natural killer cells sometimes target and remove mutating cancel cells and other times overlook them? When do they work for us, hunting down pathogens and viral invaders, and when do they turn against us, attacking our own tissues and biological systems?

The nervous system is an intricate network of nerve cells that winds and sparkles through the entire body. There are literally billions of nerve cells, or neurons, that allow us to do everything from lifting a finger to feeling an intense emotion. Nervous system cells are unceasingly sending messages through our body, whisking through the body as fast as electricity.

The immune system and the nervous system are intricately interwoven. They are not separate systems operating independently in different sectors of the body but overlapping networks that can swap information and “talk” to each other.

The nervous system connects directly to the thymus, one of the powerhouses of the immune system which nurtures and deploys natural killer cells and other types of white blood cells into the body on command. What is even more fascinating is the researchers now know that the cells of our immune systems actually have neuroreceptors on them. Neuroreceptors were believe to be limited to the brain and the nervous system until Candace Pert, often called “the mother of psychoneuroimmunology,” discovered the presence of neurotransmitter and neuropeptide receptors on the wall of cells in both the immune system and the brain. These neuroreceptors proved a way for the nervous system to communicate cell to cell. The cells of the immune system, roaming throughout our entire body at all times have that radio channel turned on. They are in direct communication with the nervous system, meaning whatever’s going on in your mind is being broadcast directly into the immune system. It is possible for our emotions to talk to our immune systems—sometimes with dramatic and unexpected results.

One recipient of a spontaneous remission attributed part of his healing to an ongoing, unshakable feeling of being loved by a special person who’d been important to him. Dr. Rediger writes, “Could this powerful feeling of being loved have been broadcast into his immune system, revivifying something deep within him? Whether it comes from a therapeutic session, a loving relationship, deep meditation or focused imagery, love touches and heals something that medications can’t touch.

The Role of Humor for a Healthy Memory

June 28, 2019

This post was inspired by a column by Marlene Cimons titled “Laughter can cure your ills? That’s no joke” in the Health and Science Section of the June 18, 2019 issue the Washington Post. She cites the following statement by Carl Reiner. “There is no doubt about it. Laughter is my first priority. I watch something that makes me laugh. I wake up and tickle myself while I’m still in bed. There is no greater pleasure than pointing at something, smiling and laughing about it. I don’t think there is anything more important than being able to laugh. When you can laugh, life is worth living. It keeps me going. It keeps me young.”

Reiner is 97. His fellow funny people: Mel Brooks is 93, Dick Van Dyke is is 93, Norman Lear will be 97, and Betty White is 97, seem to make this point.

Sven Svebak, professor emeritus at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology says, “A friendly sense of humor will bless you with better social relations as well as coping skills, and the reduced risk of dying early. A friendly sense of humor acts like shock absorbers in a car, a mental shock absorber in everyday life to help us cope better with a range of frustrations, hassles, and irritations.”

Norman Cousins asserted that self-induced bouts of laughter (and massive intravenous doses of vitamin C) extended his life after he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, which is a debilitating form of arthritis. Cousins lived many years longer that his doctors initially predicted,

Edward Creagan, professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science said, “When people are funny, they attract other people, and community connectedness is the social currency for longevity. Nobody wants to be around negative, whiny people. It’s a drain. We’re attracted to funny people.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter stimulates the brain to release more endorphins. It also helps people manage stress by easing tension, relaxing the muscles and lowering blood pressure. It relieves pain and improves mood. Laughter also strengthens the immune system.

Creagan says, “When we laugh, it decreases the level of the evil stress hormone cortisol. When we are stressed, it goes high and this interferes with the parts of the brain that regulate emotions. When that happens, the immune system deteriorates and becomes washed in a sea of inflammation, which is a factor in hear disease, cancer, and dementia. Cortisol interferes with the body’s immune system, putting us at risk for these three groups of diseases.

The results of a large Norwegian study of 53,556 participants conducted by Svebak and his colleagues indicate that humor can delay or prevent certain life-threatening diseases. The scientists measured the subjects’ sense of humor with a health survey that included, among other things, a cognitive element, “asking the participants to estimate their ability to find something funny in most situations.

Women with high cognitive scores experience a reduced risk of premature death from cardiovascular and infectious diseases. Men with high cognitive scores had a reduced risk of early death from infections.

Ms. Cimons’s article also reported that humor seems to stimulate memories and improve mental acuity in the elderly, especially among those with dementia. Elder clowns are now also helping seniors in residential setting says Bernie Warren, professor emeritus in dramatic arts and the University of Windsor and founder of Fools for Health, a Canadian clown-doctor program.

There are good reasons that humor benefits a healthy memory. This can be thought of in terms of Kahneman’s Two Process of cognition. System 1 is our default mode of processing and is very fast. System 2 kicks in when we are learning something or when we hear or see something that is surprising. A joke occurs when something unexpected happens. If we are surprised and amused, that is due to System 2 processing kicking in. If System 2 does not kick in, then we miss the point and the humor of the joke. System 2 processing is critical for both a good sense of humor and a healthy memory.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Pavlov’s Power

February 26, 2016

Pavlov’s Power is the third chapter in Jo Marchant’s “Cure:  A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body.”  Remember Pavlov the Russian physiologist who discovered classical conditioning?  Pavlov is the one who discovered that by pairing a stimulus, a bell for example, with the presentation of food caused the dog to salivate when the stimulus alone, called the conditioned stimulus, was presented.  Classical conditioning is one of the fundamental paradigms in psychology.  The question is, does this procedure have any practical uses.  The subtitle of this chapter, How to Train Your Immune System, provides the answer.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) describe children who are inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive.  They are constantly  talking and fidgeting.  unable to wait for their turn, and are unable to focus in school.  Medication helps them to control their symptoms, but still causes problems from irritable outbursts when the drug wears off  to weight loss and stunted growth.  A researcher name Sandler wondered whether a placebo might help these children to manage their symptoms on a lower dose of the drug.  He hoped that the honest delivery of placebos as part of a regime that would harness the power of both expectation and conditioning.   He employed seventy ADHD patients aged six to twelve in a two month trial.  These children were split randomly into three groups.  One group underwent a conditioning regime in which they received their normal medication, but also swallowed a distinctive green and white capsule along with their drug.  For the second month they received half their usual drug along with the placebo capsule.  There were two control groups, neither of which received any conditioning.  One group received their full dose of medication for the first month and a half dose for the second month.  The second control group received the full dose of medication for two months.

Sandler published his results in 2010.  The symptoms of the half-dose control group got significantly worse in the second month of the trial.  However, the conditioned group remained stable, doing just as well as the full dose patients.  There were even hints that the children in this group did even better, suffering fewer side effects than those on the full dose of the drug.

Bob Ader, a psychologist at the University of Rochester was doing research on taste aversion.  He gave a group of rats several doses of water sweetened with saccharin.  Normallt this would be a treat but he paired the water with injections that made the animals feel sick.  Later when the rats are given sweetened water on its own, they associated the sugary case with feeling ill (classical conditioning) and refused to drink it.  Adler then forced-fed them using an eyedropper to see how long it would take to learn to forget the negative association.  Rather than forgetting the negative association they died, one by one.

The drug that was used to make the rats feel sick was cytoxan.  In addition to causing the feeling of sickness, it also suppresses the immune system.  So conditioning reaches far behind normal responses, it can also affect the immune system.  This is a rather dramatic conclusion to draw, and it was not accepted at first.  David Felten, a neuroscientist working at the University of Indiana used a powerful microscope to look at the body tissues from dissected mice.  When Felten followed the different branches of the autonomic nervous he found nerves running right into the hear of immune organs such as the spleen and thymus.

Many scientists found Felten’s results difficult to accept.  However, one who did not was Dr. Jonas Salk, the creator of the Salk vaccine.  Salk wrote, “This research area could turn out to be one of the truly great areas of biology in medicine.  You’ll meet some opposition.  Continue to swim upstream.”

Felten did and stated a collaboration with Ader and his colleague Cohen and moved them to the University of Rochester.  These three are now broadly credited with founding a field of research known as psychoneuroimmunology.  This group went on of discover a complex web of connections.  They found receptors for neurotransmitters—messenger molecules produced by the brain— on the surface of immune cells, as well as new neurotransmitters that could talk to those cells.  The lines of communications went in both directions.  Psychological factors can trigger the release of neurotransmitters that influence immune responses, while chemicals released by the immune system can influence the brain.  For example drowsiness, fever and depressive symptomjtr that confine us to bed when we are well.

So Pavlovian conditioning can go way beyond making dogs drool!

Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body

February 23, 2016

The title of this blog post is identical to the title of an outstanding book by Jo Marchant.  The phrase, “it’s just a placebo effect,” has been one of my pet peeves for a long time as I find the placebo effect to be one of the most important facts of medicine.  Any medical trial needs to be run against a placebo treatment as the placebo treatment will result in a measurable effect, and the desire is to measure the effect of the treatment above and beyond the placebo effect.  However, what I find ironic is that this genuine effect is not routinely administered.  Absent some treatment, why not give the patient a placebo as there will be a benefit for at least some of the patients?  The reason that the physician would provide is that the placebo effect is not a real treatment so it would be dishonest to deceive the patient even though the patient might benefit from the deception.  Research has shown that patients still benefit from placebos even when they know that they are indeed placebos.  I find it ironic that physicians routinely treat viruses with antibiotics even though they know that the antibiotic is ineffective against viruses.  This practice has weakened the effectiveness of antibiotics,  Why not administer a placebo shot instead?  Any effect the antibiotic might have would be a placebo effect, so why not simply administer an injection of a placebo?

The truth is that too many physicians are infected with the bias that medicine is physical and that placebos are mental.  They refuse to appreciate the effect that the mind has over the body.  Marchant’s book goes a long way to documenting these effects.  The failure to correct this bias will result in unnecessary deaths, pain, and suffering.

At the outset, Marchant makes two important points about  the limitations of the placebo effect.  The first is that any effects caused by beliefs in a treatment are limited to the natural tools that the body has available  Note, however, that the body might not use some of the natural tools absent a placebo effect.

The second point is that effects mediated by expectations tend to be limited to symptoms—things that we are consciously aware of,such as pain, itching, rashes or diarrhea, as well as cognitive function, sleep and the effects of drugs such as caffeine and alcohol.  Placebo effects also seem to be particularly strong for psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.

However, these limitations are not as constricting as they might seem as placebo effects can affect the immune system, which is the disease fighting system of the body.  This is a new field of research, one that has been encouraged by the father of the Salk vaccine, Jonas Salk, called psychoneuroimmunology.  The potential of this new field of research is unknown.

So, who knows what placebos hold for the future, but today in many cases painkillers and antidepressants may not work much better than a placebo.  Moreover there are risks of addiction and side effects with these drugs.  The top ten grossing drugs in the United States help only between 1 in 25 and 1 in 4 of the people who take them,.  Statins might benefit as few as 1 in 50.

A study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that drugs are responsible for more than half a million deaths in the Western world each year with minimal benefit.

I would also call your attention to the healthy memory blog post, “Most Published Research Findings are False.”  So most physicians are working in the dark with research, most of which is wrong.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Adverse Effects of Social Isolation

October 23, 2011

Lonely people have a higher risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, and from depression to death. However, people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and have more favorable responses to vaccines. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, an expert on the effects of social isolation, says that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking. Charles Raison of Emory University studies mind-body interactions agrees with Cacioppo. He has said, “It’s probably the most powerful behavioral finding in the world. People who have rich social lives and warm open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.”1

Although it is true that some people who are lonely might not take good care of themselves, Cacioppo states that there are direct physiological mechanisms that are related to the effects of stress. Cacioppo has found that genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response are up-regulated in lonely people and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active too. His conjecture is that our bodies might have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in would healing and bacterial infection. On the other hand, people in a group might favor the immune response for fighting viruses, which are more likely to be spread among people living in close contact.

It is important to note that these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people believe themselves to be, rather than to the actual size of their social network. Cacioppo thinks that our attitude to others is key here. Lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and see other people as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies that he published last year, he found that disabusing lonely people of this attitude reduced loneliness more effective than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.2

Only one or two close friends might suffice if you are satisfied with your social life. Problems arise when you feel lonely.3 In the jargon of the Healthymemory Blog, this is largely a matter of transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to shared memories and of the knowledge one has of other memories. These memories can form as a result of person-to-person interactions or via means of technology, such as the internet. It should be noted that having hundreds of friends on Facebook would not necessarily indicate that you are not lonely. “What is important is the quality rather than the quantity of these relationships. An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with a number he modestly named, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. This is the maximum number of relationships. The number of close, meaningful relationships is much smaller. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people with whom we speak frequently. I find this absolute number a tad small, but to be in the general ballpark. At the other extreme there are about 100 people with whom we speak about once a year. The 150 number is an absolutely maximum of people we can even generously consider as friends. So Facebook users who have friended several hundred friends have essentially rendered the term “friend” meaningless.” (From the Healthymemory Blog post, “Why is Facebook So Popular?”, also see the Healthymemory Blog post “How Many Friends are Too Many?”).

1From “Trust People” in Heal Thyself by Marchant, J. (2011), New Scientist., 27 August, p. 35.

2Cacipoppo, J. (2010). Annals of Behaviorl Medicine, 40, p. 218.

3This part of this post was based heavily on the article by Marchant in the first footnote above.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.