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Balancing and Supporting the Immune System

By Joie Power Ph.D. on Feb 11, 2005

Balance Your Immune System

Today, people in all walks of life experience levels of stress that were unheard of in their grandparents' time and sometimes it seems that our days are filled with stressful events from the time we awaken until the time we go to sleep. There is so much to do and so little time for simple rest and quiet reflection. For city dwellers especially, life has become separated from the natural rhythms that have governed our minds and bodies for most of our long existence on this planet. Not only are our lifestyles more demanding and stressful but our environment now also presents us with new and challenging hazards to our health in the form of toxic substances in air, water, food, and consumer products of many kinds. As our life stresses and environmental hazards have increased, so have many types of illness, including cancer, immune and auto-immunediseases, depression, skin problems, Alzheimer's disease, and certain types of viral and bacterial infections to name a few. In addition, more and more people complain of being exhausted, depressed, and simply not feeling good. At the same time however, we are also discovering that we have an enormous capacity to heal and stay well and that we can mobilize that capacity to create health and a rewarding life style.

While most people now recognize that there is a relationship between increased stress, environmental hazards, and the increased occurrence of certain illnesses and complaints, we still have a healthcare system that focuses on treating each specific complaint as it occurs, rather than looking for and correcting underlying causes. If you have a sore throat, your doctor will take a culture and if you are found to have a "strep" infection, you will be given an antibiotic. Later, when you develop a yeast infection, you'll use a vaginal cream to clear it up. When you then get a urinary tract infection, you'll take another antibiotic. If eventually you develop cancer or lupus or some other serious illness, you may undergo chemotherapy or take Prednisone or receive some other specific treatment for that illness. We have some powerful tools for treating illness in this way and many of us will need to turn to these tools at some time in our lives. Wouldn't it be better, though, if we could avoid the need for these approaches all together? Wouldn't it be better if instead of treating one specific illness after another, we could establish a lasting state of health? Wouldn't it be better if instead of accepting fatigue, depression and a painful body as chronic aspects of our existence we could find a way to feel good.

Of course, the answer to all these questions is "Yes, it would be better; in fact, it would be great"! Well, just as we have powerful tools for treating specific illnesses, we also have powerful tools for establishing and maintaining wellness and, for the most part, these are tools that any of us can and should access on our own.

A key to true health and vigor is a balanced immune system. A weakened immune system results in an increased likelihood of developing illnesses of all kinds. Common signs of a weakened immune system include the following:

- repeated infections - insomnia - frequent cold sores
- fatigue and lethargy - chronic diarrhea - chronically sore muscles
- slow wound healing - inflammations/skin problems
- depression, apathy - more than two colds a year
- restlessness or poor concentration

In some cases of illness, the immune system is not weakened but is actually too strong or is misdirected, so that instead of attacking invaders, it is attacking normal body cells. Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases are the result.

The immune system is enormously complex but fortunately you don't need to master that complexity in order to take care of your immune system and your health. If you want to know more about the specifics of immune function, there is a good discussion of this in Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Second Edition, by James and Phyliss Balch. You don't need a science background to understand this book and it's a great resource for many health questions and issues. One of the most important things that you need to understand about your immune system is that there is a strong link between emotional states and immune function. In simple terms, stress and other "negative" emotional states such as fear, anger, worry, depression, etc. result in weakening of the immune system. This becomes a vicious cycle because a weakened immune system leads to depression, poor concentration, insomnia and similar emotional problems. Low self-esteem, self-hatred, and suicidal thoughts may result in autoimmune dysfunction, in which illness develops as a result of the immune system attacking the body (instead of defending it).

It is important to understand that mental health issues are also physical health issues. I find that many people are still very resistant to this idea. This is partly because we have been brainwashed to believe that "good" people, or "perfect" people, or "strong" people or "normal" people don't have negative emotional reactions that harm their health. The people that we see in the movies and advertisements appear to have it all together and that's how we want to see ourselves. These are not images of reality; in reality life is sometimes hard and people react to the difficulties and challenges that they face. Sometimes these reactions grow into health problems. At this time in our history, they are growing into health problems at an epidemic rate.

Recently, I have been seeing a wonderful acupuncturist and learning a little about Traditional Chinese Medicine. This ancient system of healing offers another perspective on immune function that is very helpful. TCM concerns itself with "Qi", or "Vital Life Force". The so-called "Pre-natal" Qi is the primary life force of the body. This is the Qi that you are born with and its complete loss is the ultimate cause of death. Partial loss of Prenatal Qi weakens the immune system and is one cause of illness. Prenatal Qi can be diminished by drug use, too little or too much sleep, too much sex, poor diet, and other traumas and abuses of the body. Many illnesses can be seen to be the ultimate result of diminished Prenatal Qi. Once depleted, Prenatal Qi is difficult to replenish; in the TCM view, this is one reason that illness becomes a chronic way of life for some people.

There is so much that you can do to strengthen and balance your immune system. It does take effort but if you are ready to make a serious commitment to better health you can achieve miraculous results. Here are some of my thoughts on some things that may help:

- If you have been sick or feeling poorly for a long time changing your lifestyle and routines can seem overwhelming and you may not have the energy to do it alone. Don't feel guilty, inadequate or beat yourself up over this in anyway. You also probably need to see some change pretty soon in order to have the motivation to keep trying. In my personal opinion, acupuncture offers one of the best ways to experience some relatively rapid increases in energy levels and well-being. Acupuncture may help you to replenish depleted Qi and can give you an "energy foundation" for making other health-promoting changes.

- Dietary changes may be helpful. The typical western diet of meat, potatoes, and high levels of fat and sugar causes an acidifying reaction in the body's tissues and this reaction has been linked to poor states of health and immune system weakening. An alkalizing diet is more beneficial and increases health. In general, this means eating more fruits and vegetables and limiting intake of meat, dairy, beans, and especially fats and sugar. (Note: in some unusual medical conditions an alkalizing diet may be inadvisable: consult your doctor if you are unsure.) If you are interested in exploring the benefits of an alkalizing diet, take a look at Alkalize or Die by Theodore Baroody.

- Moderate exercise promotes wellness; harsh or excessive exercise decreases it. It is so important to move about and get a little fresh air and sunlight. Walking, hiking, yoga, gardening, stretching are all great exercise options. If you are exhausted and having trouble with energy and motivation, start slowly, but DO start. Even small increases in daily activity will lead to improved health if you build up a little bit each week.

- Learn to meditate and take up the practice of Chi Kung. Both have the ability to replenish depleted Prenatal Qi if practiced consistently over time.

- Take advantage of the mind-body connection. Since negative emotional states decrease immune function and positive ones balance and strengthen it, do what you need to promote a healthy and relaxed state of mind. For people experiencing intense stress, depression, anxiety, etc. this may mean getting professional counseling. Massage therapy and aromatherapy both offer ways of decreasing stress and both can affect immune function directly.


AROMATHERAPY FOR IMMUNE SYSTEM SUPPORT

Aromatherapy offers some very helpful support in your effort to balance and strengthen your immune system. First, since many essential oils promote relaxation take advantage of these effects to help you de-stress and achieve better emotional balance. De-stressing and creating a more relaxed attitude not only makes life immediately more rewarding, it is also the key to better health because it allows your immune system to recover and renew.

Try the following aromatherapy formulas to help you relax:


Relaxing for Health #1

Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata var. genuina) - 2 drops
Bergamot FCF (Citrus bergamia) - 2 drops
Lavender (lavandula angustifolia) - 2 drops

Mix with one to two tablespoons cold pressed vegetable oil, such as Sweet Almond or Grapeseed, and use for body massage. Or, place in a bowl of steaming water or appropriate diffuser to create a relaxing atmosphere. This blend is great for defusing anger and decreasing nervous tension and anxiety. It is helpful with insomnia but most people do not find it sedating if used in the daytime. NOTE: Bergamot can cause severe sunburn if applied to the skin before sun exposure. By using "FCF ' Bergamot, this risk is decreased but not eliminated. Use caution if you will be in the sun for 12 hours after using this formula on the body. There is no sunburn risk from simply inhaling the formula so use it in a diffuser anytime.


Relaxing for Health #2

Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea) - 2 drops
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) - 2 drops
Petitgrain (Citrus aurantium var. amara) - 2 drops

Mix with one to two tablespoons vegetable oil (as above) for body massage or place in a bowl of steaming water or diffuser. Effects are similar to those described for the first formula and the two formulas could be alternated. There is no risk of sunburn with this formula but it is best avoided during pregnancy.

In addition to promoting relaxation, aromatherapy may also be of benefit by directly supporting and strengthening the immune system. This can occur in two ways: by fighting microorganisms and/or by increasing immune response. Several essential oils have been reported to do both. These include Lavender, Bergamot, Eucalyptus, and Rosemary. The Melaleuca family (Tea tree, Cajeput, and Niaouli) has also been shown to have a stimulating effect on the immune system. Kanuka oil (Kunzea ericoides) may also have immune strengthening properties.

The following formulas may be helpful in efforts to renew a weakened immune system and/or to provide immune support during colds, flu, etc.:


Renewal #1

Lavender (lavandula angustifolia) - 2 drops
Bergamot FCF (Citrus bergamia) - 2 drops
Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) - 2 drops

Dilute with carrier oil for massage and/or use in a diffuser per instructions given for previous formulas. In addition to providing direct immune support, this formula is also relaxing and will help to decrease nervous tension and promote restful sleep.


Renewal #2

Niaouli (Melaleuca viridifloria) - 2 drops
Lavender (lavandula angustifolia) - 2 drops
Kanuka oil (Kunzea ericoides) - 1 drop

Dilute with carrier oil for massage and/or use in diffuser per instructions given above. This is a strengthening formula and may be especially useful for those who have serious levels of stress and/or exhaustion accompanied by muscle and joint pain. I have been working with Kanuka oil for several years and I find it to be warming, comforting, calming, strengthening and healing.

 

ESSENTIAL OIL PROFILE: NIAOULI (Melaleuca viridifloria)

Niaouli is a pale yellow or greenish oil with a sweet, sharp, fresh odor. It is extracted by steam distillation from an evergreen plant native to Australia, New Caledonia, and the French Pacific where it has been used locally for respiratory ailments, body aches and pains, and infections. It is closely related to Cajeput (Melaleuca cajeputi) but does not have the skin irritating potential of the latter. It is also related to Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). It is non-toxic and non-sensitizing but it is often adulterated and so the real thing can be hard to find! Its chemical constituents include 50 - 60 % of cineol, eucalyptol, terpineol, pinene, limonene and various esters (Patricia Davis, Aromatherapy An A-Z).

Niaouli is a very versatile and useful essential oil. As already mentioned above, it is reported to strengthen the immune system. Shirley Price states that it activates defenses and augments leukocytes and antibodies in infected areas (Shirley Price & Len Price, Aromatherapy for Health Professionals). In addition, it is said to have direct antiviral action against herpes simplex, some strains of influenza and viral hepatitis. It is generally considered to be a strengthening and fortifying oil and a physical and mental stimulant that clears and revives the mind and body.

Many people believe that when there is fatigue or exhaustion it is beneficial to stimulate the body as much as possible. This is not true - it is rarely, if ever good to subject the body to strong stimulants. Therefore, it is best to use Niaouli in small quantities (not more than 2 drops per application) and at night it can be combined with Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) to prevent insomnia. In this way, the body will benefit from the fortifying action of Niaouli without the negative effects of over-stimulation. This is a wonderful oil to use when you have been sick or stressed for a long time and your body is in a generally weakened condition with low stamina and poor immunity.

Niaouli is also a wonderful essential oil to use when you have body aches and pains. It has antispasmodic and analgesic effects that make it very useful for these applications. It is great to use in a diffuser when you have a cold because it will help fight the virus, open and stimulate the respiratory tract, mobilize and strengthen the immune system and fortify the body. It is an expectorant and very useful for the respiratory system (but, as with any essential oil, use only with guidance if you have asthma), as well as for the urinary tract (cystitis, urinary tract infection). To ease symptoms of cystitis, try a warm (not hot) sitz bath with two drops of Niaouli added.

Niaouli is a powerful tissue stimulant and because of this it can help to heal routine cuts and burns. Use 6 drops in a half pint of distilled water for washing wounds. Its strong antiseptic properties help in this respect and, because it is anti-inflammatory as well it can be a help for itching and inflamed skin. It can be applied neat to a pimple or insect bite but don't use more than 1 drop this way. Mix 2 drops in a teaspoon of carrier oil (such as grapeseed oil) for applying to athletes foot. Niaouli has also been used to help protect the skin during radiation therapy for cancer but discuss this with your doctor before trying it.

Properties of Niaouli: Analgesic; anticatarrhal; antirheumatic; antiseptic; antispasmodic; diaphoretic; expectorant; febrifuge; stimulant; balances and regulates body functions; soothes; tissue stimulant. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Niaouli is cool, dry, and slightly yin. Its main uses are to detoxify, decrease inflammation, and fight infection.


This article reprinted with the kind permission of Dr. Joie Power & Dreaming Earth Botanicals. Originally published as the Dreaming Earth Botanicals Newsletter, "The Essential News" volume 1, No. 1.

(Photo Credits: Top Photo drawing of the human energy colors by Jane Sherry. Yin Yang & Nebulizer are clip art, Mountains & photo of Dr. Joie Power provided by Dreaming Earth Botanicals.)






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Joie Power, Ph.D. practices as a Wellness Consultant, Healer, Reiki Master, and Personal Development coach. She is a retired neurobehavioral specialist with training in the neurological aspects of olfaction (smell) and emotional functioning, as well as psychoneuroimmunology, mind/body approaches, dreamwork, and aromatherapy; She provides consultation to individuals, physicians and holistic practitioners. To inquire concerning Dr. Power's availability for individual consultations workshops and educational presentations, send e-mail to or call her at the number and email below. Check out her website for The Aromatherapy School to learn more.