Are Viruses Friend or Foe? Fresh Ideas on Natural Immunity and How to Best Support Your "Righte
We all know people who never get sick. Others around them are falling ill with all manner of viruses and yet they seem to be annoyingly resistant. Is it just genetic, we wonder? Did they inherit the “lucky genes”? Whatever the reason, they seem to be immune to the sea of viruses, bacteria and other potentially pathological microorganisms permeating the same environment we all share. Other unfortunates seem to pick up every virus that floats past them, and to get sicker than others from the same “bug”.
Regardless of these obvious differences in susceptibility, our culture seems obsessed with protecting absolutely everyone against infection and viruses, as if we are all "headed to the guillotine" on some sort of equal platform. There is a deep seated fear of the Virus, illustrated by an obsession with TV shows and films depicting an apocalypse brought on by a pandemic killer virus (e.g. "Walking Dead", or "World War Z"). Media is on a mission to make sure everyone gets their annual flu shot, despite the fact that these shots are on average only about 20% effective in any given year, and are now being shown to decrease an individual’s resistance to flu each successive year it is received.
Ubiquitous use of antibacterial hand sanitizers and liquid soap in schools, hospitals, and public bathrooms containing Triclosan, an antibacterial agent that has been proven to slowly weaken the immune system and create abnormal endocrine/thyroid signaling, now permeates our water supply. In the name of protecting ourselves from the evil Virus, we have introduced substances into our environment with either dangerous, or at best uncertain, long term side effects. Is our fear and paranoia driving us to a worse place than the Virus itself?
This underlying deep fear of the Virus is historically not unfounded. Within our collective unconscious exists the memory of Obliteration by Virus. The bubonic plague in the middle ages wiped out 50 million people, roughly 60% of the European population at the time. Ninety percent of the native peoples of the Americas, who had never previously been exposed, were wiped out by diseases (mostly smallpox and measles) unintentionally brought over by European explorers before colonization ever began. There were an estimated 112 million people in both the north and south continents in 1492, and by 1650 that number had dwindled to 6 million due to illness. And the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918, which infected about 500 million people worldwide, killed an estimated 20-50 million.
And yet somehow--after centuries and millennia--both viruses and humans are still here. What is the saying? “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Through evolving together, we’ve managed to find a way to coexist. It isn’t a “coexisting” that necessarily supports each and every individual, whose genetics and constitution may or may not be strong enough to withstand it. But it is a “coexisting” that may support the generations, as in the case of childhood infections that were once deadly and evolved to largely benign illnesses providing lifelong immunity and even conferring long term health advantages (that I will discuss in a moment). Let’s take a quick look at a fundamental difference between Western and Eastern medicine, and the association with pathogens (including viruses).
Similar to Western medicine, Traditional Chinese medicine holds the view that we are born endowed with “Kidney Jing” which differs from person to person, and basically acknowledges the genetic factors that are at play from birth to death. But interestingly, Chinese medicine (and Eastern medicine) does not assume a fear-based nor adversarial approach to infectious illness. According to the Huang Di Nei Jing, the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine, there are always pathogens in the air. Then why aren't we constantly sick? Our bodies have a natural intuitive defense for dealing with these pathogens which is called our “Wei qi” or "Righteous qi”. Getting sick from external causes (colds, flu, allergies) is ultimately about the battle between what's in the air, called "Wind" or "Evil qi", and the strength of our Righteous qi.
Here the emphasis of the two forms of medicine really diverge. Western medicine has focused almost exclusively on destruction and control of the “Evil qi”, or germs in the environment, but Eastern medicine dictates that it is less important to worry about the pathogens and instructs us instead to focus on improving the quality of our Righteous qi by self-care and cultivating strength. When our bodies are strong, when we are resting and eating properly, exercising and managing stress, and taking the best care of ourselves, our immune system functions highly and protects us adequately.
Since the precipitous decline of nearly all infectious disease from the early 1900’s in the Western world due to radically improved sanitation and hygiene practices, in addition to a well nourished population, this theory would appear to carry some weight (CDC, "Achievement in Public Health 1900-1999"). In the 1960’s before the measles vaccination program was launched, about one in half a million people actually died from measles complications in Western countries--and that was almost exclusively in immune-compromised individuals. This is in comparison to anywhere from 15 to 30 deaths per 100,000 in outbreaks in the 1800s and early 1900s, and continues in stark contrast to populations of children in third world countries who still live in areas of very poor sanitation and nutritional deprivation and who are far more likely to succumb to the measles (or any other virus for that matter).
Beyond improved hygiene, sanitation and nutrition, in this article I am submitting that there is even an additional perspective, bringing brought to light by a number of current scientific research publications: that certain viruses can actually play a beneficial role in our immune health, strengthening and preparing us for the years ahead, so that we can live longer, healthier lives. According to this perspective, there is in fact a symbiotic relationship with certain viruses that has developed over hundreds of thousands of years--in the same way that we are uncovering in recent years a vastly improved understanding of our gut microbiome and the essential role of beneficial bacteria and yeast in gut health, and in synthesizing critical nutrients for health.
As in the case of bacteria, fungi and parasites, not all organisms are the same. Many of you probably take a probiotic daily--understanding that the bacteria and yeasts you are consuming in your supplement have been found to beneficially support your health. Moreover, we are discerning; I doubt anyone would willingly swallow a supplement containing E Coli or C difficile! Most of us now understand the problems we have generated by our heavy handed use of antibiotics, and recognize that not all of these organisms are bad, and that certain ones are critical to health. The cost of our ignorance and heavy handed "kill all" approach has lead not only to the emergence of "superbugs" or mutated forms of bacteria and fungi, but to an epidemic of intestinal permeability (also known as "leaky gut") leading in turn to an epidemic of autoimmunity, and strong evidence linking these causes to certain cancers. We realize on hindsight that there is a great deal we do not yet understand about our relationship with the hundreds, if not thousands, of microorganisms with which we come in contact on a daily basis.
But what if the same were true of viruses? By adopting a “War on Nature” attitude toward ALL viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, we have not created a utopian world free of disease. We have not focused our efforts like Eastern medicine on understanding how our immunity works more intimately, and how to support these functions. Instead it appears that we may have traded in our acute illness for chronic disease. And not just traded--we have seen our chronic illness skyrocket in the past three decades. We have gone from roughly 12.8 percent of the US population suffering from chronic illness in the 1980’s, to a whopping 54% today.
So what is this supportive symbiotic relationship between some viruses and their host, that we are just starting to uncover with scientific research? It is simply this: when the host has a healthy immune system, the virus only increases the fitness of the host. Certain viruses have been shown now in a number of studies to play a pivotal role in reducing atopic disease (allergies, asthma, eczema, and anaphylaxis), as well as boosting resistance to certain cancers--and who knows what else. This field of scientific study is so very new, as to be in its infant stage.
But before we look at these studies, consider our basic immune function, and the natural way our bodies are designed to eliminate potentially harmful pathogens.
Fever and the Treatment of Cancer
In 1890 a surgeon by the name of William Coley working at Memorial Hospital in New York City began investigating alternative methods of treating inoperable sarcoma. At the time, Memorial Hospital was considered the foremost sarcoma treatment center in the world, using the most advanced surgical techniques to remove the tumors. But too many patients were still dying of the cancer, despite surgery.
Dr Coley found out about the curious case of a man who had been diagnosed with sarcoma and had been admitted to the hospital--only to contract a virulent case of erysipelas, a strep infection of the skin accompanied by pain, redness, and high fever. The young man not only recovered from the erysipelas, but the sarcoma was discovered to have vanished as well, and he was discharged. Dr Coley sought the man out some years later, and found him alive and continuing in good health.
Dr Coley began to investigate the history of fever and the role of the immune system in treating cancer and other diseases. He discovered in the scientific literature many cases of so-called spontaneous remission that had been closely preceded by an acute febrile (high fever) illness. He also discovered a history of physicians using fever therapy to treat patients--including European doctors who were injecting cancer patients with bacterial toxins to induce a fever. Dr Coley eventually developed a mixture of Gram negative bacterial endotoxins that would provoke fevers of up to 105 degrees (Fahrenheit) on a daily basis for a month. Known as Coley’s Toxins, a 1945 study calculated a 60 percent cure rate using this therapy among more than 300 cases of inoperable cancer!
Unfortunately Coley’s Toxins were banned by the FDA in 1962, and with the rise of radiation, chemotherapy and the cusp of the genetic revolution, the therapy was forgotten. The medical world had also discovered aspirin and acetominophen (Tylenol) to suppress fevers, and had begun routine use of antibiotics at the time. As Dr Thomas Cowan puts it, in his book Vaccines, Autoimmunity, and the Changing Nature of Childhood Illness, “ The idea of the human being as a self-correcting organism, with the primal event of producing a fever as its main tool, no longer had a place in the armamentarium of the modern doctor.”
I am happy to report that there are doctors today using fever to treat cancer. Called hyperthermia, thermal therapy or thermotherapy, body tissue is exposed to high temperatures (up to 113°F). Continuing research has shown that high temperatures can damage and kill cancer cells, usually with minimal injury to normal tissues. Yet, oddly enough, the stigma around fever remains.
Natural Immune Response: Both Cell Mediated AND Humoral
There are actually two branches of the immune system that work together in order to produce robust immune health. Most people are familiar with the humoral branch, or antibody branch. This is the part of the immune system responsible for “tagging” and recognizing a particular antigen (virus, bacteria, or other foreign substance), and developing long-term memory, so that should re-exposure occur, the pathogen can be quickly dispensed with. This is the part of the immune system vaccines target.
However, long before the humoral branch comes into play, the cell mediated branch of the immune system is at work. The task of this more primitive part of the immune system is to respond with a flood of both chemicals and white blood cells to areas of the body that have been invaded by a foreign substance. Chicken pox (varicella virus), for example, usually infects thousands of cells in the respiratory tract of a previously unexposed child. White blood cells then flood into the respiratory tract, engulfing or digesting infected cells--and then excreting the waste either through the skin, manifesting as the “pox”, or through the formation of mucus, which is then sneezed or coughed out of the body.
This cell mediated response is the first crucial step in clearing an infection or toxin from our tissues--and it is significant that it involves elimination. The symptoms of a viral infection that we get, such as fever, rash, or cough, are actually not caused by the virus itself, but by the response of our own cell mediated immune system--and it is this response that we call “being sick”. Notably, it is also these uncomfortable symptoms that actually remove the toxin from the body--an essential step in returning to a place of health. Similar to vomiting when you have food poisoning, aren’t the symptoms actually desirable in this case? Shouldn't we be welcoming the symptoms removing the toxin from our body, rather than endeavoring to suppress or control them at all cost?
It is important to realize that a person with a dysfunctional cell mediated immune response will not get acutely ill. She may die from an overwhelming response to an influenza infection with no sign of infection, because her body was unable to mount a response. This is also why we see more acute fevers and symptoms in children than adults most of the time--their younger, stronger, more robust immune system mounts a more intense response. However, this intense response is also likely to both rid them of the infection quicker, and without unpleasant secondary infections.
Yet what does most of conventional medicine focus on? Medicine today endeavors to basically thwart the cell mediated immune response: to reduce the fever, stop the cough, and dry up the mucus, all in the name of immediate gratification and comfort. Symptoms are considered "the enemy", despite the fact that these very symptoms are what is removing the toxin from our body! I know I am not the only one to notice that many of the OTC medications that suppress these natural responses end up prolonging the illness, and potentially leading to secondary complications such as bacterial infection. Pediatricians often advise parents to give their children Tylenol, Motrin or Advil as soon as they get a fever, immediately suppressing the child's natural and effective response to kill off the pathogen, and thereby weakening his or her immunity. While antibiotics are being doled out more carefully these days, it wasn’t so long ago that they were being prescribed for nearly any infection, with the devastating long term repercussions with which we are all now so familiar. In the same way, various preparations of prednisone (a steroid that suppresses inflammation) from intra-nasal to oral are often prescribed liberally during infection, and these too can lead to devastating outcomes.
We see the absolute inverse of this, a complete support of the cell mediated response, in the treatment of infection with herbal medicine. Over the years, I have treated many viral illnesses in both myself and my own family as well as my patients with Chinese herbs. It is common to see symptoms clearly intensify, as the herbs amplify and step up the action of the cell mediated immune response. While this is uncomfortable in the short term, it leads to some very beneficial results--typically a substantial shortening of the duration of the illness, and no secondary complications (such as bronchitis, long term cough, or sinus infection).
Here we come back full circle to the basic difference in attitude and perception between Eastern and Western medicine. Typically, Western medicine has taken an adversarial approach to Nature--to the human body and its natural functions--using medicine that “nukes” the pathogen such as antibiotics, antifungals, and chemotherapy, or suppresses the natural inflammatory response with harsh medications such as steroids without understanding and treating the cause. While the short term benefits may feel and appear good, what we are seeing over the years are the increasingly harmful long term effects. Our efforts are concentrated on finding a way to suppress and control the symptom, without understanding what is causing that symptom or even whether or not that symptom may be desirable in the long run. (And I want to be clear here: it isn’t as if there is no time or place to use such strong medicine--none of us would want to live in a world without these options. It is the radical over-use of these therapies that I question, that then spawn a population with an increasingly weakened immune response, and further susceptibility to chronic illness.)
Finally, the cell mediated and the humoral branches of the immune system are perfectly designed to work together. New research is emerging showing that if you bypass the cell mediated branch, thereby avoiding large scale exposure and uncomfortable symptoms, then there are can be other, long term ill effects.
This is no where illustrated more clearly than with vaccine therapy. One of the most blatant “down sides” of vaccinations is the necessity for repeated boosters. When vaccination programs were first being carried out in the 1960s, doctors were confident that the vaccines would bring immunity for life. Decades later we know that 10 years of protection is about as long as we can expect from some vaccines, and only 2-5 years in others. Conversely, one exposure to a wild virus, and the child is immune for life. There seems to be a critical relationship between a large enough or “appropriate” cell mediated response that then stimulates a complete humoral response conferring lifetime immunity. Bypassing this cell mediated response leads to a weakened humoral response, and thus shortened duration of protection.
But perhaps more importantly, if you are continually stimulating the humoral immune response at the same time as you are suppressing cell mediated reactions as much as possible--what will the long term consequences be? Is it possible it will result in an excessive antibody response? An over-stimulated antibody response is what characterizes autoimmunity. And in our age of an absolute epidemic of autoimmune disorders, notably in pediatric populations as well, there is much research that needs to be done to ferret out whether or not this is a risk factor.
Researchers at Kobe University in Japan, for example, conducted trials in which they vaccinated different animals according to the current vaccination schedule. They concluded that “autoimmunity appears to be the inevitable consequence of over stimulating the host’s immune system by repeated immunization.” This study complements other epidemiological studies such as the study conducted by Jackson State University in 2017 looking at 666 vaccinated and unvaccinated children, revealing vaccinated children to have substantially higher rates of allergies.
Finally, I would like to suggest that going through a bout of natural illness (while in general good health) that allows both the cell mediated and humoral branches of immunity to be exercised fully, serves to strengthen these functions, in the same way that going to the gym for a good workout strengthens your muscles. We all know that young children roughly 0-5 years of age must go through a period of frequent illness in order to develop and strengthen their immature immune system. As many parents will testify, they often get sicker than their kids during this time! But what if this is, in fact, another gift of Nature? What if it is an opportunity for the adults to also strengthen their immunity, so that they can live longer and be healthier parents? As any school teacher will tell you, they will often get very sick the first year or two of teaching--followed by many years of relative good immunity.
Role of Childhood Viral Disease in Long-Term Immune Health
There are some fascinating emerging studies coming out in prominent medical journals revealing the critical role of childhood viral illness such as chicken pox, measles, and mumps in the strengthening of the immune system and prevention of much more serious illness later in life. Some of these childhood viral infections that used to be so common before the introduction of mass vaccination programs, and which were largely benign for the vast majority, have been shown to significantly lower the risk of allergic reactions, including eczema, hay fever and asthma, and the prevalence of certain cancers.
Two studies published in the Lancet and Pediatrics showed a clear reduction in allergies, including hay fever and asthma, in those who had wild measles and/or chickenpox as a child. A 2012-13 study following 100 children up to 8 years old who had wild chicken pox and 323 children who were vaccinated against the virus, found that the wild virus protects against atopic disease, but the vaccine does not. They published that wild measles and varicella virus are both capable of infecting memory T lymphocytes (part of the humoral or antibody system), and then killing and purging them from the body. Since it is known that the build up of memory T lymphocytes in the body over time can contribute to the development of increased allergy load, it has been postulated that measles and chickenpox, through purging these cells, then help decrease the load and thereby prevent the development of allergies. (In which case, viral rash is a good sign that the immune system is working and getting rid of potentially problematic T lymphocytes.)
A number of current studies such as this one are also showing that a history of childhood infections (measles, chicken pox, mumps, rubella) are associated with a lower risk of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma; measles in particular is associated with a dramatic lower risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Thus delayed or avoided exposure to the wild infection, including those who have been vaccinated, may increase the risk of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in young adults.
To investigate the association between non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), Hodgkin's lymphoma (HL), and exposure to childhood diseases, researchers analyzed an Italian case-control study that included 225 confirmed incident cases of NHL, 62 HL cases, and 504 controls (without the diseases). After adjusting for confounding factors, it was found that all examined childhood diseases were negatively associated with HL (a negative association means that those who had the childhood disease were significantly less likely to develop the cancer). Measles was negatively associated with NHL. They concluded, “our findings provide additional support to the hypothesis that infections by most common childhood pathogens may protect against HL or, at least, be correlated with some other early exposure, which may lower the risk of HL in adulthood.”
The association between mumps infection and a lower risk of ovarian cancer has been known for a long time, but the mechanism was not clear until a 2010 investigation discovered the cause. When the parotid glands are infected with the mumps virus, they swell and produce an antigen called MUC-1. ( An antigen is a toxin or other foreign substance which induces an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies.) Thus, mumps infection primes the immune system to recognize and fight against this particular antigen. As it happens, ovarian cancer also produces MUC-1, and if the immune system is already primed against it due to a mumps infection earlier in life, it will attack the cancer. (One of the reasons cancer is referred to as a “silent killer” is the body’s immune system does not recognize it in order to get rid of it).
Yet another study in 2016 revealed that a history of wild chickenpox virus lowers the risk of glioma (brain tumor). They found a 21% lowered risk in general in those who had wild chicken pox as children, and a whopping 47% lowered risk for those with a history of wild chicken pox in cases under age 40 and/or with high grade tumors!
Before I continue, let me state here that I am not presenting that ALL viruses have beneficial side effects. Epstein Barr is a case in point, as is HIV, Rabies, Ebola, Hepatitis B and C, and many more. But what if some of them do? Isn't it reasonable to assume as we continue to uncover beneficial functions of bacteria, fungi, and even parasites, that this could be the case with certain viruses as well? Isn’t it important to be aware of this, and to continue to conduct studies investigating this potential significant benefit to long term health?
As our institutions continue with heavy promotions of medicinal products and therapies that take such a simplistic view of a highly complex immune system that we are still far from completely comprehending, and an overall antagonistic relationship with Nature, can we recognize the flaws in this manner of thinking and policy-making? Just as a high fever can kill a virus, bacteria, or even potentially cancer cells infecting the body, maybe contraction of a targeted natural wild virus in certain cases carries more benefit than risk, particularly in children in environments of good hygiene, with adequate nutrition, and with no immunological problems.
In the end, the question is: in following the trajectory of modern medicine, have we been thrown off course? Have our assumptions started to crumble under the weight of more time and further evidence? And if so, how can we get back into sync with Nature? Will getting back on track help us reduce the crazy numbers of chronic illness in both children and adults?
What would that look like? Allowing our children (and ourselves) to run a high fever, within reason? Recognizing in many cases that our cough and our congestion is ridding our body of a viral toxin, and using tailored herbs and dietary therapies to support that process rather than suppress it? Being willing to handle discomfort in the short term, in favor of a better end result? Taking careful steps to reduce the overload of stress in our lives, feed our bodies with nourishing food, and expose ourselves to frequent fresh air and exercise? Being discerning in how often we decide--or not decide--to go in for a flu shot? Washing our hands with plain soap and water instead of using Triclosan-laden hand sanitizer or soap?
How can we remember and re-integrate what Eastern medicine recognizes? How can we be smart about how we practice medicine, taking advantage of the amazing advances in medicine we have made in treating acute illness, while respecting and giving space for the incredible way Nature already works in this awe-inspiring body that we have? Can we perhaps realize that even while we don't like our viral illness symptoms, that at least in general good health these symptoms are nevertheless giving us an opportunity to exercise our immune muscle, eliminate toxins, and strengthen in the long run--all the while reminding us to slow down and take better care of ourselves?
Are viruses friend or foe? My humble answer would be both. And I believe our duty as wise stewards of the earth, and the bodies of ourselves and our children, is to either become more discerning--or suffer the consequences.