On today’s episode of The Modern Vital Podcast, we’re going to talk about two different types of immune response and the role of natural killer cells in the immune system, particularly with regard to chronic infections and certain autoimmune diseases, and some practical tips on how to enhance natural killer cell production.
Our Modern Vital Fact of the Day is that natural killer cells have an ability called metabolic reprogramming. This feature allows them to distinguish between healthy cells and virus infected or cancerous cells.
Natural killer cells accomplish metabolic reprogramming by sensing changes in intracellular metabolites such as amino acids, nucleotides, et cetera. This capability allows natural killer cells, also known as NK cells to target and eliminate abnormal cells without harming healthy ones.
We often talk about the immune system being suppressed, right? We hear it all the time, but we have to be very specific about what we mean when we say this.
We have the medical term immunosuppression, which according to the National Cancer Institute, means to have a weakened immune system, right? That is, a reduced ability to battle infections, which can be caused by aids, cancer, diabetes, even poor nutrition, and some rare genetic disorders, such as selective IGA deficiency. That’s the most common primary immunodeficiency disorder.
Certain medications like tacrolimus in the case of liver transplant, anti-cancer, drugs, radiation, all of these things can cause immunosuppression, and another word that is used interchangeably is immunocompromised.
So when we talk about the immune system being suppressed, it’s important to ask ourselves what part of the immune system is being suppressed? Which part is dominant? Which part is fully operative?
The immune system is an intricate network of cells, tissues, organs. They all work together to defend the body against invading pathogens. Harmful substances, for example, our spleen, our lymph nodes, our gut, our skin, blood, lymph.
These are all organs that are involved, and then there’s cells like T-cells, B cells, natural killer cells, macrophages, neutrophils, et cetera.
T-cells, for example, are made in the bone marrow. They migrate to the thymus gland where they mature, and then they can help protect the body from infection.
B cells make antibodies.
Natural killer cells release small particles called granules with enzymes in them that can kill virus infected cells and tumors.
Macrophages, which are a type of scavenger cell, surround and kill microorganisms. I think of them a lot like a Pacman that’s gobbling up dead debris, pathogens, et cetera.
Neutrophils are one of the first immune cells to respond to an invading bacteria virus. They’re the first on the scene, like the first responders. They’ll travel to the site of infection, maybe play a role in eating up some of the microorganisms, and they’ll also release a little bit of cytotoxic enzyme, a lot like the natural killer cells do.
The overall goal of the immune system is to keep the microbes in balance, to destroy the pathogens, to keep tumors in check.
There are two arms or categories of the immune system, the innate and the adaptive. The innate immunity is non-specific. We were born with it. It doesn’t have any memory. It’s the first barrier that a pathogen encounters when it enters the body.
Our skin, for example, is the first physical barrier. We also have the respiratory tract in the gut. Mucus, another part of our innate immunity, which is produced in the mucus membranes, acts like slime, preventing the adherence of pathogens which come in.
Also, bacteria can be expelled in the flow of the mucus with the help of little hair-like projections called celia, which reside in the bronchi and can help to move the mucus up to be coughed out of the body
Fluid in our lungs contains surfactant, a chemical compound that reduces surface tension in our lungs. This surfactant also opsonizes bacteria. Opsonization is a fancy word for it to mark bacteria to be eaten by little monsters or scavengers, again, called macrophages.
Innate immunity is like a guard dog. It’ll attack anything that enters no matter what it is.
Adaptive immunity on their hand is specific. This is the second arm of the immune system. We develop it. It has memory, it needs more time, but it’s more precise. It provides a long lasting response. It involves the production of antibodies, which bind to specific antigens on the surface of pathogens, or it binds to the toxins released by the pathogens. It marks them for destruction so that other immune cells can come in and do the rest of the work.
Because adaptive immunity has memory, it will recognize pathogens that it’s seen before.
Once produced, antibodies can provide long-term protection against future infection from the same pathogen.
The innate immune system produces what is called cell mediated immunity, which does not rely on antibodies. It involves T helper cells called Th1, which provide help to other immune cells, so that host defenses are strong.
Think of it being Th1, because it’s the first responder, right? It’s the first arm of the immune system. It’s that guard dog.
Th1 cells secrete different cytokines. Cytokines are chemical substances that have an effect on cells such as interferon gamma, interleukin-2, or interleukin, depending on how you want to say it. IL-10. IL is just short for interleukin and TNF alpha. Interferon gamma is the primary activator of macrophages and also stimulates natural killer cells and neutrophils. IL-2, for example, produces inflammation, and it’s a growth factor that plays an important role in the proliferation of T-cells.
IL-10, on the other hand, which we just mentioned a second ago, is anti-inflammatory. It helps to maintain tissue homeostasis. And TNF-alpha helps send a signal to cells to die, a process called apoptosis.
Now, Th2 helper cells, on the other hand…again, think Th2 because it’s the second arm of the immune system)… They mediate the activation of antibody mediated immunity. I know that’s a mouthful. That is, adaptive immunity. Another term for it is humoral immunity.
In medicine, remember, we always have three words for everything, so this adaptive response is an immune response to things like extracellular parasites. Extracellular meaning it’s outside of the cell bacteria, allergens, toxins. This is also the response that is supposed to be activated by vaccines. Th2 cells produce cytokines like IL-4, IL-5, IL-13, and they foster strong antibody production.
IL-4, for example, acts as a regulator in antibody production. It activates eosinophils and it can inhibit macrophages. Eosinophils, by the way, are little white blood cells that help to control and isolate disease in the body. IL-5, on the other hand, is pro-inflammatory, and it helps support the production of eosinophils.
In 1986, something called the Th1/Th2 hypothesis was born. It arose out of mouse models where it was shown that innate and adaptive immunity are mutually antagonistic. In other words, if one pattern becomes overactive or overactivated or dominant, then disease can ensue or immunopathology can ensue and either pathway when overactive can down-regulate, or shut off or suppress its counterpart.
Now, this hypothesis has been disproven in many ways. It’s overly simplistic. It has major inconsistencies, and yet it still remains true to some degree, and I think it’s practical to look at it in more depth.
Now, we don’t have time to get too much into the details and the weeds on it, but it offers us insight potentially into why some people get sick all the time, and why an overly active Th2 response appears to be more associated with chronic infections like Lyme or Epstein Barr and certain autoimmune diseases, like Lupus or Sjogren’s.
Interestingly, studies show that when glutathione, the body’s most important antioxidant, which protects us from free radical damage, in the case of inflammation, then it’s depleted.
Th1 becomes inactive and Th2 becomes dominant. Now, it might be a little bit of the chicken and the egg thing because when Th2 is dominant, it’s probably going to deplete glutathione. And so anyway, a lot of studies show that adaptive immune cells can actively dampen or suppress or turn off the initial innate immune response, and the control of the innate response can be lost for a while under a dominant operative Th2 response.
So how can we support Th1 if Th2 is overly active? I think this is incredibly relevant today. I see a lot of Long Haul Covid in my practice.
I see a lot of chronic Epstein Bar. I see a lot of tickborne illness, Lyme disease, et cetera, and in many of the cases, we have an overly active Th2 and a suppressed Th1, and a lot of these patients get sick all the time because when virus has come in, they breach the barrier right away because there really is no barrier.
There is no guard dog, and so how can we support that barrier to come back? How can we support that innate immune response to be healthy and thriving?
Well, we can start with some natural therapies. Again, this is not medical advice. Please consult your naturopathic doctor if you suspect chronic infection or if you would like to look at putting together a health protocol customized to your individual journey.
We can start with natural therapies known to bolster our natural killer cell production, which play a critical role in our immunity or plays a critical role, right?
The natural killer cells, we talked about them a little bit. They release those enzymes. Those enzymes are cytotoxic. They show up like that guard dog, and they kill things.
In my practice, my patients who struggle with chronic infections, again, like Epstein Bar or Long Covid, which is now a big deal, these types of patients are more likely to be low in natural killer cells, and I think it’s because their natural killer cells are often getting used up because they’re chronically battling viruses that are coming in and making it in.
So some of the therapies, the evidence-based therapies, and there’s quite a body of research supporting this, so you can do some research yourself, Vitamin C, Vitamin D three, echinacea, selenium, beta glucans (which we get from various mushrooms), astragalus, and even skullcap flavones.
These are bioflavonoids that are found in skullcap or scutellaria, one of my favorite herbs. And glutathione is another one. Well, we already talked about that. Ozone therapy. I don’t know if you know much about ozone, but ozone therapy will support innate immunity.
Again, this is not medical advice. Please consult your integrative health provider if you suspect that you might be Th2 dominant.
In conclusion, natural killer cells have been shown to be weaker and deficient in chronic infections such as chronic Epstein Bar, Lyme disease, et cetera, and in certain autoimmune diseases like lupus, Sjogren’s, et cetera.
We know that humorall or adaptive immunity plays a large role in these conditions as antibodies are constantly being produced in these conditions, and it appears that to some degree, in many cases, the Th1 response or innate immunity is inoperative. That is, it’s shut down. It’s turned off, it’s suppressed.
We need to turn it back on. This could explain why these people appear to be more sick. Frequently, their Th1 response is inoperative. Their Th2 response is overreactive or dominant. I know this is very simplistic, but it’s still useful.
Natural therapy protocols that specifically support innate immunity and natural killer cell production in particular could be promising in the treatment of chronic infections at certain autoimmune diseases.
That concludes episode #5 of The Modern Vital Podcast. We would love to hear from you. We value your feedback. Please head on over to Spotify or Apple iTunes, and leave us a review. If you enjoyed this episode and if you have any questions or suggestions for future episodes, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to having you join us next week for another exciting episode of The Modern Vital Podcast.
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