Health, Environment and the Immune System

In celebration of World Environment Day 2020, PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP) hosted a webinar entitled, ‘Protecting Children from Toxins amid COVID-19.’ The following is the presentation of one of the guest speakers, Romeo Quijano, M.D., PANAP chairperson. Dr. Quijano is a retired professor of the University of the Philippines Manila, Department of Toxicology and Pharmacology. He is a board member of the Institute for Occupational Safety, Health and Development and former co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network.

I was given the task of sharing my views on how to boost the immune system naturally, given the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis we are all facing now. But to be more meaningful, I would like to approach the issue from a broad and holistic perspective. I strongly believe that it is important to look at the immune system as an integral part of health as a whole and to understand that health is an integral part of the environment. I will, therefore, discuss first what I think should be our understanding of what health is from a holistic perspective and how health is intimately related to our environment before I go into a discussion of the immune system, the various threats to the immune system and how to protect, prevent, maintain and boost our immune system. 

Good health is not only the absence of disease but the state of complete physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being in harmony with the environment. Illness, on the other hand, is the result of disruption of the harmony between the individual and the environment. I think a holistic perspective emphasising the role of the environment is crucial, especially when we go into the discussion of the immune system, which has been viewed almost exclusively from a very narrow biological perspective. 

The diagram I made (pictured below) illustrates the intimate relationship of health with the environment. The five main dimensions in this relationship are the physical, chemical, biological, psychological/spiritual and social. A particular issue within these dimensions can be put at the center, for example, the immune system as depicted by the mother and child figure. The connecting lines depict the integral relationships among the dimensions, which means one cannot be separated from all the others. I purposely put the social dimension at the base of the diagram to illustrate the fundamental role of this dimension in relation to the other dimensions. 

Let us now go over quickly first through the different dimensions. We will go back to these with more details when we discuss later the threats to the immune system. 

Agricultural chemicals, industrial chemicals, persistent organic pollutants, pharmaceuticals, carcinogenic substances, embryotoxic agents, endocrine disruptors, and others are the different categories of chemicals that cause disruption of our harmony with the environment. The science, policies, production, distribution, use and disposal of toxic chemicals are influenced by political, economic, and cultural factors. Power relations largely determine the toxic chemicals agenda, which mainly serves the privileged class of the rich and the powerful. Early in my career about four decades ago, I was once a member of government committees dealing with pesticides and pharmaceuticals. But when we recommended a ban or phase-out of certain hazardous agrochemical and pharmaceutical products, it was our committees that were eventually phased-out, not the hazardous pesticides and pharmaceuticals. 

The biological environment or physiologic functions, including the immune system, for example, are also disrupted by various causes such as lifestyle, inadequate or improper diet, unhygienic surroundings or practices and many others. Infectious agents, like viruses, bacteria and fungi can also be biologic disruptors, as well as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Meanwhile, examples of disruptions of the physical environment are unsafe working conditions, as well as the destruction of habitat and displacement of communities by mining operations, dams, plantations, and similar developmental aggression projects that disrupt the people’s harmony with their environment. 

The role of the psychological/spiritual dimension is an integral element of the human being, who, at the same time, is an integral element of the social environment. The psyche and/or the “spirit” of the individual must therefore be in harmony with social reality if one is to be healthy psychologically/spiritually. Manifestations of psychological/spiritual disruption include abusive, oppressive and exploitative behavior, selfishness, greed and arrogance, apathy and lack of social consciousness, silence in the face of oppression, ignorance, subservience and defeatism in the midst of injustice and violations of human rights.

The most important disruption that leads to ill health is the disruption of the social environment. Unjust social structures have led to the deprivation of fundamental socio-economic, cultural and political rights such as the right to self-determination, adequate health care, education, employment, safe working and living conditions, and the right to live in human dignity, free from exploitation and oppression. The social system that concentrates power and wealth in a few individuals and disempowers most of the people is the greatest disruptor of the harmony of humans with the environment (and with each other) and thus the most important underlying determinant of ill health and damaged immune system. 

Let me now talk about the immune system. The immune system is a network of biological elements and processes that protects against harmful organisms, substances, or any other material perceived as non-self-constituent. “Immunity” is the protection provided by the immune system from the perceived potentially harmful invading agent. 

The potentially harmful foreign invader has an “antigen” that stimulates the immune system to attack it.  The antigen, which is usually a protein, is recognised through receptors on the membrane of the cells of the immune system, which are usually the lymphocytes. Normally, the body does not consider its own proteins as foreign. Immune disruptors, however, could mislead the body into perceiving its own proteins as foreign and these proteins are then attacked, resulting to what we call auto-immune diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and many other chronic debilitating diseases. 

The body’s first line of defense against invading pathogens is called “innate immunity,” consisting mostly of physical and chemical barriers such as the skin, sweat, tears, saliva, mucus, and stomach acid. The first line of defense also has its “fronliner” immune cells, such as the neutrophils, eosinophils, monocytes, macrophages, and natural killer cells, all of which can directly destroy the invader with a wide array of biochemical and other weapons. These host factors—which include the physical barriers such as the skin, the microbicidal, biochemical secretions, and the microbiome are all elements of the “innate immunity.”  The pathogen factors include the dose (how much of the pathogen manage to enter the body), virulence (ability to cause severe disease), reproduction rate, transmissibility and other factors.

The second line of immune defense is called “adaptive immunity,” a much more comprehensive and extremely complicated element of the immune system. In simple terms, the adaptive immune system (also referred as the acquired immune system) is a subsystem that is composed of specialised, systemic cells and processes that eliminate invading organisms or substances.  In innate immunity, the response is relatively fast, not antigen specific and there is no memory. In adaptive immunity, the response is relatively slow, with a lag time, antigen specific and there is memory (when the host is exposed the next time, the response will be faster because there are memory cells that would immediately attack the invading pathogen).

Adaptive immunity can be naturally acquired by going through the natural course of the infecting organism, in which case, there is usually a life-long protection or acquired immunity to the organism.  Artificially acquired (induced) immunity can be either active (through vaccination) or passive through administration of pre-formed antibodies or immunoglobulins. 

Some of the immune cells involved in adaptive immunity are the B cells, produced by B lymphocytes and the T cells, produced by the T lymphocytes. The B cells usually produce the antibodies for specific antigens while the T cells usually attack the invading organism directly through various ways. There are actually much more cells and biochemical elements involved in adaptive immunity with multiple functions and working in very complex multiple mechanisms.

Ultimately, responses of the immune system would play the balance between wellness and illness, of immunosuppression and immune stimulation, and the balance of altered resistance to infectious disease/cancer and hypersensitivity/autoimmunity. In a state of good health, a normal balance is maintained. When the individual is exposed to a disease-causing organism or substance, there might be a tilt on either side and if it is an appropriate tilt, a normal balance will be restored; if not, the balance is disrupted and a state of illness ensues.

Let me now focus on the development of the immune system in the very young. It is a common belief that the developing immune system is highly susceptible to modification and disruption by environmental influences and it is significantly at greater risk than the fully matured immune system of an adult. However, this belief actually resulted in inappropriate interventions that disrupt the normal, natural immune system development and responses of the child. For example, this belief led to the erroneous justification for vaccination during fetal, neonatal, and infancy stages. 

The immune system during fetal development, birth and infancy has been designed by nature with an intricate balance of immunosuppression and immunostimulation, among others. These stages of development are actually training stages for the developing immune system to gradually adapt to a new environment and to recognise self from non-self, potentially antigenic proteins and substances. It was not designed to immediately release antibodies because at this stage, these antibodies do not yet fully recognise what is self and what is non-self. At this stage, the mother provides the antibodies and other necessary elements to protect the infant through appropriate nutrition, vaginal delivery, and the mother’s milk. Vaccination has disrupted this nature-designed developmental process and has resulted in disastrous outcomes.

If we examine carefully the mother’s milk, we will see that it is fully equipped with all the necessary elements to protect the newly born child from invading organisms. This is to give the developing immune system of the newborn sufficient time to adapt to its new environment. Apart from basic nutritional elements necessary for growth, mother’s milk is endowed with immune cells and constituents that are capable of protecting the newborn from potentially harmful pathogens from its new environment. Together with the naturally acquired microbiome from vaginal delivery and proper perinatal care, the infant is secure. No artificial intervention like vaccination or formula feeding can ever substitute for this wonderfully designed natural protection.

Among the remarkable constituents of breast milk with multiple immune and other functions are millions of mRNAs, microRNAs and wild RNAs. They orchestrate various types of responses of the immune system and exert various types of epigenetic effects on thousands of genes. An example of the remarkable clinical effect is that the transfer of wild RNA from a healthy wet nurse could result in permanent correction of clinical manifestations of a genetic disease. 

Another extraordinary constituent is HAMLET or Human Alpha Lactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumour Cells. Among other properties, HAMLET also kills microbes. This is a remarkable addition to the armamentarium of immune defenses provided by breast milk to the nursing infant.

The immune system of the infant is meant to be anti-inflammatory and not meant at this stage of its development to mount an inflammatory defensive response of its own against invading organisms. It is actually fully functional but appropriately restrained to allow for the building of a good microbiome and to allow the infant to learn what is safe. When the intestine is bombarded with antibiotics and vaccination during this stage of immune development and learning, the most significant damage is inflicted. The consequence may be carried until later in life in the form of increased susceptibility to infections, allergies/hypersensitivities, neurobehavioral disorders, autoimmune diseases and other illnesses.

At this point, you probably already have an idea about some of the threats to the immune system that need to be addressed. I would like to bring you back now to the five dimensions on the intimate relationship between health and environment; the physical, chemical, biological, psychological/spiritual and social disruptors. As I mentioned earlier, I will present more details regarding this.

Let us start with the list of physical disruptors of the immune system. First is ionizing radiation, probably the most potent and long lasting yet barely recognised threat. Ionizing radiation can destroy the immune system even at very low levels of exposure from various sources and, at worst, can exterminate the entire human race in case of a nuclear war among those who possess nuclear weapons. Next is electromagnetic radiation. The most talked about potential threat in this category is 5G, or fifth generation mobile network. 5G will employ millimeter waves for the first time, in addition to microwaves, exposing people to millimeter wave radiation. 

Other examples of physical disruptors of the immune system are physical injury, trauma, lack of sleep, extreme physical activity, physical restraint, physical isolation, suffocation, heat stress, cold stress and crowding.

Chemical disruptions that are considered threats to the immune system are pesticides, heavy metals (e.g. mercury, arsenic, aluminum lead), vaccines, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, air pollutant emissions, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (e.g. smoking, wood smoke, garbage burning). Other chemical disruptions are plastics, other persistent toxic chemicals and pollutants, food preservatives and additives, chemicals used in special industries, nanoparticles, and toxic chemicals of natural origin (e.g. from plants and animals). Among these chemical disruptions, probably those that pose the greatest threats would be agrochemicals, industrial chemicals, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and air pollutants.

Meanwhile, biological disruption that pose threats to the immune system includes GMOs (microbes, plants, nano-bioparticles), viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasitic organisms, heritable defective genes, nutritional deficiencies, underlying disease or abnormality, maladaptation and among others. Among these, the greatest potential threat, I think, would be GMOs, pathogenic microbes (at the moment, the greatest threat is COVID-19), and nutritional deficiencies. 

Next are psychological /spiritual disruptors, which are psychological torture, bullying and other forms of oppression, threats and intimidation, fanaticism and occultism, racism, bigotry, prejudice, and selfish and arrogant behavior. Silence, ignorance, subservience, apathy and defeatism in the midst of social injustice and exploitation, and utter disregard of humanistic qualities, moral and spiritual values can also be seen as psychological/spiritual disruptors.

Finally, the social disruptors are systematically imposed social dominance and control by the power elite—outright occupation, neo-colonialism, semi-feudalism, imperialism, monopoly capitalism, development aggression, corporate globalisation, neoliberalism, chronic dependency and underdevelopment, worsening social inequity and poverty, dictatorship, authoritarianism, militarisation, national security and the perpetual terror war doctrine. Corporate control of science and technology, health systems and care, essential public utilities and industries, land and agricultural resources, food production and distribution, etc. as well as corporate control of telecommunications and media, education, and culture can also be considered social disruptions.  So is global superpower rivalry leading to ever-increasing threats of bio warfare pandemics and nuclear annihilation. 

What can we do to address the various threats to the immune system? Some of the specific mitigating measures to strengthen the immune system is to ensure adequate general nutritional status and take the nutrient supplementation as needed—Vitamins C, A, D, E, B complex, Omega-3 fatty acids as well as essential minerals (zinc, selenium, magnesium). Other nutrient supplementation for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and immunomodulatory effects are citrus and other fruits (e.g. lime, lemon, orange, guava, kiwi, mulberry), Vitamin A rich vegetables (e.g. moringa leaves, okra, radish, jute leaves, taro, leaves, chilies, carrots, beets), Omega-3 fatty acid rich food (e.g. fish oil, nuts, and seeds) and mineral-rich food (e.g. fish, meat, nuts, legumes).

Medicinal plants such as Andrographis paniculata (creat or green chiretta), Euphorbia hirta (asthma plants), Vitex negundo (chaste tree or lagundi), Cannabis sativa (medicinal marijuana, hemp plant), Curcuma longa (turmeric), Zingiber officinale (ginger), Allium sativum (garlic), Melissa officinalis (lemon balm), Eucalyptus spp. (flowering gum, blue gum tree, eucalyptus, fever tree), Mentha spp. (mint), Thymus vulgaris (thyme), Origanum vulgare (oregano), Ocimum basilicum (basil), Piper nigrum (black pepper), Hibiscus sabdariffa (roselle), Spondias pinnata (wild/forest mango, hog plum), and Phyllanthus emblica (Indian gooseberry) also help boost the immune system.

Other specific mitigating measures are maintaining a healthy microbiome at all times—avoiding the inappropriate use of antibiotics, antimicrobials, and antiseptics, and a liberal intake of microbiome friendly foods. These include high-fiber food, as well as the intermittent intake of fermented foods, drinks, probiotics and prebiotics (e.g. fermented vegetables and fruits, kimchi, miso, yogurt, kefir). We should avoid too much intake of sugary food, fatty food, processed food with synthetic chemical additives, meat, and processed cow’s milk. We should generally regularly eat a biodiverse and balanced diet that is free of chemical toxins as much as possible. 

Some activities that can boost the immune system include acupuncture, mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi/ qi gong, appropriate exercises as well as homeopathy.

Finally, and more importantly, I would give some general measures that would address the most significant and fundamental threats to the immune system and the most important underlying structural disruptors of the harmony between health and the environment. 

There must be immediate and long-term precautionary, preventive, and protective measures (laws, policies, and governance at all levels) against as many threats as possible, especially during the most vulnerable developmental period of the immune system (conception, embryonic stage, fetal development, birth, infancy and childhood). There must be awareness-raising and education of the people, especially would-be mothers, on the extreme importance of the immune system on the health and survival of succeeding generations of humankind. 

We must also confront the underlying social/structural threats to the immune system and people’s health at the local up to the international levels. Build, unify, and strengthen people’s movements for social justice and equity, genuine peace, basic human rights, environmental justice, and a toxics-free future.

We must struggle for the dismantling of the neoliberal world order of corporate globalisation. Struggle for the implementation of genuine agrarian reform and rural development. Struggle for the implementation of pro-people industrialisation and economic development. Let us demand effective measures for environmental and ecosystems protection and rehabilitation, ensure the enjoyment of socio-economic rights, women and children’s rights, indigenous and other sectoral rights. Lastly, let us propagate a progressive and liberative mass culture.

So, what needs to be done? Follow the ANTIDOTE: 

Awareness raising

Networking among groups

Technical capacity building

Information exchange/monitoring

Deepening of understanding

Organising concerned people

Transformative action

Empowerment of people!