Allergies are a malfunction of the immune system; therefore, any discussion about allergies has to start there. Reduced to its most basic terms, the immune system differentiates between cells that are harmful and those that are favorable or benign.After making this identification, it then seeks out the harmful cells, engulfs and eats them. These cells could be foreign pathogens, such as the flu virus, or they could be our own cells causing the problem, like cancer.
Our immune system grows and strengthens because it collects a database of every pathogen it encounters. Consequently, when our immune system runs into these pathogens again, it brings up the stored knowledge of the previous encounter to give our body a better chance of successfully dealing with the pathogen. That is the theory behind vaccinations and why we only get the chicken pox one time.
Again, the first job of the immune system is recognition. Once our body identifies the particle as foreign or problematic, it sends white blood cells to the area to fight the possible infection (i.e., the redness and swelling around a sliver or acupuncture needle insertion). When everything is working well, our immune system quickly recognizes trouble, sends white blood cells to the area, and the problem is handled before we even realize we were "invaded" or sick.
This process is energy intensive. That is why we feel so tired when we have a cold or the flu. Our body ensures we rest so that no energy is wasted in activity, and all of our precious energy resources can go towards coping with the problem at hand. With that brief examination of immune function, we will now focus on what happens with immune malfunction.
There are four main ways that the immune system breaks down: it can overreact or underreact to either internal or external threats. Let's explore each possibility in more detail using examples.
One of the easiest malfunctions to describe is when our immune system underreacts to external threats. One way this can manifest is as chronic colds or the flu. In this case, either our body has trouble recognizing the external pathogens as harmful or it recognizes them but does not have sufficient resources to fight them off. Here our defenses are weak and easily overwhelmed by these foreign pathogens. People in this situation often are sick for extended periods of time. Before we delve into problems with internal threats, I wanted to go into another aspect of immune function in a more in-depth fashion.
Every cell in our body functions to support the whole organism (us). When looked at it in that light, each cell lives in a symbiotic relationship with all of the other cells in our body. The lung cells exchange gases so the stomach cells have oxygen to digest food, so the kidney cells have the nutrients needed to filter the blood, and so on. When a cell grows not to support the whole organism, but only for itself, we run into trouble. These "selfish" cells, left unchecked, grow into cancer.
In an interesting aside, the increased incidence of cancer today mirrors in deadly irony what we are doing to the earth. Our species, growing unchecked, without regard to the other life on our planet, destroys and denigrates ecosystems and spews out toxic chemicals into the environment, which, in turn, increases the rate of cancer in our own species.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. An example of our immune system underreacting to internal threats is cancer. Here there is a mistake in the reproductive mechanism of some of our cells. These cells are reproducing faster than our immune system can cope with and/or our immune system does not recognize this threat and therefore does not act accordingly. Cancer kills because the unchecked growth of the tumor uses up the nutrients and energy that is destined for the organ that the cancer is growing on. Now this organ can no longer function properly because the cancer is stealing its nutrients. Therefore, the whole organism suffers because the liver is no longer doing its job. It is interesting to note that our immune system successfully deals with "cancer" every moment of every day. The vast majority of the time our immune system recognizes those cells that are growing too quickly and mobilizes the white blood cells in time to stop the problem from becoming unmanageable. The very few times that this does not occur, we develop cancer.
The next possible way for our immune system to malfunction is the opposite from cancer; it overreacts to internal threats. Here we develop autoimmune diseases. Our immune system thinks that our own properly functioning cells are a threat and attacks and eats them. Autoimmune diseases are a large, shifting and vaguely understood category of diseases. An example of one is multiple sclerosis, where the body eats away the myelin sheath that surrounds and insulates the nerve fibers. Here the problem is that our immune system is too sensitive and attacks when it should not, like a security light in the backyard that goes on every time a squirrel runs by.
As you might notice, today I have managed to write about everything except allergies. I wanted to lay the groundwork with some basic information about the organ system most related to allergies, the immune system. By briefly exploring how the immune system works as a whole, we can better understand its role in allergies and better understand how to successfully treat allergies.
This is not a comprehensive overview of the immune system. This four-category system of looking at immune malfunction is one way to look it. Like all theoretical frameworks, this one has its limitations. Those of us that use TCM diagnosis understand this idea. Sometimes organ system or five-element diagnosis explains the pattern well, other times four levels, six levels or channel theory does the trick. We use whatever system best explains the problem. This immune system theory is like that. Use it as a tool to augment your understanding of how the immune system works, not as the monotheistic literal truth.
Next time, we will delve into allergies and the immune system using this framework.
Click here for previous articles by Kaleb Montgomery, DTCM.