When I found out I was HIV-positive, suddenly the words "immune system" took on a new sense of relevance and urgency in my life. I decided right away on a path of natural means to keep my immune system strong. I did some research and decided that acupuncture appealed to me as a place to start.
When I first went to see my accupuncturist, we talked in depth about all aspects of my health history. Chronic allergies and various gastrointestinal problems were conditions I had been tolerating for years. I never thought about these in relation to my immune system before, but I soon discovered the important connection. I thought I already ate a pretty healthy diet, and I exercised regularly, but my symptoms were a signal that not everything was up to snuff. My acupuncturist encouraged me to make diet changes a major part of my healing program. I started eating as if my life depended on it. Within about two months, my digestive problems had improved at least 90 percent, my allergies were gone, and I felt more energetic than ever.
Immune Systems Under Siege
Our immune systems face a daily onslaught of stresses. In an otherwise healthy person, common signs of a weakened immune system include frequent colds, as well as chronic allergies. Allergic reactions occur when the body perceives allergens (such as pollen, dust, molds) as poisons so it secretes histamine, creating familiar allergy symptoms. They're not really poisons, but if your immune system is already compromised, your body reacts as if they were. Allergy suffering has greatly increased in the past 30 years, yet the allergens haven't really changed -- trees, grasses, pets, dust and molds have always been around. But our environment has changed.
I think one of the most devastating changes is in our food supply. Livestock have been increasingly treated with antibiotics and growth hormones. They are fed with heavily sprayed feed. Our diets are more heavily dependent on processed convenience foods full of additives and dyes, and new synthetic foods with hydrogenated or artificial fats and artificial sweeteners. These are all substances that the body doesn't recognize as nourishment, but rather as toxins that have to be eliminated. The immune system is busy dealing with these foreign substances, and may not have the reserves for the common allergens, germs and viruses.
A poor diet and poor quality foods also create a digestive system that gets out of balance, resulting in partially digested proteins being absorbed into the body fluids, and causing the immune system to overreact, using valuable energy that could be used elsewhere in its fight against HIV. A compromised digestive system may lead to poor absorption of important vitamins and minerals, as well as food allergies. If you are HIV-positive, you really don't want to waste your immune system's energy dealing with common allergens or problem foods.
A healthy diet is really the foundation of long term health maintenance and a strong immune system. It helps with medication tolerance, maintenance of body weight and muscle mass, and overall energy and quality of life. An optimal diet will reduce the risk of disease and strengthen the body's defenses and natural healing power. It will help you to reduce the other daily stresses to your system, and even positively affect your moods and sense of wellbeing. So here's what you need to know to get started.
The Bad Guys
Sugar: There is strong evidence that sugar has a negative effect on the function of the immune system. When white blood cells are exposed to high levels of sugar in the bloodstream, they have a decreased ability to engulf bacteria and have weakened systemic resistance to all infections. What is a high level of sugar? The normal sugar level in the bloodstream is approximately one teaspoon. A single can of soda or a bowl of ice cream has 12 teaspoons of sugar. The digestive system is overtaxed trying to prevent all that sugar from entering the bloodstream all at once, and the pancreas is also working hard to produce enough insulin to process the sugar. This is a lot of stress on your body. Refined carbohydrates, such as most breads and baked goods act pretty much like sugar in the body. These refined foods also lack the beneficial nutrients and fiber that are present in whole grains, and actually cause a depletion of minerals in your body. Try finding foods that are more gently sweetened with fruit juice, rice syrup or barley malt.
Coffee: Caffeine is a diuretic that contributes to the body's loss of important nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Caffeine places stress on the adrenal glands (already stressed out from our hectic lifestyles) and adversely affects the nervous system, resulting in anxiety, hyperactivity, and insomnia.
Healing occurs when the body is relaxed and its energy can be channeled inward. Regular consumption of caffeine deprives the body of this relaxed state. The acid in coffee eats away the villi of the small intestine, reducing their effectiveness in supporting nutrient assimilation. Thus the acids in coffee may cause as much problem as the caffeine. Try milder forms of caffeine such as green tea, or try the various caffeine-free coffee substitutes. Mix them with your coffee to gradually reduce your caffeine dependence.
Alcohol: When consumed in excess, alcohol is a poison to every system of your body. It depresses the nervous system, inhibits the bone marrow's ability to regenerate blood cells, is toxic to the liver, depletes B-vitamins, and is dehydrating. If you are taking protease inhibitors, which place significant stress on the liver, alcohol intake must be very moderate. Anyone with chronic hepatitis B or C should pay particular attention to this added stress to the liver, and try to avoid alcohol as much as possible.
Raw foods: Foods such as clams, oysters, sushi, very rare meats, and undercooked eggs contain infectious bacteria and intestinal parasites. Infections that would not bother most people can be life-threatening for those with compromised immune systems. Even alfalfa and bean sprouts, which are usually associated with "health food," contain a natural toxin that can harm the immune system. They really should be cooked before eating. Raw fruits and vegetables should be well washed before eating.
Rancid fats and oils: These create free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules that can initiate chain reactions of chemical disruption, injuring cell membranes, enzymes, and DNA. They have a negative impact on a wide range of conditions such as aging, cancer, inflammation, degenerative disease, viral infections, and AIDS. Common sources of rancid fats and oils are nuts, chips, baked goods, and fried foods.
At higher temperatures and exposure to light, oils and fats turn rancid more quickly. When foods are deep-fried, the fats used reach very high temperatures, and if the oil is re-used, as is invariably the case, the oxidative effect is magnified. Most polyunsaturated vegetable oils, unless cold-pressed, are heated to high temperatures during processing. Hydrogenated vegetable oils, including shortenings and margarine, are also heat processed. These are all sources of free radicals. In addition, nitrates have been shown to cause cancer and should be avoided; they are found in hot dogs, sausages, salami and smoked meats.
Food allergies: Many people are sensitive to certain foods, which can result in symptoms including intestinal distress, fatigue, and even weight gain. Common foods that create such problems are dairy, eggs, gluten (the protein in wheat), soy, corn, and food additives. Individuals that experience any of the above symptoms should experiment with eliminating these foods from their diets for a few weeks to see what changes occur. Then, reintroducing one at a time will give a good indication of which foods may be causing the problems.
Eating for a strong immune system starts with focusing on whole rather than refined foods. Eating organic foods as much as possible will make a big difference. You really don't want to be adding the burden of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and feed, antibiotics and growth hormones to your system.
The Good Guys
Whole grains: Brown rice, millet, quinoa, buckwheat (kasha), oats, barley, and other whole grains are a valuable source of the vitamins, minerals and fiber that are an essential part of keeping the immune system healthy. Fiber helps cleanse the colon of toxins and helps prevent intestinal infections. Intact whole grains, not the flour products made from them are what really strengthen the digestive system. Cooked grains make a great breakfast or a substitute for pasta, white rice or white potatoes.
Vegetables: Eat as many vegetables as you can. These are really the immune-boosting heavyweights. They are the best source of the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that are known to protect the body against many diseases, including cancer. Especially try to have dark leafy greens, such as kale and collard greens. And include as many of the yellow and orange vegetables as possible for beta carotene, an important anti-oxidant. Carrots, winter squash, and sweet potatoes are also great for satisfying the sweet tooth in a healthy way. If you are prone to diarrhea, which is common among those with HIV, avoid raw vegetables (and fruit). Lightly steam or saute them instead.
Fresh fruit: Providing the same benefits as vegetables, fruits can be eaten as snacks, separate from protein for better digestion. Berries are particularly noted for their cancer preventative abilities. Fruit though is very high in sugar, so large quantities should be avoided, especially tropical fruits such as bananas, mangoes, etc. If you are prone to yeast infections (thrush, candida), avoid fruit juices, since the high concentration of sugar promotes the growth of yeast in the digestive system.
Protein: Generous amounts of high quality protein are important for maintaining rapid production of cells to support the immune system, preventing loss of lean muscle mass and boosting energy. As much as possible, look for organic meat and poultry, have plenty of fish, especially those high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for building the body's immune response. These include salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout and tuna; flax seeds are another good source of this important nutrient. Dairy products may not be the best protein source since they create digestive problems for many people, such as excess gas, loose stools, mucous and congestion. Yeast infections and thrush also thrive on dairy. Vegetarian sources of protein include soy products such as tofu and tempeh, and beans and legumes, having the added benefit of fiber, which animal foods do not provide.
Other helpful foods include onions, garlic (unless you are having liver problems), ginger, and turmeric (a spice that is a good anti-inflammatory). Mushrooms such as shitake, oyster, and other Asian varieties, are noted for their immune-enhancing abilities. Sea vegetables are rich in minerals such as immune-boosting zinc, as well as calcium. Small quantities of fresh almonds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds are also good sources for zinc and healthy fats.
Water: This is the essential "ground zero" for regulating all of the body's systems. It eases the job of the kidneys and liver to process and eliminate toxins from the blood. It helps keep mucous membranes moist enough to combat the viruses they encounter. And it is a little known tool for reducing sugar cravings. Sugar cravings are often a sign of dehydration. Try a big glass of water the next time you are craving sugar, then wait a few minutes and see if the need for the sugar is really still there. Water, as well as other beverages, really should not be ice cold. Your body will have to use a lot of energy to warm it up to that 98.6 degrees it tries so hard to maintain. Try to have 6 to 8 glasses of pure water every day.
Supplements: Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and herbs are an important part of making sure your nutritional needs are met. But taking a lot of supplements while maintaining a poor diet will not have the desired effects. If you want to plant a garden, you could just dig a few holes, plant the seeds, and wait for something to happen. Maybe a few things would grow, but the crop would probably not be very bountiful. But add compost and nutrients to the soil, water it properly, and you would reap the rewards. Think of a good diet as your way to amend your soil, then if you add a few supplements, there's a good environment for growth.
Nine years after my diagnosis, I'm still not taking medications and have no allergies, good digestion, no illnesses, and almost never even get a cold. You can make a start toward a more healthful life right now. The important thing is to start on a path that you can continue and expand to keep yourself healthy. Try small changes at first. Start with breakfast, the most important meal of the day. In the morning, we begin to burn energy at a high rate, and need to provide adequate fuel. (A cup of coffee isn't the kind of fuel we're taking about here!) The immune system is the most sensitive system of your body to your energy level. The ideal breakfast should contain complex carbohydrates, fiber, some protein and some fat. A whole grain porridge with soy milk for example, would provide all of those requirements.
Look for support that will encourage you and strengthen you along the way. Begin to eliminate or reduce one or two of the most harmful foods, and at the same time, add more of the beneficial ones. Notice how this starts to affect your digestion, your energy level, even your moods. As you start to feel better, you will be more motivated to keep making changes. As you integrate more healthful foods into your diet, you will discover the natural tastes and sweetness in simple foods. What are you going to try today?
Gary Rosard is a certified Holistic Health Counselor with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ. He offers nutritional and lifestyle counseling in a supportive, caring way that focuses on the whole person, not just the symptoms. Visit his Web site at www.calminthestorm.net/ or call (917) 494-9574 to discuss your health concerns.