The most common illnesses (cold, influenza, bronchitis, otitis, tonsillitis, gastroenteritis, cystitis, vaginitis, herpes, etc.) and diseases that are commonly mentioned (avian influenza, swine flu) are caused by “pathogenic” microrganisms, i.e they are capable of causing diseases, unlike “physiological” microorganisms, living in a kind of symbiosis with our organism. Among the most dreaded pathogens are viruses, responsible for illnesses such as cold, influenza as well as more dangerous diseases such as AIDS, Ebola, etc.
Viruses are minute acellular microorganisms with a simple structure, consisting in a DNA or RNA chain contained in a protective, protein shell (capsid), lacking the typical cellular structures of intracellular parasites; in order to replicate they are therefore forced to invade the host cell and exploit its reproductive mechanisms. Without they normal cellular structures, biological targets for medicines such as antibiotics are also missing, making antibiotics totally ineffective against viruses (despite their still being abused of!).
Viruses can modify their gene pool: their strength lies precisely in their ability to mutate, preventing the immune system from recognizing them and therefore promptly intervening through mechanisms typical of the immunological memory (antibodies which have formed against viruses in previous infections are not specific for new types: this, for instance, is the case of influenza A type virus). Viral illnesses are extremely varied, ranging from the most common ones such as seasonal colds and influenza, otitis, tonsillitis, to herpes, infectious diseases such as measles and rubella, up to extremely serious syndromes like hepatitis and AIDS.
Viruses are therefore surely frightful, but their potential danger for man is inversely proportional to the efficiency of the immune system; in fact, besides promoting contagion and persistence of the same viral disease, the condition of immune imbalance fosters possible suprainfections from other categories of microorganisms, namely bacteria and fungi.
99% of affections in children’s early years is of viral origin: unfortunately, unhealthy diets, intensified vaccinations and drug abuse (particularly antibiotics), often expose children (and not only children!) to frequent relapses and suprainfections. The danger of bactial infections is mainly due to the production of toxins. These microorganisms are the most widespread in nature and can be found everywhere: in the air, in water, in food, in our organism itself (hosted by skin and mucosae); yet they rarely cause illnesses and when they do so it is because particular predisposing conditions are present (farmacological therapies, debilitating illnesses, stress, etc.).
As in the case of viruses, integrity of our natural defense system is a key factor in order to provide sufficient protection against bacteria, comprising the anatomical barrier of skin and mucosae, physiological flora, acid and mucosal secretions, specialized immune cells, etc. Bacteria are unicellular prokaryiotic organisms, generally multiplying by binary scission, leading to the formation of cells with an identical genotype and, according to the species, they present remarkable variability in terms of infectiveness, invasiveness and pathogenicity as well as clinical signs
The “strength” of bacteria lies in their capacity to cause illnesses releasing toxins. These can be classified in two types: endotoxins, released by tissues invaded by bacteria after their death (e.g. salmonella) and exotoxins, which instead are released by bacteria and spread away from the organism, damaging tissues that are far from the penetration point of the bacteria themselves (tetanus, diphtheria and botulin).
Clinical pictures are as many as are the anatomical districts that can be affected: pneumonia, enteritis, nephritis, etc., with signs of general reaction (e.g. fever). Moreover, through mutation and re-assortment mechanisms, bacteria are capable of evolving and becoming stronger as they modify their genetic traits, which are transmitted to their descendants; through plasmids and bacteriophages, such traits can be spread to other, different species, developing so-called super bacteria.
Another category of microorganisms that can take advantage of an unbalanced immune system is represented by fungi. Yeasts, moulds and fungi all belong to this category. These organisms are very simple and extremely widespread in nature; given that they have a very elementary type of life-cycle (they multiply by germination) with very limited needs, they manage to survive when circumstances get unfavourable, as well. They are normally present on the skin and mucosae of the human body and live in a condition of mutual non-aggression (commensalism), where they found a suitable environment for their survival without causing any harm to their host, who tolerates them, keeping them at bay through defensive mechanisms (e.g. the integrity of the physiological bacterial flora).
If the conditions ensuring organic defences are no longer met (for instance after an antibiotic therapy), they can become pathogenic, developing a mycosis. A well-known example is that of intestinal Candida (a saprophyte) which, capable of dimorphism and turning from yeast to mould and viceversa, is responsible for infections of the skin and mucosae, typical of the oral cavity (thrush) and of the vagina (mycotic vaginitis). Illnesses caused by fungi are broadly distinguished in superficial and deep mycosis, according to whether the parasite attacks the skin and surrounding cutaneous parts or tissues located at a deeper level.
In the light of the above, it is clear how a correct lifestyle and balanced immune system play a key role not only in ensuring that the different physiological, microbial populations coexist harmoniously, without causing any harm to the host organism, but that they also effectively counter any pathogenic microbial agent coming from the surrounding environment.
Physiological, bacterial flora, in primis, by adhering to and colonizing mucous membrane surfaces in compact layers, precisely where our organism borders with the outside world, constitutes a proper barrier – both bacteriological and chemical – against any kind of microbial attack, mainly occurring at intestinal level. Vitality and balance of the physiological flora are crucial both for defense against external aggressors as well as to keep opportunistic micro-organisms under control, hindering an overgrowth that can become pathogenic.
Lifestyle, nutritional habits, pollutants present in the environment, heavy metals, drug abuse and vaccinations are all factors that weigh very heavily on the balance of the intestine’s bacterial flora.
Disruption of its integriity and the insurgence of a state of dysbiosis determines on the one hand the chance for pathogenic agents to access the organism, while on the other it jeopardises the immune system’s balance, essential in providing a prompt response against microbial aggressions.
Should the microoganism manage to overcome this first line of defense and invade the organism, the immune system comes into play. Mechanisms regulating the immune system are highly complex, and the task to continuously monitor, recognize and neutralize antigens is entrusted to lymphocytes, distinguishable in two large, specific categories: B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes, cooperating to defend the organism. In particular, so-called T-helpers are in charge of organising the immune response, so they are the true protagonists of the immune system, capable of identifying the exact features of the aggressor and trigger appropriate defensive responses to contrast it.
Under the influence of a number of factors (in primis the type of antigen involved), T helpers can be divided into two functionally different and antithetical groups: T helpers 1 (Th1) and T helpers 2 (Th2). A third group has also been identified, named T helper 3 (Th3), in charge of regulating the immune response. Th1, Th2 and also Th3 come from the same precuror that, according to the signals received, differentiates itself in one way or another. What is certain is that if the antigen is a virus, a bacteria or parasite behaving like a virus (i.e. it penetrates the cell and acts as a parasite), the system will tend to produce type 1 Helper cells. If, on the contrary, the antigen is extracellular (bacteria, fungi, helminths, allergens), then the system will tend to settle for a Th2 profile.
For a prompt and efficient immune response, capable of safeguarding the individual’s health, a fair balance between the two inclinations of the “immune balance” – namelyTh1 and Th2, is required. Instead, often one of the two components prevails over the other, causing an imbalanced immune response. The reasons for this imbalance are to be traced in a lifestyle which, as already mentioned regarding the intestine’s microbial flora, dangerously threatens the balance of the organism’s natural defense system, exposing it to attacks of microbes or of different nature.
At the core of any health problem there is always a condition of imbalance between Th1 and Th2 functions, and the resulting situation is illness:
- dominance of Th1 response leads to the risk of contracting autoimmune diseases (e.g. coeliac disease, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis) and exposes the individual to greater “weakness” against bacterial and mycotic aggressions;
- dominance of Th2 components involves the risk of developing allergies (dermatitis, rhinitis, asthma), not to mention that the organism will be more fragile and susceptible towards viral aggressions.
Another direct consequence of this imbalanced immune surveillance is the appearance of an inflammatory state. Un imbalanced Th1/Th2 relationship sets the conditions for a persistant state of alert in the immune system, triggering a chronic, constant and silent anti-inflammatory response.
Stress deriving from a continued situation of this type makes the organism ever more vulnerable, exposing it to frequent infections and relapses, prolonged convalescenses, as well as to the risk of developing even more serious health problems in the long run. On the contrary, a well-balanced immune system implies greater chances of preventing diseases and, whenever is the case, a higher efficiency in rapidly overcoming them without further complications.
The strategy adopted by conventional medicine
Although the role of the immune system in the prevention and effective resolution of microbial infections is well known at scientific level, instead of developing treatments aimed at enhancing and reinforcing the organism’s defensive mechanisms, conventional medicine prefers to focus only on the single microbial agents causing the disorder, devising medicine that can destroy the microorganisms. However, an analysis of what this type of approach has led to shows that there is actually nothing to be too pleased about. As regards the fight against viruses, vaccination seems to be the most widespread preventive measure.
However, given the incredible mutating capacity of viruses, it is inconceivable to think that vaccines effective against all viruses and their possible, future mutations, can ever be discovered. Not to mention side-effects caused by vaccines, that can lead to serious consequences, particularly in children. Additionally, there are very few antiviral drugs currently on the market (proving “failure” of pharmaceutical research in this sense), often totally uneffective while abounding in heavy side-effects (nausea, vomiting, alteration of the number of cells circulating in the bloodstream, irritability, etc.).
The worst option is to recur to antibiotics: though very often prescribed to avoid “bacterial suprainfections” , in actual fact they have no power whatsoever against viruses and weaken the body’s defenses even more, instead. By contrast, antibiotics are ideal in treating bacterial infections. Undoubtedly valid as “lifesavers”, their abuse and bad use nowadays (in “do-it-yourself” options and in the early discontinuation of therapies) is a matter of great concern, considering that this adds to the involuntary intake through food, owing to the presence of residues particularly present in meat, farmed fish and dairy products.
The greatest risks, apart from impoverishment of physiological flora and consequent weakening of organic defences (with the triggering of frequent relapses) are linked to the formation of strains of resistant bacteria, against which medicines turn out to be powerless. Today, resistance to antibiotics is making the treatment of infections ever more complex, particularly when developing in hospitals and especially in case of long-term, immunocompromised patients.
The World Health Organisation is launching numerous appeals encouraging people to realise the importance of limiting prescription of antibiotics as much as possible, in order to avoid the development of resistant “super bacteria”. In case of mycosis, conventional medicine recommends specific antifungal medicines, both in the form of preparations for oral use for systemic action, as well as in the form of creams, ointments, ovules, etc; often the therapy requires use of both types at the same time. These medicines, too, involve the risk of altering the organism’s physiological balance and, most of all, causing sensitivity and resistance of the fungi, with a tendency to relapse once initial contagion has taken place. A typical point in case are relapses of vaginal Candida, due to the settling in of a vicious circle: pharmacological therapy – dysbiosis – candidiasis.
Nature can help you in the prevention of diseases.