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Immune Dysfunction

The common cold, influenza, allergies and even cancer have one thing in common…the immune response. The immune system is a complex network of cells and secretory chemicals designed to protect our bodies against the invasion of foreign substances including bacteria, viruses and fungi.  Despite the well intentions and overall importance, sometimes thing can go wrong contributing to a host of health problems not only for ourselves, but our pets and equine companions.  As a veterinarian, a high percentage of problems in our patients can be contributed to what is termed ‘immune dysfunction’, but the ultimate question lies in how these problems are best managed to improve overall health and performance. The same problems are often encountered in people additionally, leaving an open door for desirable means of supporting the immune response.

The immune system is complicated and includes a collaborating network of cells and proteins, helping to remove and isolate foreign invaders, enhancing recovery from various health problems and even detecting cells which might be functioning in a not so normal way, including cancerous cells.  The level of protection can be systemic, impacting the entire body, but it can also be localized such as in the case of a wound.  There are cells that are constantly circulating the body in surveillance mode, ready to act on a moment’s notice, recruiting other cells to get the job done.  Essentially, it is a private army ready to act on our defense to benefit our health.  The home base for the immune system is generally localized to our lymph nodes, spleen, liver and gastrointestinal tract.  Each is essentially a location for detection and then mass alert to the rest of the body.

In the Beginning

In the first few month of all of our lives, including our animal companions, our immune system is essentially naive and not functioning so well.  During this time, we are dependent on an acquired immune response or ‘maternal immunity’ which is passed to the young from the mother through the ingestion of colostrum.  This helps to protect the young from foreign invaders until their own immune response is developed through natural exposure and vaccination.  Vaccines are an important part of immune system development and often require multiple injections to achieve results.  Essentially, through multiple inoculations, we are teaching the body through repeat exposure that it should react to these antigens if exposed in the future.  With each subsequent vaccine, the antibody titer is built higher and higher, hopefully obtaining a protective level for a certain period of time, at which a booster injection is given.

As we and our animal companions age, the immune system is exposed to new antigens and constantly challenged, hopefully becoming stronger with time.  The downside is that with time, often the immune response deteriorates due to various environmental, genetic, lifestyle and dietary factors, which opens the door for common health problems.  One of the biggest factors that impacts the immune response is stress due to our lifestyle and work.  This applies not only to humans, but animals encounter stress as well, which we have discussed in other articles.  When we, as people, overwork or focus too much on our jobs, things tend to get out of balance.  Not only due we generate more stress related hormones, such as cortisol, which directly impact our immune system negatively, but we also tend to succumb to poor eating habits, which further contributes to the problem.  As humans, we know individuals that seem to be sick more often with something as simple as the common cold due to a weakened immune response.  It is not uncommon, mind you to ‘catch a cold’, but often these individuals with compromised immune responses seem to never ‘shake’ the problem, but recover to fall ill again in a short period of time.  Allergies are another manifestation of an improperly functioning immune response, often again related to stress and emotional events, whether if they are overtly obvious or internalized.

The fact is that many health conditions are associated with immune dysfunction to one degree or another.  On one extreme, we can have an immune system that is inferior and fails to react to foreign invaders.  This is seen in those with persistent colds as well as other infections, or even those that fail to recover fully from various health problems, including wounds.  I also feel that this is the reason that so many people fall victim to perceived resistant bacterial infections.  Here the causes generally include lifestyle, dietary, genetic and environmental issues.

On the other extreme, we have an overactive immune response, which is often seen in allergies and immune mediated conditions.  Going back to the basics, the immune system’s job is detect and prioritize foreign invaders.  The key here is to prioritize as to which invader is important and which one is not.  Bacterial and viral invaders are obviously high priority, while things like pollen and dust are not, but this is not always the case.  To understand this more fully, we have to go back to some basics as to why these events occur. 

Self versus Non-self

The immune response is a powerful protector with the goal to seek and destroy.  Often it is not discriminant, so it must be focused.  The target can be a bacteria, virus, fungal invader but it can also be anything perceived as foreign or not-belonging.  That would include a sliver of wood as in a splinter or even a metal surgical implant.  If it doesn’t belong, the body may react to it and make every attempt to get it out.

All cells that are a part of our body have receptors or ‘flags’ on their surface called histocompatability factors, which essentially are identification tags that state ‘we belong here, we are a part of YOU”.  During times of surveillance, the immune system essentially looks for these flags and determines who is admitted to the event and who is not.  Those without the flags are attacked, often in a brutal way.  In the case of immune mediated diseases, somehow the immune response’s control measures have failed and it is now attacking cells that belong, essentially not recognizing their flags.  This can be a localized or specific target, such as muscle or nervous cells or it can be more systemic and broad in nature involving many organs systems.


Allergies are a complicated situation and essentially, the immune system is functioning but not prioritizing its activities or targets.  In most cases, we have an immune response that is over-reacting to simple antigens or invaders which are often pollen, dander and dust as examples.  These are invaders, but definition, but they are not critical and of usually no harm to the body, but yet, the immune response is fast and over-reactive leading to clinical signs such as sneezing, swelling and a runny nose for instance.  These are all attempts on behalf of the immune response to eject the foreign material from the body.  The allergies can be fairly mild but also range to the more severe spectrum, which can prove to be life-threatening in some instances. 

The ultimate question when it comes to allergies is why these events occur.  To be honest, it is complicated and hard for me to wrap my head around sometimes.  I believe there are several factors and being an intermittent sufferer of ‘hay fever’ myself, I have discovered a few things.  First, I believe that stress does play a major role in the development of these conditions as I can see it and feel it in my own body when flares occur.  I believe there is an emotional component, connected with the stress in many instances.  I have also observed the connection between diet and the formation of allergies, which is backed by research data.  Obviously, we have many protective types of foods we can consume, but often it is not only a lack of consumption of those foods, but also we have to remember that consumption of the bad foods plays a role as well.  The movement towards processed foods has contributed to a host of health conditions, including immune dysfunction, not only due to poor nutrient provision, but in many foods there are chemicals or additives that simply don’t belong in our bodies, which can trigger inflammatory issues. 

The gut or gastrointestinal tract is perceived by many as the main source of allergies and systemic health.  In the intestinal tract, we have lymphatic tissue which is designed to react to invaders taken in by mouth.  In the case of poor diets, the chemicals, preservatives and toxins actually trigger an immune response locally but if severe and persistent enough, the response can turn from local to systemic.  Essentially this means that not only is the local gut immune response heightened, but the overall immune response becomes equally on alert, leading potentially to a overactive response to lesser invaders.  This is worsened by the presence of inflammation, which then can actually contribute to breakdown of the gut barrier, which protects us from the many potential pathogens in our food.  Often, the gut barrier becomes ‘leaky’, allowing bacteria, chemicals, preservatives and other antigens to enter the systemic circulation.  Now we have antigens that are usually confined to the gut now circulating the body and creating a heightened immune response. 


The honest truth is that finding a solution to allergies is as complex as the process itself.  In order to find a solution, we must understand the process to the best of our abilities and with this knowledge, we realize that there is no one fix, no one pill we can consume or give to our animal companions that is going to fix the problem.  We have to understand that there are many causes to the condition, whether if it be a failure of the immune system to respond or an immune system that is over-responding, and with this understanding we realize that there are many approaches or changes that are needed to best manage the problem.

Commonly, allergies and immune dysfunction are often treated with medications such as corticosteroids and anti-histamines.  These medications can help alleviate the clinical signs, but the potential side effects can be worse than the original condition.  Long term steroid usage is actually associated with immune compromise, opening the door to potential infection as the immune system is shut down essentially.  Steroid usage is also associated with tissue destruction and even liver and kidney organ failure.  Antihistamines target one specific cell type in the immune response called mast cells.  They help to dry up discharges,mucous and alleviate itching due to decreasing histamine release, but do little to impact the overall immune dysfunction that is occuring.

In the case of winter colds and influenza, often one remedy is a prescription medication (Tamiflu®) to aid in reduced recovery time and clinical signs.  One thing to consider in the case of influenza or even the common cold, early intervention is needed and most anti-viral medications are only helpful if started early in the course.  Even then, most studies indicate that recovery time is only shortened by up to 1 day.  The interesting thing to consider when contemplating these medications, especially if they become a yearly crutch, is that exposure to a virus is needed to develop a proper immune response and that immune response is needed not only to aid in recovery but also to help protect us from future infections.  One study evaluated the use of Tamifu® and the conclusion was that the use of anti-virals dramatically reduced the adaptive immune response and likewise protective immunity (Marois, 2014).  Thus, in reality, the recovery time may be improved but at what cost to the patient?  If the viral infection is manageable, then it may be in the best interest of the individual to feed the body properly and tough through the clinical signs.

From my point of view, diet is the first and foremost area that needs to be addressed.  The elimination of processed foods and often times that includes dairy products, is paramount to even begin a recovery.  Processed foods are essentially foods that are not in their original or natural form.  Of course, there are many levels of processing and indeed, even taking an apple for instance and mashing it into a sauce is considered processing but this hardly compares to synthetically creating many foods which don’t naturally exist by themselves.  The problem with processed foods is that with each handling or changing of form, there is a loss of nutrient value.  In many instances, that is taken to the extreme with the addition of chemicals, preservatives and additives meant to entice us to consume more or preserve the product, but in reality they are empty calories with no nutritional value but more so pose risk and harm to our body.  Going to a more natural route with our diet is the best method, as this provides us with the nutrition that we crave and without the harm that many food products provide.  Keep in mind that processed foods are not just in the human market, but include our pets and our equine companions as well.  Dry kibbles and canned foods are all processed on some degree as they are not in their natural form.  Compare the average look, feel and nutritional value of the every day commercial dog food with a homemade diet.  There is no comparison.  On the equine side, we have many grains that are processed, pelletized and altered in their nutritional value to address certain health conditions.  Just the concept that a grain is in a pelleted form is a demonstration of processing, thus potentially losing nutritional value. Processed diets are not only lower in nutritional value, but in many cases, their overconsumption can actually contribute to immune dysfunction and higher levels of systemic inflammation.  Poor diet is also directly linked with ‘leaky gut syndrome’, which contributes to systemic inflammation but also creates systemic immune dysfunction as the immune response is based out of the gut. The bottom line is that our diet is intended to supply our body with nutrients that it needs to survive and thrive.  Through our diet, we ingest antioxidants and other nutrients which help to enhance our immune response.  If the diet is poor or highly processed, then we are not only obtaining the nutrients we need but in many instances, we may actually be propelling the process of disease.

After considering diet, we must address stress, whether if that is in our lives or the lives of our pets and horses.  Stress is present in all of our lives, on different levels, but is one of the major contributors to clinical disease.  When we are stressed, hormones become out of balance with cortisol increasing in levels.  Increased cortisol can actually decrease the normal immune response, but also contributes to systemic inflammation and even causes increased tissue deterioration and weakeness. We all know when we are stressed, but sometimes we often dismiss it as it is a daily occurrence which we almost become adapted to unfortunately. Many, however, don’t feel or perceive that their pets or horses are living a stressful life as we see them doing nothing but lying on the couch or grazing in a pasture.  How stressful could that possibly be?  Well, the fact is that stress impacts us all on different levels.  What stresses you might not be the same thing that stresses your pet or your horse.  It may be a boss on your end or a deadline to meet, but for your pet maybe it is a lack of companionship, confinement or even thunderstorms that create anxiety and stress.  For horses, stress is real and exists on many levels manifesting to various degrees.  Stall confinement, restricted activity, increased demands by the human on their performance, transportation, changes in diet and even new pasture mates all contribute to stress.  Due to the varying degrees of stress, we have progressions of clinical appearance as well, subtle signs that things are getting worse.  Often we initially have gastric ulcers, maybe a wound that won’t heal well, lethargy or muscle deterioration.  Then with time and persistence, we progress to the appearance of colds, infections, allergies and even cancer.  The question comes as to which stage we recognize the issue and what measures we take to prevent progression. Adaptogenic herbs, including Bacopa and Ashwaghanda extracts, help us and our animal companions, adapt to the impact of stress by increasing the body’s recovery ability, supporting immune response and even helping to reduce cortisol levels.  Our Cur-OST® Adapt formulas for people, pets and horses utilize the proven ability of Ashwaghanda to help minimize the impact of stress and reduce anxiety, which may aid in supporting a healthy immune response.

The next stage in my intervention is generally herbal therapy or more natural approaches to restore health and reduce the impact of stress and other factors.  The options at this stage are endless to be honest and really depend on the problem presenting and what we feel the cause is overall.  If the main concern is stress, we can use various herbs to reduce cortisol levels and impact on cellular health.  If the cause is toxin exposure, such as in the case of vaccines or even diet, we may implement herbs that detoxify the body and restore cellular function including Dandelion and Spirulina .  If the problem involves a poorly responding immune system, whether if underactive or overactive, we can utilize herbs to enhance or modulate the immune response.  One of the best herbs or foods to accomplish this in my opinion is medicinal mushrooms by themselves or best in combination such as found in our Cur-OST® Immune Support formulas for people, pets and horses. Our Cur-OST® Immune formulas not only take advantage of mushroom derived beta-glucans to support a healthy immune response, but also provide vital amino acids including L-Glutamine, L-Arginine and L-Lysine to aid in overall cellular health and recovery.  In many cases, the condition has progressed deeply resulting in not only a dysfunctional immune response but systemic inflammation, often connected directly with the gut.  Here we use herbs such as curcumin, boswellia and others including protein and amino acids to help reduce the inflammation and encourage tissue repair.  These herbs are the primary ingredients in our Cur-OST® anti-inflammatory formulas for pets, horses and humans. 

Immune dysfunction is an important part of health that is often ignored or overlooked.  We should see the subtle signs for what they are, heed their warning and act accordingly before damage is done for the long term.  It is a complex process, not having one specific solution, but through understanding we can implement many strategies that hopefully will yield results.  Whether if the problem is recurrent colds, allergies or even cancer…it is a signal that the immune response is not working properly.  We have the ability to recognize the deficiencies and act accordingly, but the question comes as to whether if we see the importance or whether if we just ignore the obvious. What do you see?

All my best,

Tom Schell, D.V.M.

Nouvelle Research, Inc.


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