Take a common sense approach to infections
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
Infections come in many shapes and forms. They can be acute or linger for weeks, months or years, and may even be resistant to the effects of antibiotic prescriptions.
Whether it’s cystitis (bladder infections), common colds, flu, bronchitis, gastroenteritis (“stomach flu”), stomach ulcers related to H.pylori, vaginal infections, pneumonia, sinusitis, or skin infections, microbes can affect any organ, system or place in the body.
In the case of bacterial infections, antibiotics can be needed. Because of over-use, many antibiotics do not work as well as they did previously. Multiple prescriptions or different types of antibiotics are often required to address a given infection.
In fact, researchers, governments, doctors and hospital staff are pouring countless resources to combat the rise in drug-resistant bacteria. Recognizing that such research is important, we must also acknowledge that a new paradigm for treating infections is timely and necessary.
An integrated approach that sees medical doctors (MDs) and naturopathic doctors (NDs) working side-by-side to treat infections is paramount. On a patient-by-patient basis, the need for antibiotics (or antivirals) should be assessed. Treatments should include some or all of the following: 1) nutritional suggestions; 2) the use of specific vitamins or minerals in medicinal doses; and 3) individualized herbal or homeopathic combinations. Such an approach will not only address the underlying infection, but will also keep the body strong at the same time.
Most importantly, prevention should be at the forefront of this new approach. Whether you’ve just had an infection or find yourself with recurring infections, an understanding of the cause(s) is perhaps the most important action you can take for your health.
I started to introduce this topic in a previous column entitled “Why do respiratory infections happen?”.
Numerous causes can lead to immune dysfunction and increased the risk of infections. Through individualized detective work, doctors can help determine which cause(s) are most likely to promote infections for each given patient:
- Chronic food allergies/intolerances
- Nutritional deficiencies, poor diet, excess alcohol, excess sugar (& simple carbs)
- Toxins (pesticides/herbicides, PCBs, heavy metals, xenoestrogens, etc…)
- Stress, mental/emotional issues (worry, anxiety, etc…)
- Genetics predispositions
- Smoking, recreational drug use
- Lack of sleep, shift work
- Excess work (mental or physical), states of exhaustion (‘burnout’)
- Excess or lack of exercise
- Pharmaceutical medication side-effects (especially antibiotic overuse/misuse)
Imbalanced Bodily Systems:
- Inflammatory conditions (Crohn’s or colitis, cancer, obesity, etc…)
- Previous serious acute infections (eg pneumonia, gastroenteritis, etc…)
- Chronic mucous membrane irritation (eg local inflammation in a certain area, etc…)
- Chronic viral infections (HIV, herpes, genital warts, repeated cold/flus, etc…)
- Autoimmune disease (celiac, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc…)
- Hormone imbalances (especially cortisol and melatonin)
- Depression, loneliness
- Decreased liver function, liver inflammation
- Poor digestive health (dysbiosis, constipation, diarrhea, etc...)
Let’s elaborate on a few of these causes:
Previous serious infections can predispose someone for future infections. After pneumonia for example, the body is left depleted. Reduced energy levels and decreased immune system capacity frequently follow such serious infections.
By supporting the immune system, the respiratory system and the hormonal system (especially adrenal glands) during and after the infection, the quality of life for such patients will be dramatically improved. Herbal preparations are particularly useful in these cases.
Chronic mucous membrane irritation
The lining of the respiratory system and the digestive system (also called mucous membrane) can easily become irritated. Because our mucous membrane is directly exposed to the external environment, it can easily be affected by allergens and microbes.
Microbes (e.g. virus or bacteria) and allergens (e.g. pollen) alike enter the body via the mouth and nose, and begin irritating the mucous membrane. To prevent invaders from penetrating deeper into the body, the mucous membrane produces mucous which forms a thick, protective coat. The immune system also becomes involved by recognizing and mounting a response against the foreign invaders. Histamine and other inflammatory substances are released. Fluid and immune cells rush into the area causing unpleasant mucus secretions, congestion and other inflammatory changes that can damage or cause dysfunction of cells in the body.
The interconnection of the mucus membrane in different parts of the body is startling. I have often seen symptoms show up in one part of the body even though the underlying problem is found somewhere else. Chronic inflammation of the mucous membrane and the presence of abnormal microbes (eg Candida albicans) in the digestive tract, can affect the mucus membrane of the respiratory system. My ND colleagues and I have frequently observed the resolutions of chronic sinus infections, post-nasal drip or chronic runny noses only when the health of digestive tract is addressed.
As I’ve said in previous articles, this example highlights the notion that “only when we look at the whole can we gain a complete perspective of one’s state of health”.
When inflammation occurs in the body for long enough, it starts to injure cells. In turn, tissues (groupings of unique cell types found in organ or body parts) can become damaged.
Examples include hepatitis (liver inflammation), atherosclerosis (or hardening of the arteries), arthritis (joints inflammation), the breakdown of blood vessels commonly seen in diabetes, cancer tumours, autoimmune disease (celiac disease, etc…) and the breakdown of the gut lining as in Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, among many others.
Generally speaking, most chronic health conditions involve a certain degree of inflammatory process.
Bottom line is that inflammation is tough on the body. Since our immune system orchestrates inflammatory reactions in our body, chronic conditions become wearing on the body in numerous ways. In the end, it can distract the immune system’s attention to deal with infections.
Talk to your MD or ND about treatment options that aim to keep the ‘fire’ of chronic inflammatory conditions under control.
Poor digestive health
Because of our digestive tract and immune system are intricately linked, many digestive disorders can lead to immune dysfunction. About 50-70% of the immune system is actually located in the gut. One of the most important lymphatic networks includes the aggregations of lymph tissue of the Peyer's patches in the abdomen. The Peyer’s patches are developed primarily in childhood. For this reason food allergies and gut irritation (often seen in children with colic, reflux or eczema) can severely impair the development of this lymphoid organ.
Later in life, we maintain good immune-gut health with daily bowel movements, the presence of friendly bacteria in our guts (probiotics), and by maintaining sufficient blood flow to the digestive tract via daily exercise.
The benefit of probiotics used either to prevent or treat infections is well researched in scientific literature. Sinus, bladder and digestive tract infections respond particularly well to probiotics. The use of probiotics are also finding their way into hospitals to prevent fussy infections such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and certain species of Clostridium difficile. In fact, probiotics are now considered standard protocol at Pierre-Le Gardeur Hospital (located outside Montreal) because they have seen a remarkable reduction in the incidence of C. difficile in their hospital environment.
Note that the quality of probiotics is very important: the type of strains, the combination and concentration of each different strains, and dosages should be considered depending on the type of infection.
Determining and avoiding foods that cause digestive distress is also important to maintain gut immunity. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about different options to determine your food allergies. An elimination/challenge assessment or a blood test for IgG antibodies against many common foods are some of the methods that can be used.
In conclusion, understanding the cause(s) of recurring infections can be complicated and should be evaluated based on the greater context of your care. Being a detective and uncovering the obstacles for optimal health is a crucial element for long-term care and the well-being of my patients.
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Thursday January 26th, 2012 in Times & Transcript.
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