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Getting Tough With Your Immune System

No reasonable physician (I modestly include myself here) can refrain from crowing delightedly when a new clinical study confirms the value of a treatment he or she had been using for years, even if that treatment had contradicted prevailing standards.

Ever since I learned something about natural medicine, I’ve been reluctant to prescribe antibiotics for respiratory tract infections, such as colds, sore throats, and bronchitis. Many physicians had issues with this question. The debate was really nothing more than “Do we or don’t we?” boiled down to “Are antibiotics actually doing anything?” with the cautionary add-on “Are antibiotics preventing a worse infection, like pneumonia?”

A couple of decades ago, when a spate of antibiotics hit the market and drug reps clogged our offices with cases of freebies, if you looked at a doctor cross-eyed you’d leave with an antibiotic. Even though doctors knew most respiratory infections were caused by viruses (which antibiotics can’t touch), to cover ourselves we prescribed them anyway, worried about so-called secondary infections, malpractice suits, and the economic cost of dissatisfied patients.

Both physicians and patients became victims of this antibiotic delusion. One interesting survey reported that when doctors had a cold or flu, they themselves took antibiotics and acknowledged that any clinical success might be attributed to a self-induced placebo effect. Despite all this, a majority of patients seeing a doctor for a stuffy nose, sore throat, or cough continue today to leave the office with an antibiotic.

Enter alternative medicine
When I began studying alternative medicine some 30 years ago I was impressed that, regardless the modality (natural medicine, Chinese medicine, homeopathy, chiropractic, etc.), each emphasized the human body’s design for self healing. Alternative practitioners didn’t prescribe drugs carrying war metaphors (antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, beta-blocker, proton pump inhibitor), but rather recommended treatments that strengthened innate healing capacities. Acupuncture ramped up your qi (“chee”). Homeopathic remedies supported your élan vital, or vital force. Certain mushrooms were prescribed not to kill viruses or bacteria, but instead to enhance immunity.

When I’d see a patient with a respiratory infection I would no longer write an antibiotic prescription to be started immediately. Instead, I’d specifically tell my patient not to fill the prescription unless things got worse and then offer suggestions on strengthening immunity, but more on that later.

The clinical study I referred to above, entitled “Prescription Strategies in Acute Uncomplicated Respiratory Infections,” (click here for an easy-read overview) appeared last week in JAMA Internal Medicine. It confirmed what I, and probably more and more physicians, had been doing anyway. In the study, the group of patients given an antibiotic with instructions to start it immediately fared no better than those given a prescription but told to hold off and use it only as a last resort.

The study also showed that patients who were prescribed antibiotics for immediate use had a tendency to keep returning to their doctors for antibiotics whenever a symptom appeared (“Hey doc, I woke up with a sore throat. Phone in an antibiotic and let’s catch this early.”) Those who were not given antibiotics learned to take care of themselves. Obviously, antibiotic overuse can lead to superbugs, bacteria that nothing short of Rambo-mycin can kill off.

In addition to a delayed antibiotic prescription, I would also give my patients a quick lesson in immune enhancement using psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). PNI, by the way, is not alternative medicine per se. It lies more in the realm of the mind-body therapies you may have read about.

For years, studies have confirmed that the power of the mind, directed through the nervous system, can affect immunity for better or for worse. It’s well known, for example, that emotional stress of any stripe adversely affects immunity. When surveys are taken of who gets a cold when the virus is romping through a large office, it’s usually those who are having stress issues either at home or in the workplace.

The key is to get your immune system to work for you
You have to get tough. Remember, your immune system is your body’s local bad guy, tackling viruses, bacteria, parasites, and cancer cells. When you talk to your immune system, you must speak its language. Talk Hemingway or Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, not Elizabeth Barrett Browning. No gentle positive affirmations. And don’t whine.

When I hand you a prescription for a “delayed antibiotic,” do the following:

Hold it with the written part facing you and say aloud: “Listen, bud. You haven’t been performing up to snuff. Maybe your back was turned. Maybe you got distracted by a pimple. But I want you to get the hell back to work and get rid of this (insert ailment). See this prescription? If I have to take it, if I have to swallow this, it means you, yes you, have failed. Now get to work.”

In addition, give your immune system a little mushroom boost with the aptly named Host Defense MyCommunity, a blend of 16 types of organically grown mushrooms. Very likely in a day or two you’ll be able to tear my rx into little pieces and you’ll…

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment


  1. calle says:

    Wow wow and wow!
    Passing this along to a whole ton of people.
    As too many take drugs to kill things it does not touch.
    So few understand or care to understand their bodies own healing system.
    Folks want instant.
    Happy New Year, keep this info coming…

  2. David Tenenbaum says:

    There is an expression. Death begins in the colon. How true. Studies show if you want your immune system to fire on all fours twenty four seven, a diet rich in plant fiber is the way to go. The microbiome in your gut is the result of the foods you eat. Eat meat and dairy and you promote pathogenic bacteria that will seriously compromise your immune (as well as cardiovascular) system. The healthiest flora is fed a plant based diet-no animal fats or proteins. So next time you want both protein and a healthy gut, skip the rotting carcass (whether it be land or sea based animal) and go for a delicious bowl of lentils. After you finished eating, giving your gut a pep talk is optional.

  3. Jim Fitzgerald says:

    Since you introduced me to Host Defense MyCommunity about 5 (or so) years ago I would say I’ve experienced a 60 – 80% reduction in colds per year. Yes (as you know) sometimes I still get a cold but I firmly believe MyCommunity has been the best supplement I ever added to boost immunity. With the addition of my yearly Flu Shot, this combo of alternative and conventional prevention has proven to be successful as I’m clearly much better in the immunity department then I was some years ago. ~ That’s the Whole Point right? ;0) Thanks Dr. E.!

  4. Kim Horton says:

    Should you still promote your immune system with an autoimmune disease such as MS? What are your thoughts about the meds for MS? I love the idea of doing anything to strengthen my immune system, but I’m now wondering if it’s still the right thing to do for my situation.

  5. Addie says:

    The excuse I heard for prescribing antibiotics for viruses was antibiotics killed the accompanying bacteria that made the virus hang on longer. I always liked the idea of the virus and bacteria duking it out and killing each other. Although that made no medical sense, it provided the mental picture I needed to fall asleep and heal myself.

  6. Cathy says:

    I have ulcerative colitis and am always concerned about over stimulating my immune system. Thoughts???

  7. Dale Fahey says:

    What do think of colloidial silver? I have been using it since it is anti-viral as well as anti-bacterial when a cold or what ever seems to be starting.

  8. Tammy says:

    I have UC as well. I would love to hear your thoughts on that and how to fix the immune system so it knows the good from the bad!

  9. Dr E says:

    Hi Cathy
    The mushroom blend is not overstimulating and can be safely used

  10. Cathy says:

    Wonderful to hear! Will try! Thank you!

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