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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 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 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. Louise Witkin-Berg says:

    Another topic… after years of insomnia, terrible ramifications from this, unsuccessful sleep clinics and terrible drug side effects, I just happened upon and have has great initial success from 15 drops of CBD…Why has it taken so long for not one sleep Dr or any other to recommend this for a try?

  2. Bernie says:

    Thanks, Dr. E, for the wisdom here. I have torn up a few of those just-in-case prescriptions over the years and I am better for it.

    I also appreciate your taking issue with the “war metaphors” that we too often use for our medical interventions (oops, the habit is hard to break!).

    But I would be remiss, especially as an English teacher, if I didn’t nit-pick about the macho literary metaphors you employ to explain the attitude we must take with our immune system. I’m not really concerned with the datedness of your cultural references (Hemingway!? Mike Hammer!?) but with the presumption that there is only one way to be tough and aggressive.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning, although known for suffering many debilitating ailments throughout her life, never stopped writing. She overcame not only physical pain but also an abusive father and a patriarchal society. She ended up marrying a younger man, and as she aged (living into her 50s), she shifted her focus to social and political activism — inspiring Emily Dickinson, among many other women, to speak their truths.

    I’m confident my immune system would shudder in the face of that type of persistence and power 🙂

  3. Patricia Woodbury says:

    I so totally agree with the concerns about overuse of antibiotics. But since my lung cancer diagnosis (now in remission for three years) when I have let the “little” things go I have ended up with pneumonia. l. I live in an endemic Valley Fever area and have horses to care for so I try to be careful about dust exposure, etc. I’ve had several rounds of antibiotics, fluconazole and an antiviral in the past year but I’ve also managed to stay out of the hospital during this time.
    I do worry about things like will this make me more susceptible to infection when I need my other hip replacement (assuming I live that long) or if years of eating prime beef has provided unnecessary exposure to antibiotics. I do the best I can – eat clean, stay active but I no longer try to outwait what may be something simple or may not.

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