What You Need To Know About the Role of the Immune System in Cancer

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH


A healthy immune system in cancer treatment is essentialYour immune system helps to fight off a variety of viruses and infections, but its duties go far beyond just that. While the role of the immune system in cancer is not yet fully understood, it definitely plays a pivotal role in keeping your body free of tumors. That’s why it’s so important to do everything you can to keep your immune system healthy and functioning properly. This isn’t always easy and maybe you’ve never even thought about making lifestyle changes to support and boost your immune system. However, this will be essential if you want to stay healthy in both the short term and the long term.

The Role of the Immune System in Cancer

There is strong evidence demonstrating the active role of the immune system in cancer prevention. Researchers recently performed a series of experiments on mice. The mice lacked working lymphocytes—white blood cells or immune cells—that usually detect cancer cells, by recognizing proteins and other markers produced by these dangerous cells, and destroy them. During the study, the researchers found that the mice lacking lymphocytes developed tumors much earlier and more frequently than normal mice. This highlights the importance of the immune system in cancer prevention.

However, research also suggests that tumors can sometimes evade the immune system’s defenses. Tumor cells can develop resistance to attacks from the immune system in the same way bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. Resistant tumor cells avoid detection by not expressing proteins the immune system can recognize and use to identify them. This allows them to hide and to grow, which is why cancer has become so prevalent in humans despite the active role of the immune system in cancer prevention.

How Cortisol Affects the Immune System

Many chronic illnesses such as asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and allergies are strongly linked to the immune system. If you suffer from any of these conditions, your immune system will attack your tissues causing damage as well as a variety of unpleasant symptoms. Cortisol is commonly prescribed to address these symptoms, but often causes more damage to the immune system and can make the situation worse. Moreover, cortisol treatments can also affect the actions of the immune system in cancer prevention.

Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone because it is excreted by the adrenal glands when your body experiences stress. This important hormone is responsible for the fight or flight response, which prepares your body to react to an immediate threat. However, if cortisol levels remain high for a prolonged period of time, this can lead to problems. Repeated stress causes the thymus gland—one of the most important immune tissues in your body—to shrink, which can eventually suppress your immune system. This can be directly affected by cortisol and not only inhibits the production of white blood cells but also restricts their activity, preventing them from secreting the chemicals used to communicate with each other and fight off infections. As if this wasn’t bad enough, cortisol can also cause immune cells to switch off completely, effectively shutting down your immune system.

Under normal circumstances, cortisol boosts immune function. But when stress becomes chronic and long-term, it can place your immune system on overdrive. As a result, your immune cells will start to break down and some of them may even start attacking your body’s healthy tissues, resulting in autoimmune disorders. This is one of the most dangerous effects of chronic stress and abnormally high cortisol levels. In fact, studies have shown that cortisol can promote blood vessel synthesis in cancerous tumors, leading to accelerated tumor growth. This is a truly disastrous scenario.

Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and Cortisol

High cortisol levels are extremely common in those suffering from Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). The disorder is triggered by high cortisol demand over a prolonged period of time as a result of chronic stress, causing the adrenal glands to become fatigued. The adrenals are a vital component of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response system, the system designed to help your body manage to stress. So, overworked adrenals can lead to a cascade of imbalances throughout your body, as well as a variety of worsening symptoms. If you’re suffering from AFS, your cortisol levels will be higher than usual, and this can have a devastating effect on your immune system and on your overall health. And can also have important implications on the role of your immune system in cancer prevention.

The immune system is part of the detoxification circuit, which also includes the liver and the extracellular matrix (ECM), the tissue that surrounds and supports your cells. When these three systems are working properly, they can quickly and effectively get rid any toxins and metabolites that may damage otherwise damage your body. However, if you are suffering from AFS, your detoxification circuit can become unbalanced and cause numerous uncomfortable and often frightening symptoms.

AFS and the Danger of Detoxification Circuit Dysfunction

As part of the detoxification circuit, the immune system acts to detect and destroy pathogens that invade your body when you’re experiencing stress. It can also sense the buildup of metabolites, which are simply the byproducts of metabolic activity. When any of these problems are detected, your immune system triggers an inflammatory response to neutralize them. However, if you’re suffering from AFS, detoxification circuit dysfunction can cause your immune system to malfunction. The immune system is closely linked to other components of this circuit; therefore, any imbalance of liver and ECM functions can also affect your immune function.

This can lead to a variety of problems. For starters, your immune system can become hyperactive and attack healthy tissue, resulting in an array of autoimmune disorders. It can also cause inflammation to build up, which increases the workload on the liver and can cause liver congestion and the buildup of metabolites in the ECM. As these problems occur, your immune system will struggle to cope with increased toxicity, leading to further imbalances in these three important organs. As a consequence, infections become more common since the immune system can no longer keep up with its duties, which lead to further toxicity and detoxification circuit dysfunction.

Importantly, imbalances within the detoxification circuit can hinder the efforts of your immune system in cancer prevention. This increases the overall toxicity in your body, allowing opportunistic cancer cells to grow while the immune system struggles in a state of dysfunction and can no longer keep up with an increasing number of threats. This is a very dangerous situation. That’s why it’s important to do everything you can to return this circuit to a state of balance.

How to Boost Your Immune System

The link between stress and the immune system in cancer development has been a subject of study for many years. A number of studies have shown that a weak immune system can create an opening for the proliferation of cancer cells. There are a number of ways to boost your immune system, including the following:

  • Add more anti-oxidants such as vitamin C to your diet;
  • Get adequate rest;
  • Improve your diet in general;
  • Increase your exercise levels, depending on your physical condition;
  • Reduce your stress levels.

Unfortunately, all the tactics in the world can’t reverse the negative effects of stress on your immune system. That’s why adopting effective stress management strategies is one of the most important things you can do. This will reduce your cortisol levels and allow your immune system to work more optimally. Here are several ideas for lowering your cortisol levels and increasing your immunity:

Basil and the immune system in cancer prevention

  • Identify sources of mental, physical and emotional stress so you can reduce or eliminate them where possible;
  • Get enough sleep as this will allow your adrenal glands and the rest of your body to rest and rejuvenate, and can also help to balance your hormones;
  • Make sure you take part in regular moderate exercise, which will help you manage stress;
  • Add more adaptogen herbs to your diet if your physical condition allows it, including basil, ginseng, Rhodiola Rosea, astragalus, and certain mushrooms (Reishi and Cordyceps). Adaptogens can help to lower cortisol levels, balance your hormones, play a role in stabilizing blood sugar levels as well as blood pressure, and have antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, and antidepressant properties. However, if you are suffering from adrenal fatigue, adaptogens may be too stimulating and you may not be able to handle them.

The Takeaway

The most important thing you need to know about the role of the immune system in cancer is that proper function is essential for cancer prevention. Your immune system not only fights off infections and viruses but also attacks cancer cells and prevent them from spreading to other parts of your body. This is essential for both short-term and long-term health. However, if you are suffering from AFS, stress may prevent your immune system from doing its job, which makes it even more important to lower your stress levels. Reducing stress can aid in your AFS recovery and boost your immune system.

 
© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

The role of the immune system in cancer is not yet well understood, but it clearly plays an active role in preventing the growth of tumors. That’s just one of the reasons why it’s so important to keep your immune system healthy and functioning optimally.


A healthy immune system in cancer treatment is essential