I’ve been battling a bit of a cold for the past few
weeks, somehow managing to keep it at bay with a regular regimen of sleep,
vitamins, and the occasional intervention of Echinacea and homeopathic aconite.
All in the service of buttressing my 59-year-old immune system. As the Zen monk
said as he fell from the 20-story building: “So far, so good.”
I’ve always been of the opinion that a hale and
hearty immune system is the key to a graceful aging process, but suddenly I’m
not so sure. A recent piece in The New
York Times suggests that a powerhouse immune system might just backfire on
you — especially if you’re trying to beat back the common cold.
The writer, Jennifer Ackerman, is an expert in this
area — or so her resume would suggest. She’s the author of Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, and she argues that
it’s a too-aggressive immune system — not that pesky cold bug — that causes
those sniffles and sneezes. She points to a 1984 study at the University of
Copenhagen that compared the nasal tissues of people suffering from severe
colds with samples from those same people after they had recovered. “To the
scientists’ surprise, none of the samples showed any damage to the nasal
tissue,” she writes.
“Here was a new insight in cold science: the symptoms
are caused not by the virus but by its host — by the body’s inflammatory
response. Chemical agents manufactured by our immune system inflame our cells
and tissues, causing our nose to run and our throat to swell. The enemy is us.
“Indeed, it’s possible to create the full storm of
cold symptoms with no cold virus at all, but only a potent cocktail of the
so-called inflammatory mediators that the body makes itself — among them,
cytokines, kinins, prostaglandins and interleukins, powerful little chemical
messengers that cause the blood vessels in the nose to dilate and leak,
stimulate the secretion of mucus, activate sneeze and cough reflexes and set
off pain in our nerve fibers.”
So, it appears that my highly functioning immune
system isn’t really fighting off the cold bug that’s been hanging around our
house. It’s actually creating the symptoms I don’t quite have.
Oh, wait. Here’s the kicker:
“There’s another intriguing paradox here. Studies
suggest that about one in four people who get infected with a cold virus don’t
get sick. The virus gets into their bodies, and eventually they produce
antibodies to it, but they don’t experience symptoms. It may be that people
like this are not making the normal amounts of inflammatory agents.”
I think I get it now. Maybe I’m one of those people
who get a cold that’s not created by our own highly functioning immune systems
because my immune system isn’t really functioning at a high level, but at a
level that doesn’t quite create cold symptoms, making it possible for the cold
virus to enter my body and also not create cold symptoms.
Glad I cleared that up. I’m feeling better already.