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.