Recent research has uncovered a great deal about how the various elements of our immune system—white blood cells, the thymus gland, the spleen, bone marrow, lymph glands, and a variety of large molecules—work to keep us well (see last month's column). More and more is being learned also about how to help the immune system do a better job. We can do quite a bit with some simple nutrients, available without a prescription, which have been shown in animal experiments to improve immune system surveillance.
Vitamin A. A can prevent injury-caused decreases in thymus weight and in the number of thymic lymphocytes (a thymus-derived type of white blood cell). It can increase the size of the thymus, even doubling it. 15,000 IU per day is a reasonable adult dose of vitamin A.
Vitamin C. C increases the activity of certain white blood cells that patrol the body looking for bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, and atherosclerotic plaque cells. It also increases the quantity of interferon made in lymphocytes and fibroblasts (connective tissue cells). Vitamin C is lost rapidly via the urine, so it should be taken four times daily. (A convenient schedule is to take it after breakfast, lunch, and dinner and then at bedtime.) Three to ten grams a day is a reasonable dose for a healthy adult. Start at a low dose and work up to higher doses gradually.
Vitamin E. In several species of animals (chicken, sheep, turkey, and rat), vitamin E supplementation at a level of 200 to 2,000 IU of E per kilogram of food resulted in improved immune system responses—10 times greater for B-cells and 3-5 times greater for T-cells. 200 to 2,000 IU of vitamin E is a reasonable daily dose for healthy adults.
Arginine and ornithine, nutrient amino acids. In mice innoculated with MSV (Moloney Sarcoma Virus, a potent cancer-causing agent), arginine and ornithine were able to block formation of tumors. Arginine and ornithine increased the thymus weight in both the MSV- and nonMSV-injected mice. These two amino acids cause the brain's pituitary gland to release growth hormone, important in the maintenance of the immune system. Three to ten grams of arginine (or half as much ornithine) at bedtime is a reasonable adult daily dose.
L-cysteine, a sulfur-containing amino acid. Cysteine is an immune system stimulant. It is not as powerful as the chemically related mercaptoethanol, which has been able to restore the immune system function of aged mice (the equivalent of 80 years old for a human) to that of young adult mice; however, there are no long-term use data for mercaptoethanol, and, consequently, more research is needed before people use it on a regular basis.
Cysteine is a nutrient and is generally safe to use. It is important, however, to take a few times as much vitamin C as cysteine, because the oxidized form of cysteine (cystine) can form kidney or urinary bladder stones. With adequate vitamin C around, the cysteine will be kept in its reduced (very soluble) form and not be converted to cystine (poorly soluble). One or two grams per day of cysteine taken with three to six grams or more of vitamin C in divided doses are reasonable daily doses for a healthy adult.
Zinc, a mineral (taken in chelated form). Zinc deficiency can cause severe shrinkage of the thymus gland; this can be reversed with zinc. A reasonable daily dose for adults is 50 milligrams of chelated zinc. Zinc is required to mobilize vitamin A from storage sites in the liver.
Selenium, a mineral. Selenium is an important antioxidant in the body. It is estimated by researchers studying selenium that, if people were to take 250 micrograms per day, the incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease could be cut by 70 percent and the incidence of cataracts reduced by 80 percent. Selenium is an essential part of the antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase, which is important in preventing damage to the immune system and other systems by organic peroxides, like those formed by the abnormal, nonenzymatically controlled oxidation (via a free radical route) of body fats and oils. In a number of experiments, selenium has demonstrated powerful anticarcinogen (inhibiting development of cancer) and antimutagen (preventing damage to DNA) properties. The most effective, safest, and least-expensive form is sodium selenite.
With these nutrients, our body's natural defenses can be stimulated to do a better job at keeping us well.
A list of scientific literature on this topic is available. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to this publication, referring to the date of this issue. Sandy Shaw and Durk Pearson are consulting scientists, authors, and TV personalities. Copyright © 1981 by Sandy Shaw and Durk Pearson.
Q: Is there any way to increase the length or thickness of my hair?
A: In order to increase the output of hair by hair follicles, you can do several things. One is to increase the supply of amino acids used in the construction of hair. The amino acid cysteine is a particularly limiting factor because it is in relatively short supply even in a person eating a good diet. Hair contains eight percent cysteine, from which it derives much of its structural stability. Disulfide bonds (chemical bonds between sulfur atoms in the cysteine molecules) supply shape and strength to hair.
The best dietary source is eggs; one egg contains about ¼ gram of cysteine. We use cysteine crystals purchased from a Japanese manufacturer of amino acids. When you take cysteine supplements, remember to take also at least a few times as much vitamin C (see above).
Another thing you can do to promote longer, thicker hair is to prevent free radical damage to hair follicles. Free radicals are highly chemically reactive molecules (or atoms) with unpaired electrons. These are formed during normal metabolism and as a result of various pathological processes, including as a byproduct of nonenzymatic fat autoxidation (self-catalyzed oxidation). The scalp contains a considerable quantity of fatty materials that may become oxidized with exposure to oxygen in the air.
Dandruff is an example of a condition resulting from free radical damage. The organic peroxides formed as a result of the oxidation of the scalp's lipids (fats and oils) are irritants. The skin cells in contact with these irritant organic peroxides are stimulated into excess cell division, resulting in the proliferation of excess skin cells, which fall off as dandruff when pushed out by other skin cells growing underneath. Free radicals can also "turn off" or destroy hair follicles or their pigment-producing melanocytes. Free radicals are mutagens (mutation-causing) and carcinogens (cancer-causing).
Use of shampoos containing antioxidants (substances that block uncontrolled oxidation reactions) such as zinc (zinc pyrithione, Head and Shoulders® shampoo) or selenium compounds (selenium sulfide, Selsun Blue® shampoo) provide some protection against free radical damage to hair follicles and may result in a thicker, more luxuriant hair growth. Use of oral supplements of sodium selenite (250 micrograms per day) and chelated zinc (50 milligrams per day) often provides dramatic relief from dandruff, itchy scalp, and rancid hair odors.
In our book, Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach, to be published soon by Warner Books, we discuss in detail what we know about the causes of balding, what techniques can stop its progress, and some methods that may even reverse it in some people.
Copyright © 1981 by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Health & Welfare: How to Stay Well".