Immune system health – expert says nutritional balance key

When it comes to the immune system, there is no miracle cure or ability to “boost your immune health” through consumption of a magic pill. It has a very simplistic need – balance.

“It’s really getting back to the basics of how our body wants to function – and it wants to function in balance,” said Dr. Maeve O’Connor, who has been listed in the Best Doctors of America database for the past 17 years and is a board certified expert by both the American Board of Internal Medicine and Allergy / Immunology.

Her research, clinical expertise and sound advice opens the door to vital conversations in immunology, serving as a reminder of what is helpful for our overall health, and hopefully propelling us as patients into forming solid doctor/patient relationships that are rooted in teamwork.

When asked the top immunodeficiency disorders she diagnoses/treats, O’ Connor said:

1 – Common variable immunodeficiency (CVID) (also known as Hypogammaglobulinemia).

“CVID is when you have deficiencies in your antibodies.” To take one step back, “Antibodies are the proteins in your body that fight infections.”

“CVID is when you have abnormalities in your antibodies in general as well as specific classes of antibodies,” she said. “The reason it’s called combined variable is because different parts of your antibodies can be affected variably in individual people who have the disease.”

To date, experts do not know what causes CVID, yet it tends to be more commonly diagnosed in adult years, though it can happen at any time. 

2 – A special interest of hers is when patients present with a vitamin/nutrition deficiency.

“Nutritional deficits then can lead to immune issues including antibody deficiencies,” O’Connor explained. 

“I find that by spending a few extra minutes with a patient who comes in with fatigue, or having recurrent infections, it’s amazing how often you find they are not nutritionally healthy,” she said.

Circling back to the noted obesity epidemic, O’Connor said, “We have an obesity problem in America, but obese people can also be malnourished. You have to have the nutritional building blocks to have a healthy immune system.”

When it comes to nutritional deficits, it of course can fall all over the board, but she finds the most common to be:

  • “Vitamin D and B deficiencies
  • Caloric intake problems that lead to protein deficiencies
  • Eating empty calories instead of nutritional calories
  • Not eating enough fruits or vegetables
  • Not having a healthy, balanced diet”

An often unrealized fact that should be brought to the forefront of public knowledge is:  “You can be so malnourished that your body doesn’t make enough protein, and since you need nutrition to make antibodies, you can have an antibody deficiency because of nutrition, not only because of a primary genetic immunodeficiency,” O’Connor said.  

In addition to a diagnosable immunodeficiency, she explained that other diseases, such as kidney disease, can look like an immunodeficiency. With kidney disease, she noted, it is “Where you lose your antibodies and you are not immune deficient from a primary source, but a secondary source.”

Likening the immune system to an “orchestra” O’Connor said, “In order to hear that beautiful sound of the orchestra, it has to be in balance. You don’t want to only hear the harp or the drum, you want to hear it all together.” 

“That beautiful harmony is how our immune system works properly.”

What are the basics?

  • “Eating a healthy, colorful, balanced diet
  • Consuming leafy vegetables, bright berries
  • Exercising
  • Meditating
  • Sleeping well
  • Limiting ‘screen’ time
  • Lessening stress”

So next time you Google, “How can I boost my immune system,” rest assured that you have the power in your own hands – with the daily decisions you make, the habits you follow, and the mindfulness you adapt.

Take a look at your sleep schedule, what you’re consuming, if you’re on top of your doctor appointments, and learn ways that can help you minimize stress. Ask yourself, “What can I personally do or change to help my health?”

It is tough. Balance can ebb and flow, need to be restored at times, or can require asking for some (or a lot) of help.

“So many of us are living unbalanced lives that it does not help our immune system,” said O’Connor.

In turn, imbalance and excessive stress negatively impact our health. “Stress has been shown to affect immune function,” O’Connor said. While “it’s not going to lead to a primary immune deficiency, a genetic based one – it’s certainly linked to immune dysfunction.”

Whether you have an immunologist, visited one years ago, or have yet to schedule an appointment, I think it’s wise to understand what they can assist you with. 

If you have many infections a year, it is important to find a board certified immunologist. O’Connor said it is common that patients “may see several specialists before they get to an immunologist.” This is because “they see doctors who don’t specialize in the immune system,” so instead of being properly evaluated, diagnosed, and treated by an immunologist, providers often will evaluate them “for fatigue, their thyroid, their mood – ‘are they depressed?’”

The most under-represented conditions in O’Connor’s specialties are, she said without hesitation, “immune deficiency as well as immune dysfunction.”

The severity of lack of proper diagnosis is staggering.

O’Connor’s firsthand experience magnifies such: “Patients wait 7 to 9 years to get properly diagnosed and, in that time, they are getting infections that can cause long-term complications that may not be reversible.” One of which includes “Bronchiectasis in the lungs, which is – after having multiple pneumonias – creates remodeling or scarring in the lungs that cannot be reversed.”

Many of you may be able to relate to this. If you’ve been living with symptoms, a chronic illness, or condition that health care professionals have not been able to pinpoint a diagnosis for, it’s not unusual for stress to rear its head and fill us with a range of emotions. O’Connor explained that the process of going from doctor to doctor and retaining that stress in trying to get a diagnosis, can then lead to depression and anxiety. 

As I’ve stated before, your symptoms and experience are individual, unique, and real. I hope this valuable insight from such a distinguished expert serves as inspiration for you to continue to push forward in finding an expert for your condition that listens to you and approaches diagnostics and treatment together – as a team. 

By the time many patients reach O’Connor, she said, “They are excited to finally have an answer.” Yet, it can still be an uphill battle due to the fact that in the long lead up process of seeing umpteen doctors, “A trust level is lost after going that many years without a proper diagnosis or being told it is all in your head, or being told there is nothing wrong with you.”

Her approach in practice is admirable and refreshing. “I really like to employ shared decision-making, where we talk about the tests that need to be done, the diagnosis that I think it could be and the treatment options that are available.” Knowing that treatment options are limited when it comes to immune deficiency, she has deemed her approach (which really came to its height during the Covid-19 pandemic) a positive one. 

A conversation to a patient in her clinic sounds like this, “I definitely want to help you and I’m here to help you, but you need to be part of this team for you.”

At times O’Connor must say, “I can’t do it without you. Are you on this team for you?” Upon having the conversation, she said, “It changes everything.”

Patients of hers find relief and security in knowing she is on their team.  “Having patients involved in their healthcare decisions helps not only with the provider / patient relationship but it also helps and has been proven to improve health outcomes.”

“These patients’ [status of good health] have been out of control for so long it’s nice to give them some control back,” she said. 

O’Connor encourages patients to prepare for medical appointments by jotting down questions or concerns in advance to bring along, as well as a complete list of all medications, supplements and all previous medical records that can be obtained.  She also encourages individuals to not be scared to initiate a conversation about their health with a provider. 

Her best advice for patients struggling with their health? “I would encourage anyone out there to find a healthcare provider they can partner with so they can be free of the restraints that a chronic illness such as immune deficiency can place on them,” she said.

In addition to her other notable credentials, Dr. Maeve O’Connor is one of a handful of specialists to have completed the University of Arizona Fellowship of Integrative Medicine. 

Watch for more from Dr. O’Connor in “Do you need to see a medical specialist? The 4-1-1 on stress, nutrition, and white blood cell count” on February 9, 2023