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Chinese Medicine and Sleep

Posted Jan 17 2009 1:15am

An American friend told me about one of his experiences with Chinese medicine — what is called in America “Traditional Chinese Medicine.” He had some sort of infection that caused skin near his stomach to be damp. He tried many solutions. None worked. Then he went to a Chinese medicine doctor who prescribed certain herbs. In a week he was better.

My take on this is that the herbs increased the sensitivity of his immune system, which then got rid of the infection.  Such infections are rare, of course, so rare I don’t know the name for it. The existence of such an infection was a sign his immune system was working very poorly. I asked my friend about his sleep. His sleep was terrible. Highly irregular. It is telling that the Chinese doctor didn’t tell him to improve his sleep, which would have vastly improved his health and reduced his future visits to the doctor.

It was a new idea to me that Chinese herbs — at least some of them — work by boosting the immune system. It makes sense: detection of some invaders should make you more sensitive to other invaders. One implication of this view is that it hardly matters which herb you take so long as it is new. My friend told another story in which his Chinese doctor changed the herbs every week or so, supporting this idea.

It was a new idea to my friend that poor sleep was causing his immune system to work poorly. My experience with colds, as mentioned last post (when my sleep improved they disappeared), means that the fact that colds are “common” implies we are a nation of poor sleepers. And, indeed, sleep problems are very common. A few years ago, I learned about a course about epidemics taught at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. I knew the professor. I asked him if the course would cover environmental factors that cause the immune system to work better or worse. No, he said. Half the subject, ignored. This is roughly equivalent to the way economists rarely study innovation and statisticians rarely study how data generates ideas.

More Supporting the idea that ingesting strange but harmless substances can improve immune functioning, I found this in the latest issue of the Journal of Nutrition:

Caseins and whey proteins are the 2 major protein fractions of cow milk. Whey proteins are separated from casein curds during the cheese-making process. The major proteins present in bovine whey come from the mammary gland that secretes β-lactoglobulin (β-LG),7 {alpha}-lactalbumin ({alpha}-LA), and glycomacropeptide (GMP), and from serum, like IgG1 and IgG2, IgA, IgE, and IgM and albumin. Besides their use in functional foods, whey protein products, and more specifically whey protein-derived products, have been shown to be efficient in certain pathologies. For instance, whey proteins inhibited gastric ulcerative lesions induced by ethanol or indomethacin, inhibited chemical-induced malignancy in mice, improved bone loss of ovariectomized rats, and reduced hyperglycemia in type 2 diabetic patients (1–5). Moreover, in vitro and in vivo studies have demonstrated modulation of immune functions by several whey protein-derived products (6,7). As examples, β-LG, the most abundant protein in whey (55–65% of total whey proteins), stimulates the proliferation of murine spleen cells and lamina propia lymphocytes (8,9). It is also useful to stress that researchers have shown that probiotics expressing β-LG can be used to manage food allergy (10). The 2nd most abundant whey protein, {alpha}-LA (15–25% of total whey proteins), modulates macrophage and B- and T-lymphocyte functions (11). Moreover, the {alpha}-LA–derived peptide f51–53 directly affects neutrophils (12). The 3rd most abundant whey peptidic component, GMP, can affect immunity and attenuate inflammatory colitis in rats (6,13,14). At optimal concentrations, the other bioactive whey-derived proteins like Ig and lactoferrin present in whey protein extract (WPE) can also exert immune modulatory functions (6,7).

I didn’t know this–that ingesting milk products had good effects on immune function. That probiotics can be used to manage food allergies isn’t explained by the idea that foreign substances make the immune system more sensitive.

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