Looking out for the invaders

The immune system is designed to fight infection, but it can be confused by drugs and supplements. By Roger Dobson

Doctors were baffled by the woman's condition. Her eyesight was failing, several vital organs were on the point of giving up, and she was lethargic and depressed. But there was no obvious reason for her plight.

It was only when an ophthalmologist examined her eyes in detail that the answer was found. The tiny grains of iron discovered in the cornea were a vital clue to her problem - too much iron. She had been taking large supplements of iron because she was unwell and because her iron count had been down, but neither she nor her doctor had realised what effect the extra intake was having.

By taking it she had been unknowingly overriding her own immune system, which had been trying to reduce the amount of iron in her body to kill off an infection.

According to Dr Eugene Weinberg, a microbiologist and an international authority on iron in the body, her case is one of thousands of examples of a growing trend where medication is used as a quick fix rather than letting the immune system deal with it. It's a practice that has been implicated in problems as diverse as impotence, diabetes, miscarriages and cancer.

When infection or another invader strikes, the immune system goes into action, orchestrating a defensive response to the bugs, germs, bacteria and viruses.

"The immune system is basically a mixed bag of cells; organs, especially the spleen which keeps an emergency store of red and white blood cells; glands such as the lymph and the thymus; and blood vessels that ward off viruses and bacteria,'' says Adele Puhn, a medical biologist and the author of The Five Secrets for a Healthy Life.

In the constant battles to get rid of the invaders, the immune system has a huge repertoire of strategies tailor made to cover most threats. The problem is that when the immune system goes into action, the response it creates is often mistaken for the malady.

A cough, pain, runny nose, sneeze, rash, vomiting, inflammation, sickness, sore throat and diarrhoea - these are all symptoms of the immune system in action and are part of the cure. But they are often taken for the problem itself and, instead of giving the immune system time to get on with it, medication is taken, undermining the natural defences.

"We take more drugs than we need, we are a drug-orientated society. In many cases the solution our immune system provides will be more long lasting if we don't interfere with it," says Dr Herbert Dupont, the chief of internal medicine with the University of Texas at Houston.

He has investigated the use of antibiotics to prevent travellers' diarrhoea and found they do cause problems: "We know that antibiotics given early in an infectious disease will interfere with the immune response. Giving people antibiotics to prevent travellers' diarrhoea means they can eventually get a more severe form of the disease,'' he says.

Vomiting can also be an immune system response, a way of expelling toxic agents from the stomach to stop them penetrating the rest of the body. Some researchers have suggested that morning sickness in pregnant women may be the mother's immune system protecting the foetus from potentially harmful toxins. In support of their theory they say that the rate of miscarriages is lower in women who suffer morning sickness than in those who don't.

A cough is the immune system's tactic for getting rid of foreign material from the lungs and air passages, while a fever is the way to boil off some bacteria and viruses. Pain and inflammation are the warning signs that something is wrong, while a raised temperature and a runny nose are the immune system's way of trying to flush out the common cold virus that likes to colonise in the colder temperatures in the nose.

The immune system works at less obvious levels too, and its ability to withhold food from invading bacteria is one of the more subtle. The body needs iron, but it only needs so much. Some people are particularly at risk of iron overload because they have a genetic predisposition to storing it. One theory is that this genetic trait evolved in northern Europe where hunting was seasonal. In the leaner times of winter when food was not plentiful, the body needed to evolve a way of stockpiling iron.

Iron is important because it is involved in the formation of haemoglobin in the blood and in the development of muscles, and supplements and injections are given to people with low iron counts. But too much can be toxic and has been linked to a variety of problems.

Bugs that infect the body also feed on iron and the low iron count can be a sign that the immune system is working, rather than that the body needs more iron.

"When we have an infection the bacteria needs iron to thrive, so the liver stores it to prevent it getting to the bacteria. With the help of the spleen and bone marrow, the liver desperately tries to hide the iron from the bacteria, and then we spoil it all by coming along with supplements. I've been fighting this battle for 40 years and people are still being given supplements,'' says Dr Weinberg.

"The notion that the more iron a person has the healthier they are is a myth. You don't want the iron to be free in the body because it might stimulate cancer growths, or cardiac problems, and if it spills it can cause diabetes and impotence. The liver also tries to withhold iron from the inflammatory process to keep down growth of cancer or infectious organisms and keep down oxidant damage.''

The subtle workings of the immune system mean that they can be mistaken by even the most experienced of clinicians.

Dr Weinberg describes how one man suffering with too much iron had a catalogue of problems, some of them typical of iron overload, but went undiagnosed for years.

"He had abdominal problems, arthritis and impotence. He was diagnosed as a psychosomatic, was given shock therapy, became anxious and depressed, and his wife divorced him. It was only after years of this that his sister suggested he get his iron checked and, sure enough, that was the problem.''

The patient went on get his iron level down, was restored to good health and recovered everything but his wife.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker