Natural Health Journals

The Tao of Immunology: A Revolutionary New Understanding of Our Body’s Defenses. – book reviews

by Arthur Noble


It’s not unreasonable to want a powerful immune system. After all, most of us have been taught since grade school that a healthy immune system is comprised of an army of cells encamped throughout our body, on alert for battle, poised to destroy pathogens and cancer cells. However, the military metaphor is inaccurate, according to Marc Lappe, Ph.D., a prolific author on medicine and public policy and a former professor of health policy and ethics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago. It is not only biologically incorrect, Lappe says, but it can lead to our taking steps that harm, instead of help, our health. Lappe presents a much different, far more nuanced view of immunity; he portrays a system based on accommodation and moderation instead of strength and triumph. He suggests that we look to Chinese Taoism to understand how the immune system truly works. If Lappe’s proposed Taoist understanding of the immune system is correct, it carries significant implications for health care and medicine.

For example, Lappe says that the “way of the Tao does not enforce or interfere with things but lets them work in their own way. The immune system achieves much of its own goals through just such a process.” This, Lappe says, means leaving the immune system for the most part alone. However, he points out that we have done the opposite: “We have tried to end-run it through overuse of antibiotics” and other nostrums.

We have come to expect both too much and too little of our immune capabilities, Lappe says. ‘We want the immune system to repel every possible incursion of natural pathogens…. At the same time, we ignore our intrinsic immune strengths.

We have missed, he says, “the Taoist precept that the more we interfere with the balance in the natural world, the more disease and disorder arise.”

The purpose of our immune system, Lappe explains, is to help keep us alive but not necessarily by destroying the things that would seem to impair our health. Often it lets a certain number of pathogens survive or even lets a tumor stabilize and occupy the body. Lappe shows how overstimulation of immune cells against tumors can trigger tumor growth. He also points out that the immune system’s overreaction is responsible for asthma, an auto-immune disease for which the external assault is only a triggering agent. If this assault is ignored or meets with minimal response, it does little harm, and yet many people die of asthma and other auto-immune diseases-the victims, as Lappe sees it, of their immune system’s effort to conquer rather than accommodate.

Why does the immune system overreact? In the case of asthma, Lappe cites the work of researchers at the Medical Research Council Environmental Epidemiology Unit in Southampton, United Kingdom. The researchers proposed, writes Lappe, that “it is the direct reduction in full-blown natural infections during childhood that is responsible. As evidence for this radical hypothesis, the most dramatic increases in asthma and allergies generally have coincided with a decline in natural childhood infections, particularly from measles.”

The Tao of Immunology is much more than a treatise on leaving the immune system alone, however. At the start of the book, Lappe tells us how it works, and subsequent chapters explain why it evolved. Lappe discusses cancer and the immune system, HIV, vaccines, motherhood and immunity, and chemicals that poison immunity. Lappe’s subject is huge, and because he is determined to explain it accurately instead of simply, the complexities sometimes stack up and the going gets tough. But Lappe is an enthusiastic and expert guide, capable of steering the reader through the hard parts.

Not surprisingly, he offers little in the way of “helping” the immune system do its work. Lappe cautions against such attempts, including the use of most of the herbs and homeopathic remedies that he believes are unproven in getting the immune system to do a better job than it does on its own. The only course he favors is moderate exercise. Those drawn to control (and force and triumph) may be disappointed by this restraint. But Lappe’s point is that tampering with such a subtle and complex self-regulating system is not likely to work.

The Tao of Immunology: A Revolutionary New Understanding of Our Body’s Defenses; Plenum Press (a division of Plenum Publishing), 1997; 317 pages, hardcover; $27.95

COPYRIGHT 1998 Weider Publications
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group