Guiding the Immune System

For many years it has been believed that we have very little control over our immune systems. However, recently, a group of volunteers led by Dutchman Wim Hof (famous for holding numerous world records for withstanding extreme cold), as mentioned in the New Scientist magazine in the article ‘Just chilling out’ (23rd of August 2014, issue no. 2983), have appeared to prove this widely held belief wrong.

Hof taught 12 volunteers several techniques that would help them to tolerate extreme cold, including meditation, repeated exposure to cold and breathing techniques involving hyperventilation and then holding one’s breath. Afterwards, the volunteers’ immune systems were tested using a model devised by the Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands: the volunteers were injected “with a substance called endotoxin (found in the cell walls of bacteria), which tricks the immune system into reacting as if there are bacteria in the bloodstream that need to be eradicated. In response to this ‘infection’, the body mounts an immune response, producing signalling molecules called cytokines”.

Despite the fact that usually people experience flu-like symptoms and fever after being injected with endotoxins, “the volunteers trained by Hof, who practised the breathing techniques during the experiment, … reported fewer flu-like symptoms, experienced lower fevers and had cytokine levels of less than half of the control group.” This shows that it is possible to influence our immune system, although being able to undo the damage inflicted by autoimmune diseases by attempting to control your immune system appears to be a long way away.

Nonetheless, it is very interesting to see that the immune system can almost be guided voluntarily, and I hope that some time in the future this could become one potential method for curing autoimmune diseases, including diabetes type 1.