There is a biological force within your body that wants you to live to old age…” says Dr. Bob Lahita, “…you could call it your immune system, or your biological soul!”
Doctor Robert ‘Bob’ Lahita is Clinical Professor of Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, a Professor at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine and the Director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease St. Joseph’s Healthcare System. He is a fellow of the American College of Physicians, a Master of the American College of Rheumatology, and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.
Dr. Lahita is the author of more than 16 books and 150 scientific publications in the field of autoimmunity. He is the editor of the standard textbook called Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (about to be in its 6th edition) and the Senior Editor of the Textbook of Autoimmunity, published in 2002. Dr. Lahita is also the Associate Editor of the Journal Lupus and co-editor of the Yearbook of Rheumatology. Dr. Lahita is a reviewer for some 15 medical journals and on the editorial boards of three.
In his new book Immunity Strong, Dr. Lahita unpacks one of the most deeply complex and important parts of our body, the immune system. He looks at the factors that improve, and reduce our immunity, what we can do to live longer, healthier lives, and how immunity is linked to some of our most common serious illnesses from cancer to heart disease, chronic fatigue and autoimmune disorders.
Dr. Bob Lahita is one of the world’s foremost physicians and researchers, with a deep specialism in immunity, and in this interview, we discuss how our immune system works, what can help it, hinder it, and how we can live longer, healthier lives.
Q: Why is it important for us to understand our biological soul?
[Dr. Bob Lahita]: My wife is an artist. I remember one evening we were talking about the pandemic, our immune system, and vaccines and she said, ‘I think of the immune system as a biological soul… we have a spiritual soul that lives forever…. And a biological soul that wants us to live forever too….’ If you take care of this dualistic biological soul, your immune system, and nurture it, you can live to well-beyond 100 years of age. In fact, my belief is that in the next 50 years we’ll see people easily living to 130-150 based on sheer medication availability and nurturing their biology.
Q: How does our immune system work for us?
[Dr. Bob Lahita]: From the time you become a foetus in the womb, you share antibodies and cells with your mother. She nurtures you with her immune system, and even as a new-born you have the remnants of your mother’s immunity with you; her protective antibodies. As you go forward in life, your own cell populations encounter organisms and respond to develop your immunity.
We all have a protective mechanism- a biological way of keeping us safe. It’s implicit in our being, and every millisecond of the day, thousands, and millions if imperceptible actions are taking place within us which we are not aware of. That’s the biological soul.
You can eat a cashew nut, the fragments of which may get wedged into a diverticulum or to your appendix. You don’t have to worry about it, because your immune system handles any kind of insult to any tissue within your body; particularly when it comes to the lung. As you breath, you are taking in so many bacteria, so much dust, so many fungi during the average day. All of this is taken care of imperceptibly by your immune system save for the mornings where you may cough up some phlegm, a remnant of the way your immune system works. All of this is directed by the brain.
Now… getting to invaders. Some invaders overwhelm our immune systems. There have been coronaviruses since the dawn of man, there are millions which attack us, some make us ill, and most of which we overcome. The novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) is unique, it’s not something we’ve encountered before as a species, and uses specific receptors in the body to gain a foothold and take-over. It’s important that our bodies are best prepared for onslaughts like COVID-19, and that’s where eating right, sleeping well and getting enough exercise are critical.
Q: Are we custodians rather than occupants of our body?
[Dr. Bob Lahita]: You are the custodian of your body. Billions, perhaps trillions, or organisms live in your bowel and your immune system is formed and informed by those organisms. If you take too many antibiotics for example, you upset your microbiome and you thwart your immune system. You also have organisms all over your skin, in your eyes, in your lungs, everywhere. If we look at HIV/AIDS, early on (before we had all of these new protease inhibitor drugs), patients used to get pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) – a parasite – a sporozoite of the lung. I remember being at Memorial Sloan-Kettering as a resident saying, ‘My God! Where has this organism come from!’ well… these are organisms that live with us all the time as bystanders… and if you suppress the immune system enough? The organism will kill you. It’s not just HIV/AIDS that can do this – if you put a patient on so much immunosuppression, cortisone, and biologicals that it knocks-out their B and T cells, it will result in PCP. This is the same story with clostridium difficile.
Q: What happens when our immune system goes haywire?
[Dr. Bob Lahita]: You can obliterate your biome using drugs, specifically antibiotics. This can produce autoimmunity and can produce resistant organisms. In hospital, people come into contact with certain kinds of Escherichia Coli, which is gram negative. Some of these organisms, such as methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) result from the overuse of antibiotics. Bacteria and viruses are not ‘dumb,’ they evolve and change – the coronavirus produces variants every week, and bacteria do the same. The difference of course is that bacteria are free living and viruses are not. Viruses latch on to the biological soul, abusing it, and abusing us, to replicate.
Autoimmunity is an attack on our own organisms and tissues. Here’s the interesting thing… autoimmunity is normal in most people. Everybody has a little bit of autoimmunity in them. To give you an example, when you are pregnant – your immune system goes-up and regulates itself, so antibodies that we normally see in diseased people, we see during pregnancy. It’s a form of protection. It’s a very interesting part of medicine that is not yet fully understood and is critical for us to understand chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and a wide range of conditions.
Q: What is the link between immunity and mental health?
[Dr. Bob Lahita]: There’s a direct link between mental health and immunity. If you go through a divorce, if you are in a car accident, or if you suffer some major trauma to your body… your cortisone rises, adrenaline goes-up. The same is true if you get mugged in the street. You could have enough of an immune response to get pneumonia. Meditation, yoga, and other means of relaxing the mind really have a salutary effect on your resistance.
People speak about mind over matter, but there’s truth to this. The brain itself is extremely well protected – very few molecules get past the blood-brain barrier into the brain, but the brain can transmit immune commands to the rest of the body through the use of cytokines and chemokines.
Q: What can we all do to improve our immune systems?
[Dr. Bob Lahita]: I think everyone should meditate. It’s important to relax your brain and body, even just 10 minutes a day. Watching our alcohol intake is also important. Casual drinking is fine, but when you drink in excess, it destroys your resistance and the ability of your white cells to act as anti-inflammatories. You can do a lot to protect and build your immune system by controlling your stress and living a well-rounded life.
Our relationships are also important for our immunity. Sexual relationships are important as they give us hormone boosts! Even the non-sexual parts of relationships release oxytocin, prolactin, and all the other molecules needed for immune function.
We’ve known for example, that bringing into nursing homes can prolong the life of residents by bringing happiness and releasing the hormones that support our immune system. We can get the same through yoga and meditation.
I’m a very orthodox physician. But I went to China back in the 90s and I was intrigued by the Qigong and Taichi that was done every morning at six o’clock in the morning in Shanghai or in Beijing. I think all these people have been doing this for over 3000 years, there must be something to it!
[Vikas: How does this connect to the blue-zones where people live frequently to become centenarians?]
[Dr. Bob Lahita]: When you speak to centenarians and ask how they got to that age, some may say, ‘well, I eat a lot of yoghurt, I’m sure that plays a role…’ but consistently it’s happiness and life satisfaction that really means their immune system was functioning well-enough to get them to that age.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Dr. Bob Lahita]: My life is split across a lot of different things. I’ve been a researcher most of my career…. I see over 20 patients a day with various illnesses too…. But I think my real legacy will be the literature. I actually have a textbook named after me this year in the space of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (something I’m known for). They’re calling it Lahita’s Lupus! There are 85 contributors and peers who wrote different chapters for the book – and that will be there well after I’m gone. I’m also Chairman of the Arthritis Foundation, Chairman of the Lupus Foundation, and I hope that makes a difference too. Of course, it’s also really important to me that my children, and grandchildren are happy too!