Illustration: Clayton Junior

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Making Friends with Your Immune System

A journey into Meredith Bryan's disaster of an immune system.

By February, my self-pity was thicker than the mucus clogging my sinuses. Sniffling my way through my fifth week of mutant upper respiratory infection, I was draining three neti pots per day before collapsing into bed slathered in eucalyptus oil. A few times I whispered nasally to my husband, "I'm dying."

Where was my immune system? Never tenacious—there's a picture of me at 12, clutching a box of tissues amid smiling relatives—it seemed to have abandoned me entirely. Did I sleep too little, eat too much cheese? But if so, how did my husband, who eats pizza at midnight and says he'll sleep when he's dead, elude our toddler's germs while I caught colds, the flu and rotavirus? (According to my doctor, I'm not even immune to chicken pox—for whatever reason, having it as a child didn't take care of it.) There's something almost Victorian about my constitution. I am a pale, sickly woman.

In March, I decided to figure out how to make my white blood cells show up for work. But when I called John Swartzberg, MD, infectious-disease specialist and clinical professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, he was skeptical that I have a bum system. "Kids are germ bags," he said. "You're immune to every respiratory disease you've had, but there are hundreds." Okay, sure...but how to explain my spouse's robust health? Harvard Medical School immunologist Michael Starnbach, PhD, predicted that if he put cameras in my house, he'd see "differences" between my husband's behavior and my own. "Wash your hands more," he said.

If Western medicine thought nothing was wrong with me (except poor hygiene—hmph!), alternative medicine disagreed. Maurice Beer, MD, a Manhattan internist certified in holistic medicine, said illness results from disharmony in one's life and environment—"microbes, allergens, toxins, stress, trauma, nutritional deficiency"—and predicted that I may have "a multiplicity of these in play." Stephanie Propper, a Chinese medicine practitioner in Brooklyn, asked about my digestion, allergies and use of antibiotics, then concluded that several "organ systems"—the kidneys, spleen, liver and lungs—were "out of balance." She suggested I take an herbal kidney tonic and probiotic; nix gluten, sugar and dairy since "a lot of our immune system is in our digestive tract"; and try acupuncture for stress. (Swartzberg agreed that "stress appears to have a blunting effect on immune response.")

This plan was compelling. Here were things I could do. I'd become resigned to illness; perhaps my immuno-defeatism served as a sort of antiplacebo, ensuring that I caught every virus in the tristate area. When I suggested as much to Beer, he brought up "self-efficacy": our belief in our ability to control aspects of our lives, which affects the effort we put in and therefore the outcome. "People with little self-efficacy are much more likely to stay sick," he said (giving new meaning to the term head cold). It was true that I'd stopped trying to stay healthy. When my kid sniffled, I no longer popped a zinc; instead I panicked about deadlines I'd miss thanks to this new plague. Getting sick had itself become my biggest worry. If stress exacerbates illness, I'd been doing a great job of keeping myself miserable.

Chronic victim complex was not the diagnosis I'd hoped for. But most experts I spoke with agreed that there is much we just don't know about immunity: the role of intestinal microflora, for one. It was still possible that something was wrong with me. Propper had said I have lazy kidneys.

But as I told friends about my winter of wheezing, several said they'd been sick all winter, too. One had even—I can't lie, this made me jealous—gotten her doctor to administer vitamins intravenously. Maybe the story I'd told myself about my epic suffering was just that: a story. Maybe I don't get sick more than others. Maybe I'm just wussier about it. Maybe I need to wash my hands after exiting the filthy subway, before eating a muffin.

If our bodies are unknowable, our selves are, in large part, the ones we choose. I decided to make myself the hero of this tale. I will pop that zinc. I will lather up. I will rejoin the battle against illness, and I will, I imagine, feel better. And I will talk to you later—because if you'll excuse me, I'm going to bed early.