Autoimmunity Factors: The Question of Th1 and Th2 Dominance

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With autoimmune conditions, the most universally effective strategy you can employ is to reduce the inflammation response in the body. Eat Primal. Stop overtraining. Stop shortchanging sleep. Reduce stress. While going Primal slashes pro-inflammatory inputs and provides the body with ample anti-inflammatory influences, some folks benefit from—at least temporarily—taking it a few steps further with specific autoimmune protocols.

But what if you have been taking all these steps and your body is still not responding? Readers occasionally ask me about Th1 and Th2 dominance in relation to autoimmunity. What does it mean if you are T1 or T2 dominant? What nutrients respond best to both? Researchers are gaining a better understanding of cytokines and T helper cells and their role in immune responses. Let’s take a closer look.


What Is Th1 and Th2 Dominance?

Generally speaking, autoimmune conditions play out through imbalances in the immune system. Frankly, the research out there regarding Th1 and Th2 dominance is fairly limited and a bit controversial, but I think it’s worth a conversation.

The terms Th1 and Th2 refer to two major populations of T-helper cells, which is a subset of lymphocytes that plays a key role in optimizing the immune system. The balance between Th1 and Th2 mediated immune response appears to play a significant role in immune system regulation. When the immune system is balanced, there is an equilibrium between Th1 and Th2 cells. However, with autoimmune conditions there are certain cytokines that become inflamed and can interfere with this delicate balance. Theory suggests that some folks have Th1 dominant immune conditions, while others have Th2 dominant immune conditions.

What Roles Do Th1 and Th2 Dominance Play in Autoimmunity?

T helper cells can differentiate into either Th1 or Th2 cells, depending on the type of pathogen that has triggered the immune response. Th1 cells are imperative for protection against intracellular viruses, bacteria and protozoa, whereas Th2 cells make interleukin required for IgE production and activation of mast cells and eosinophils important for eliminating extracellular parasites. Unusual Th1 responses have been associated with inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, whereas Th2 responses are strongly implicated in atopy and allergic inflammation.

Th1-type cytokines tend to produce pro-inflammatory responses in an attempt to kill intracellular parasites and bacteria. The main Th1 cytokine is interferron gamma. Th1 Dominance is characterized by overstimulation of immune cells, and inflammation that stems from past infections, environmental conditions (diet playing a role here), and food sensitivities. Typically, Th1 dominant folks are said to struggle with brain fog, fatigue, and autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, celiac, crohns, PCOS, lupus, MS, and lyme. In other words, pretty much most inflammatory-type autoimmune conditions.

The Th2-type cytokines include interleukins 4, 5, and 13, which are associated with the promotion of IgE allergies and food allergies, lower inflammation (we’re not looking to snuff out all inflammation, which has a critical role in healthy functioning). It’s thought that these folks tend to produce antibodies to food. In excess, Th2 responses will counteract the Th1 actions. Therefore, the optimal scenario would be that a person would have a well balanced Th1 and Th2 response. Some conditions associated with Th2 dominance include lupus, dermatitis, allergies, asthma, IBS, and chemical sensitivities.

Some food for thought: Th1 and Th2 cells are each associated with specific immune responses based upon the cytokines they secrete. For some pathogens, the presence of Th1 cytokines (IFN-gamma and TNF-beta) are considered necessary. Conversely, for large extracellular parasites such as helminths, Th2-type cytokines are considered most necessary.

And another interesting tidbit of knowledge… A fetus can switch on an immune response in utero, early in pregnancy. Pregnancy is a Th2 situation, so babies tend to be born with Th2 immune responses. However, responses can be switched rapidly in the infant, under the influence of microbiological exposure or can be enhanced by early exposure to allergens. These researchers hypothesized that people who develop full blown allergies may have been born with a weaker Th1 response.

Inconsistencies in the Th1/Th2 Dominance Discussion

Human cytokine activity rarely falls exclusively into pro Th1 or Th2 patterns. Many autoimmune conditions that have been classified as Th1 or Th2 dominant fail to meet the set criteria. Th1 polarization can easily switch to Th2 dominance just through glutathione depletion. Mercury, for example, depletes glutathione, thus polarizing towards Th2 dominance. Th1/Th2 balance is also influenced by hormones and nutrients such as probiotics, selenium, zinc, plant sterols, and other hormones. Omega-3 fatty acids significantly help with a wide variety autoimmune conditions, yet have no specific effect on Th1 or Th2.

It sounds to me like a delicate dance exists between the T helper cells, and it isn’t black and white. I’m not a believer in the ability or wisdom of definitely categorizing an individual on this basis. However, there may be value in determining if an individual tends to show characteristics that lean towards either Th1 or Th2 dominance. Physicians can order a Th1/Th2 cytokine blood panel, which can help determine if you are dominant in one or the other.

What Foods, Supplements, and Lifestyle Changes Theoretically Stimulate Th1 and Th2?

A limited amount of research suggests that there are various supplements, foods, and lifestyle changes that can stimulate either Th1 or Th2—thus, in theory, balancing the two systems. I’m on the fence about some of this, but since most are recommendations I make anyway for healthy Primal living, I’d say they’re worth considering. Even if the experiment isn’t successful, you can at least know it’s safe. As always, don’t overdo—particularly with supplementation. Add slowly, and share your plans with your doctor—especially if you’re pregnant, nursing, or being treated for any health conditions.

According to the folks at Self-Hacked, strategies for inhibiting Th1 (if you are Th1 dominant) can include avoiding lectins, exercising without overtraining, and aligning your sleep patterns with circadian rhythm. (You’ll get no arguments from me here.) Likewise, suggestions also include taking vitamin A (retinol), D3, CBD oil, astaxanthin, fish oil, chromium, and choline. Spices that help inhibit Th1 include cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, mustard and black cumin seed. Food recommendations highlight fish and avocado. I can get on board with those.

Common recommendations to inhibit Th2 (if you are Th2 dominant) include sun exposure, probiotics, cold exposure, intense exercise, and oxytocin boosting through skin to skin contact. Bee products like royal jelly, honeycomb and raw honey, as well as B6, folate, B12, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, copper, and iron are suggested, as are kiwi, cocoa, and coffee. (If you don’t respond well to caffeine, skip the coffee for sure.)

Medicinal mushrooms are also known to stimulate the immune system. Certain medicinal mushrooms like reishi and shiitake, and maitake can act as Th1 stimulators. Whereas, chaga and cordyceps sinensis (Cs-4) may help balance the Th1/Th2 immune systems.

For any immune concerns, I believe we all benefit from grounding, play, stress reduction, sleep, and Primal nutrition. Although I’m not ready to discount inconsistencies or ignore the limited research on the question of Th1/Th2 balance, I also acknowledge it may speak to readers who are looking for answers where traditional Primal and autoimmune protocol methods haven’t panned out.

I’m curious what your thoughts are. Have you delved into the Th1/Th2 literature or employed the suggested strategies (those above or any others)? I’d love to hear your experiences, so please share. Have a great day, everybody.


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