COVID-19 Lockdowns May Destroy Our Immune Systems

3 ¾ min

What happens when trees are planted in a "perfect" growing environment? Give the trees rich soil, just the right amount of water and no wind, and they grow rapidly, but topple over before they reach maturation. Wind stimulates the tree to grow stress wood, which “helps a tree position itself for optimal sun absorption, and it also helps trees grow more solidly.”

In a recent interview, two immunology doctors, former emergency-room physician Dr. Daniel W. Erickson and his partner at a California Urgent Care, Dr. Artin Massih, challenged us to consider the possibility that draconian lockdowns are counterproductive. Without exposure to pathogens, we cannot build a healthy immune system:

“The immune system is built by exposure to antigens: viruses, bacteria. When you're a little child crawling on the ground, putting stuff in your mouth, viruses and bacteria come in. You form an antigen antibody complex. You form IgG IgM. This is how your immune system is built. You don't take a small child put them in bubble wrap in a room and say, ‘go have a healthy immune system.’

“This is immunology, microbiology 101. This is the basis of what we've known for years. When you take human beings and you say, ‘go into your house, clean all your counters—Lysol them down you're gonna kill 99% of viruses and bacteria; wear a mask; don't go outside,’ what does it do to our immune system? Our immune system is used to touching. We share bacteria. Staphylococcus, streptococcal, bacteria, viruses.”

Erickson and Massih are alarmed at the unintended consequences of a prolonged lockdown:

“Sheltering in place decreases your immune system. And then as we all come out of shelter in place with a lower immune system and start trading viruses, bacteria—what do you think is going to happen? Disease is going to spike. And then you've got diseases spike—amongst a hospital system with furloughed doctors and nurses. This is not the combination we want to set up for a healthy society. It doesn't make any sense.”

When the lockdown ends, will we face a similar danger as a sheltered tree? Will we have the necessary stress wood to withstand the wind? 

On a spiritual level, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, a graduate of Marquette University’s medical school, asks us to consider how lobsters grow. Lobsters are soft-bodied animals encased in an exoskeleton. As the lobster grows, the older, now too-small shell must be discarded so a new shell can grow. Twerski points out, "The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable."

Twerski also hypothesizes that if lobsters had doctors, they would seek painkillers when they got uncomfortable. Relieved from discomfort, they would not shed their old shells and grow. Twerski challenges us to use adversity properly and recognize that times of stress are also times for growth.

Human beings are not trees or lobsters, yet the warnings from Dr. Erickson and Dr. Massih echo lessons from the natural world.

Faced with a virulent virus, reasonable precautions, especially for the most vulnerable members of society, are wise. But, have we gone overboard?

This past weekend, my wife and I hiked trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire on a lovely spring day. These trails are not always wide, and sometimes you closely pass other people on the path. 

Only one man stepped off the trail when we were passing by. No one else seemed concerned that a brief outdoor encounter with another person's airspace was putting them at a risk. 

The next day we learned that the Forest Service felt otherwise and closed many trails in the White Mountains, citing an "unseasonably high" number of visitors. A Forest Service spokesperson said, "We can only imagine what was going on up the trails as far as people crossing lanes with each other as they're going in opposite directions."

If Forest Service personnel hiked, they would not have to imagine trail conditions. They would find solo hikers or pairs of people widely interspersed. Hikers are behaving like they always have. They politely greet other hikers and sometimes pause briefly to share news of trail conditions or provide directions. 

In "protecting" people from enjoying the outdoors during social distancing, is our fear simply creating a dangerously unhealthy society? Perhaps it is time to head the warnings of Erickson and Massih – too much protection might later turn out to be as harmful as refusing to take reasonable coronavirus precautions. 


[Image Credit: Pixabay]

Image Credit: [Image Credit: Pixabay]
Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. To receive Barry's essays subscribe at Mindset Shifts.

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Erickson and Massih are in good company when applying the basics of immunology, as learned in med school, to the most effective methods of co-existing with micro-organisms as opposed to hiding from them. Our immune systems operate innately to the keep us in homeostasis (health balanced, stable equilibrium). Each exposure to a micro-organism leads to training the immune system for the most effective response. Our immune systems learn, when exposure occurs! It should come as no surprise that nutrients are critical for a healthy and robust immune system. Therefore, nutrient-sufficient people are healthier than nutrient-deficient people. 

We have co-evolved with micro-organisms since the beginning of time. Humans have NEVER lived without the presence of micro-organisms. Do we all understand this basic fact? We live with micro-organisms inside us, on us, and all around us every moment of every day. We may eventually come to understand that we live because of micro-organisms, not in spite of micro-organisms. Have you ever heard of the gut microbiome? If it was sterilized (devoid of all micro-organisms) we would perish! Opening our minds to the facts may be uncomfortable to some, yet liberating and worth celebrating for the rest of us. We can no longer approach human health with the "scorched-earth" mentality. Imagine burning down the house to kill the spider inside. This approach is absurd.

Professor Knut Wittkowski, PhD (twenty years head of The Rockefeller University’s Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design), says that social distancing and lockdown is the absolutely worst way to deal with an airborne respiratory virus. He seems to be in absolute agreement with Erickson and Massih. https://vaccineimpact.com/2020/phd-epidemiologist-social-distancing-and-lockdown-worst-way-to-deal-with-airborne-respiratory-virus/

"Healthy immunity accomplishes four essential principles: (1) ability to detect and fight off infection; (2) ability to recognize a host's own cells as "self," thereby protecting them from attack; (3) a memory from previous foreign infections; and (4) ability to limit the response after the pathogen has been removed." https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16215081



I served on submarines and went on months-long patrols. I can assure you it does not destroy your immune system... Fake science debunked by real life. You can also look at the scientists isolated in Antarctica and the astronauts on the ISS for examples...



I am one who is against the infringement of our rights and overreaching governmental restrictions. I would love to agree with Dr Erickson. But, I would posit that Dr. Erickson's immune system claims are questionable at best and bogus at worst. I suspect the worst. Is he a trained immunologist? Be advised that from the public record Erickson is not trained as an immunology specialist. He graduated from an Osteopathic Medical school and is trained and has practiced as an Emergency Physician. Osteopathic medicine has a natural bent towards naturopathic medicine and natural cures. That is his background. 

Our immune systems will not be disrupted by short term stay at home orders and social distancing. This is something that takes years to develop and it will not be destroyed that quickly. If at all. At most it might be impacted by new allergens, viruses and bacteria that we might not have yet been exposed to. This is unpredictable. 

What they are referring to is the development of herd immunity by exposure to specific environmental bugs. This is great, if it doesn't kill you. Ask the "Native Americans" how developing herd immunity worked for them. History is replete with the grand experiment of developing immunity to pandemic scourges. Anyone who reads history has noted the scourges of small pox, typhoid and malaria during colonial times. How do we deal with new unknown diseases. We do know that computer predictions are unpredictable at best.

This is why a vaccine is what is sought. We are not even sure if anyone is immune after recovery or if after asymptomatic (also called sub clinical) course. If there is a 2nd or 3rd round of COVID19 we don't know what the impact will be and will its targets be the same as well as its virulence. 

He gets the press because of many of us who are suspicious and concerned about the restrictions on our lives. We should be. We should speak out but there is much concern about what to do. Not to defend Michigan or other governors. 

Might it be said that what he is proposing is as potentially lethal as what he speaks out against. Not to defend many of the restrictions that seem to trample on our freedoms. But there must be some middle ground. And we are in the midst of a book being written on this pandemic and our response. History will tell the more complete story. I suspect, fear, that we are only in the preface of maybe first chapter.



I feel a mid-ground solution might be to lock down and protect the vulnerable but let the healthy ones develop herd immunity. If they get sick, stay home. Most healthy and young people have flu like symptoms, sometime even mild.

How long are we going to stay indoors and the economy halted. Does the end justifies the means?

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