Dr. Jeffrey Bland on Building a Resilient Immune System


We are undergoing seismic change in healthcare reminiscent of the cultural shift during the Renaissance period in Western Europe, according to Jeffrey Bland, MD, FACN, CNS, the founder of the Functional Medicine movement.

“It’s a kind of grisly, difficult, engaging, full-on humanistic experiment,” said Dr. Bland at the Integrative Healthcare Symposium in New York City. “I’m fairly confident the experiment will prove out, but the process is pretty emotionally taxing for everyone.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Bland explained, is the exemplar of the confusing yet promising period of public health in which we find ourselves. New, unprecedented challenges like COVID-19 are being met with medical and technological advancements in record speed. "If you take any sector of our society and ask, 'what is stable,' the answer is nothing," he said. "This phase of change is moving at such a dramatic pace that you can feel a bit overwhelmed."

To Dr. Bland, who attended medical school when the concept of behavioral and environmental elements impacting gene expression was considered outlandish, seeing medicine embrace ideas like genomics, epigenetics, and microbiome health is a significant step forward. And technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), are all helping further our understanding of human health and ability to preserve it.

"We stand on the brink of a new Renaissance in science,” said Dr. Bland, “where the unlocking of the human genome has opened up the frontiers of our understanding.”

He explained that, in the face of increasing rates of autoimmunity, research on epigenetics—how interactions with the environment, including diet, stress, and exposure to chemicals, can alter gene expression—has shed light on how to prevent and treat the mysterious conditions that follow it.

This idea challenges our conception of what autoimmune disease is, Dr. Bland said. Yes, autoimmunity involves some natural processes in cellular biochemistry, but we now know exogenous forces also trigger those reactions.

"I don't think that we wake up one morning and suddenly become allergic to ourselves, particularly the most innate thing we have, which is our genes," said Dr. Bland. "So, what happens if what we've been calling autoimmune disease is really a reaction to things that are not us?"

Just as external factors like diet and lifestyle can contribute to autoimmune disease, they can also prevent it, he said. And perhaps the biggest link between diet and immune function is the gut microbiome.

A diverse gut microbiome is crucial for maintaining a resilient and adaptable immune response. Dr. Bland explained that certain foods and nutrients metabolized by gut bacteria can produce secondary metabolites that significantly affect immune function and health. "Nutrition and the microbiome are not just part of the conversation about health—they are central to it,” he said.

In a study conducted by Big Bold Health, a company founded by Dr. Bland that strives to restore immune health through nutritional supplements and personalized programs, researchers found that dietary interventions alone have the capacity to promote immune function.

Using a specific blend of flavonoids from Himalayan Tartary Buckwheat, the intervention led to significant changes in the methylation patterns of metastable epialleles in adult immune cells after 90 days. According to Dr. Bland, these changes are linked to beneficial modifications that promote the rejuvenation of the immune system.

“That’s epigenetic programming; that’s immune rejuvenation,” said Dr. Bland. “We as human beings make decisions every day on what we put in our body, which sends signals to our immune system that's waiting to be educated.”

Dr. Bland ended his presentation on an optimistic note, suggesting that the work being done in functional medicine and related fields is validating the approach he has advocated for over forty years. This work, he suggested, points towards a future where chronic disease can be mediated more effectively through comprehensive, systems-oriented healthcare strategies that consider patients as a whole.

“The number one health problem we have is chronic disease,” said Bland. “We are the solution finders in this field to those problems, and the answers will never come from just one molecule at a time.”