Despite the fact that our environment is overflowing with infectious microorganisms, most of the time, most of us are fairly healthy, right?
Thank your immune system. Without it, you’d have no defense agains these disease-causing microbes. But have you ever wondered how it works or how you can naturally boost your immune system?
Today, with the dangers of COVID-19, it’s no wonder everyone is thinking about immunity. Many experts have stated that in our advanced world, super viruses like corona will be the biggest threat we face as a species.
What Is Your Immune System?
In the most simple explanation, the immune system is the body’s defense against infections – a complicated web of cellular communications. The immune system protects the body, attacking invaders and germs and keeping you healthy.
Our immune systems are also incredibly complex. It has to be potent enough and sophisticated enough to fight off myriad illnesses, infections, pathogens and foreign invaders.
However, if it is too active and overreacts unnecessarily. Then, allergies and other autoimmune disorders can develop.
To maintain such a delicate balance, the immune system is rigorously controlled by a variety of inputs.
What Parts Make Up the Immune System?
A complicated array of organs and specialized cells work together to protect the body. White blood cells, also called leukocytes, play a critical role in the immune system.
Phagocytes, a particular kind of white blood cell, recognize and consume invading pathogens to protect the body from infection. Other white blood cells called lymphocytes enable your body remember the invaders and destroy them before they can replicate and wreak havoc again.
One category of phagocytes called neutrophils fight bacteria. When doctors suspect someone might have bacterial infection, they can perform a blood test to see if the body has increased levels of neutrophils. Other kinds of phagocytes also perform critical roles to ensure your body responds to pathogenic invaders.
B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes represent two types of lymphocytes. Lymphocytes originate in the bone marrow and either remain there and mature into B cells, or they transport to the thymus gland to mature into T cells.
Think of B lymphocytes as the your body’s military intelligence system — they seek out and detect their targets and send defenses to attack them. Your T cells are like the soldiers — they destroy the invaders after they have been discovered by B lymphocytes.
How Does Your Immune System Work?
When your immune system senses foreign invaders called antigens, its role is to recognize and destroy them.
Once the B lymphocytes are triggered, your body begins making antibodies. These specialized proteins bind to specific antigens. Once created, these antibodies remain in your body. That way, if the immune system detects that antigen again, the antibodies are there to attack and destroy.
For example, when someone contracts a disease, such as chickenpox, they usually won’t catch it again. This is also how immunizations work. Immunization introduce a broken-down antigen to the body that in theory cannot cause sickness. The goal is that the body makes antibodies that will protect you from future attacks by the germ.
Our antibodies’ job is to recognize an antigen and lock onto it, but they can’t destroy it without a little help from their friends, the T cells. The T cells destroy antigens marked by antibodies or cells that are infected or that have somehow mutated. Fittingly, some T cells are actually referred to as “killer cells.” T cells also signal other cells, such as phagocytes, to do their jobs.
Antibodies perform other key functions including:
- Neutralizing toxins produced by various organisms.
- Activating a group of proteins that are part of the immune system called “complement.” The complement system works to kill viruses, bacteria, or other infected cells.
These specialized cells and components of the immune system communicate to protect the body against disease. It is this protection that is referred to as immunity.
The Three Types of Immunity — Innate, Adaptive, and Passive:
- Innate immunity: Also called natural immunity, innate immunity is the innate type of general protection that everyone is born with. This naturally present immunity occurs without prior sensitization to an antigen form like a vaccination or infection. Innate Immunity is generally nonspecific, since it is not stimulated by any specific antigen. For example, the skin acts as a barrier to block germs from entering the body, or the immune system recognizes when certain invaders do not belong and could be dangerous. Innate immunity is in contrast to acquired immunity.
- Adaptive immunity: Adaptive immunity, also called acquired or active immunity develops throughout our lives. Our bodies use specific antigens to mount a strategic immune response. In contrast to innate immunity where the body attacks solely based on the identification of general threats, adaptive immunity activates through exposure to pathogens. It relies on an immunological memory to learn about the threat and to activate an immune response accordingly. Unlike an innate immune response where the body is ready to fight at the drop of a dime, the adaptive immune response is far slower to respond to threats and infections. Our adaptive immunity develops as we are exposed to diseases.
- Passive immunity: Passive immunity is a”borrowed” type of immunity that develops after someone receives immune system components, such as antibodies, from someone else and lasts temporarily. It can occur naturally, like when an infant receives antibodies through the mother’s placenta or breast milk. It can also occur artificially, for example when someone receives antibodies from an injection such as a gamma globulin injection. Although passive immunity delivers immediate protection against an antigen, it does not provide long-lasting protection.
Despite its complexity, there are daily lifestyle habits you should be aware of that can help give your immune system the boost it needs to fight off an infection or illness.
Here are five science-backed ways to make sure your immune system has everything it needs to function optimally.
1. Get Enough Sunlight & Vitamin D
It is common knowledge that sunlight helps the body to produce vitamin D which is critical to immune health. In fact, vitamin D can modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses. Deficiency in vitamin D is associated with increased autoimmunity as well as an increased susceptibility to infection.
“We all know that sunlight provides vitamin D, which has an impact on immunity among other things. But what we found is a completely separate role of sunlight on immunity,” claims professor Gerard Ahern.
Specifically, they found that low levels of blue light found in the sun’s rays trigger T-cells move faster. “T-cells need to move to do their work, which is to get to the site of an infection and orchestrate a response,” Ahern says. “This study shows that sunlight directly activates key immune cells by increasing their movement.”
But what if you can’t get enough quality sunlight?
Most people know sunlight triggers the skin’s production of vitamin D. In the summer, a 10-15 minute exposure (without sunscreen) is sufficient.
But if you live above 42 degrees latitude (Boston) from November through February, sunlight is too feeble and you might need to supplement or look for food sources of vitamin D, such as medicinal mushrooms.
With COVID-19, everyone needs to understand that low vitamin D levels correlate with a greater risk of respiratory infection. A 2010 study in children found that 1,200 IU a day of supplemental vitamin D decreased the risk of influenza A.
2. Exercise Regularly
Physical activity isn’t just for building muscles and looking good — it helps you stay healthy by allowing you to de-stress. Additionally, it supports a healthy immune system.
Exercise may improve immune function by boosting your overall circulation, making it easier for immune cells and other infection-fighting nutrients to travel through your body.
In fact, studies show that as little as 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise a day helps stimulate your immune system.
It’s important to excercise regularly and stay active, but you must balance training with adequate rest and proper nutrition to optimise health and performance.
3. Stay Hydrated
Water plays many critical roles in your body, including supporting your immune system. Lymph, the fluid in your circulatory system which carries important infection-fighting immune cells around your body, largely consists of water. Dehydration slows the movement of lymph, potentially impairring your immune system.
You’re constantly losing water. Even if you’re not exercising or sweating, you lose water by breathing and when you urinate or have a bowel movement.
Be sure to hydrate and replenish the water you lose to help support and maintain your immune system. It starts with knowing how much water your body really needs.
4. Minimize and Manage Stress
Both short-term and especially long-term stress affect your health and can harm your immune system. Periods of stress, particularly chronic stress that’s frequent and long-lasting, trigger your body’s stress response. During a stress response, your immune system is suppressed — increasing your risk of infection or illness.
Stress is different for everyone, and how we need to cope with it is, too. Knowing the effect it can have on your health and immune system, it’s important to understand how to identify and properly manage stress.
Avoid toxic realationships and situations that you know add unnecessary stress to your life. And whether it’s enjoying time with your freinds, deep breathing, mediation, prayer or exercise, you should practice the activities that help you manage stress — before it gets out of control.
5. Get Plenty Of Sleep
Proper sleep is key to immune health. A number of critical activities occur in your body when you’re sawing logs — even if you don’t realize it. For example, necessary infection-fighting molecules are created while you sleep.
Studies demonstrate that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more prone to illness after exposure to viruses, such as the fle or the common cold.
To provide your immune system the best chance to fight off infection and illness, it’s crucial to know how much sleep your body actually requires every night, as well as the steps to take if you’re having sleep issues.
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