Health and Function Of The Immune System

Immune SystemBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

The immune system is an amazingly complex and highly developed network with a simple mission.  This network of cells, tissues and organs work to protect and defend the body against disease.  A properly functioning immune system must detect a wide variety of foreign microbes and tiny organisms, such as bacteria, parasites, fungi and viruses, that can cause infections.  It must also distinguish harmful invaders from the body’s own healthy tissues and cells.  The success of the immune system lies within its elaborate communications network.  Millions of cells gather and pass information in response to an invasion.  Once activated, these cells produce powerful chemicals that enlist and recruit other immune cells which work to  neutralize or destroy pathogens. 

The immune system utilizes a layered defense consisting of the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system.  If the physical barriers that prevent bacteria and viruses from entering the body are breached, the innate immune system provides an immediate response.  If pathogens successfully evade the innate response, the adaptive immune system is activated.  The immune system adjusts its response to improve recognition of the pathogen, which is retained after the pathogen has been eliminated.  This immunological memory allows the immune system to recognize specific pathogens more efficiently and launch faster and stronger attacks if the pathogen is encountered again.  These acquired immunity cells are the basis for vaccination against specific pathogens. 

Infections are the most common cause of human disease.  Mechanical, chemical and biological barriers provide defense against infection. The skin provides an anatomical barrier for muscles, bones, ligaments and internal organs.  As part of the adaptive immune system, the skin provides a first line of defense against external pathogens by secreting antimicrobial peptides and antibacterials.   Coughing and sneezing mechanically eject pathogens and irritants from the the respiratory tract.  Tears and urine flush out pathogens while mucous serves to trap them.  Gastric acid and proteases in the stomach provide defense against ingested pathogens.  The beneficial microorganisms of the digestive tract perform a host of useful functions, including training the immune system to respond only to pathogens and suppressing the growth of harmful pathogenic bacteria.

Inflammation is the result of one of the first immune system responses to infection.  The symptoms of inflammation, caused by increased blood flow, can produce redness, swelling, heat and pain.  White blood cells, part of the innate immune system, identify and eliminate pathogens by attacking or engulfing and then killing microorganisms.  Failures of the immune systems fall into three categories:

  • Immunodeficiencies can be inherited or acquired but most often occur when one or more components of the immune system are inactive.  This diminished response is more common in young and elderly persons.  Obesity, alcoholism, malnutrition, stress and smoking are common causes of poor immune function. 
  • Autoimmunity is an overactive immune response resulting in autoimmune disorders.  In these conditions, the immune systems fails to differentiate between the body’s own cells (self) and foreign cells (non-self), and launches an attack on the body’s own cells or tissues.  Some examples of autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease and Addison’s disease. 
  • Immune complex diseases occur when clusters of antigens and antibodies continue to circulate and become trapped in the kidneys, lungs, joints or blood vessels, leading to inflammation and tissue damage.  Immune complex diseases include malaria and viral hepatitis. 
  • Hypersensitivity refers to unfavorable reactions of the immune system and include conditions such as asthma, allergies, and contact dermatitis. 

The ability to evade host immune responses determines the success of any pathogen.  These highly evolved organisms have developed methods that allow successful infection of a host while evading detection or destruction.  Some overcome physical barriers by secreting enzymes that break down barriers or they may hide within host cells where they are shielded from contact with antibodies.  Others secrete compounds that bind them to antibodies which diminishes the effectiveness of the immune cells and antibodies. 

Although the immune system provides a remarkable line of defense, some common lifestyle habits can sabotage your immunity and can have a detrimental effect on your overall health and resistance to chronic illness.  The following can give you some insight into how your lifestyle habits might affect your immune system function. 

  • Sedentary lifestyles contribute to a sluggish immune system.  When you don’t get enough exercise, your risk of infection increases. 
  • Obesity puts you at risk of developing diabetes and cardiac disease.  Fat cells trigger the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals leading to chronic inflammation and an impaired immune system. 
  • Foods that contain high amounts of sugar and fat suppress the immune system cells responsible for attacking bacteria.  For several hours after consuming a sugary food or drink, the white blood cell’s ability to overpower and destroy bacteria is reduced.
  • Chronic stress results in the constant release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin which suppress immune response. 
  • Social isolation can change the way the immune system works on a cellular level.  Studies show that a good social network is good for your mental, physical and immune health. 

A healthy lifestyle is your first line of defense against illness.  Every system in your body functions best when aided by healthy living strategies:

  • Get adequate sleep.  While we sleep, the immune system is working diligently to repair cells or injuries that may have occurred during the normal day. 
  • Exercise regularly.  Any exercise or activity that gets your blood pumping increases the activity of white blood cells that attack pathogens.  Good circulation enables cells and substances of the immune system to move freely throughout the body. 
  • Stay hydrated.  The immune system requires sufficient moisture in order to function optimally. 
  • Avoid consuming too many alcoholic beverages.  Alcohol suppresses immunity defense and delays recovery from illness.
  • Wash your hands frequently.  As many as 80% of viruses are transmitted through contact with infected surfaces.  Avoid touching your face as viruses often enter the body through the nose, eyes and mouth. 
  • Boost your immune system with antioxidants.  Our bodies produce free radicals as a result of normal metabolic processes and external factors such as stress, environmental toxins and poor nutrition.  Free radicals multiply quickly as they steal electrons from healthy cells in order to complete their own unpaired electrons.  The beneficial compounds in antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating an electron which breaks the cycle of free radical damage. 
  • Reduce stress.  Stress can reduce the body’s ability to fight off foreign invaders.  Unhealthy behavioral coping strategies to reduce stress, such as drinking and smoking, have a detrimental effect on the immune system. 
  • Add probiotics.  There is strong evidence that probiotics help maintain a strong immune system.  The friendly bacteria found in probiotics are believed to challenge and strengthen the immune system in healthy ways. 
  • Take your zinc.  Zinc is believed to block certain metabolic processes that may interfere with viruses gaining full access to our cells. 
  • Consider massage.  In addition to relieving stress and lowering cortisol and other stress hormone levels, massage benefits the immune system by increasing white blood cells that defend the body from disease. 
  • Include a daily multi vitamin/mineral complex.  A daily multi will help ensure that your body is getting all the building blocks of a healthy immune system.  Nutrients especially helpful for immune system health include, selenium, magnesium and  vitamins A, vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E.

It’s easy to take our immune systems for granted as they work round the clock to keep our bodies healthy and disease free.  Now may be time to give some thought to maintaining the health of our immune systems.  Eating a balanced healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising daily and reducing stress are some simple ways to keep your immune system functioning optimally to maintain your health and enable you to feel your best each day. 

Supplements for immune system support:

Ultra Flora Balance by Metagenics  As a nutraceutical, this product is formulated to promote gastrointestinal and immune health. This formula is designed to encourage growth of beneficial bacteria and support healthy immune function, intestinal integrity, and healthy digestive function.

CoQ10 by Pure Encapsulations   The essential nutrient Coenzyme Q10  is a necessary component of cellular energy production for all physiological functions.  It provides support to all cells of the body, and is especially supportive of tissues that require a lot of energy, such as the heart muscle and the cells of the body’s natural defense system.

Arctic Omega by Nordic Naturals   The ratio of omega–3 to omega–6 essential fatty acids that a person consumes directly impacts the health of their immune and inflammatory responses.  EPA and DHA, the omega–3 essential fatty acids in fish oil, support key anti-inflammatory pathways.  A large body of scientific evidence indicates that fish oil helps to naturally regulate the immune response and support the internal repair systems that operate in response to inflammation.

Glutathione-SR (SA540) by Thorne Research    Sometimes described as the most important antioxidant, glutathione empowers the immune system to quench free radicals.  Numerous structures and functions in the body receive benefit from maintaining normal levels of glutathione, such as hepatic support, pulmonary health, immune function, bowel health, carbohydrate metabolism, cardiovascular health, cognitive health, and eye health.

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