Everything you need to know about your immune system

Your immune system is an integrated system of biological processes which is designed (brilliantly) to keep you safe from disease and fighting off intruders (viruses, bacteria, infections and more), while preventing or limiting anything infecting you.

Incredibly, it also has a memory – if you come into contact with the same disease twice, your lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) will recall exactly what antibodies it needs to tackle it again.

How does my immune system know which cells are “bad”?

The human body is a remarkable example of systems (style) engineering. Cells are constantly communicating with each other to keep you alive – you don’t have to think consciously to breathe, or process food, keep your blood pumping, or your heart ticking. It knows how to do all these tasks.

Your immune system scans your body for signals, looking out for damaged cells with “danger-associated molecular patterns” (DAMPs) – like cancer – or infectious microbes (viruses and bacteria) with “pathogen-associated molecular patterns” (PAMPs). When it spots a DAMP or a PAMP it kicks into gear, checking its virtual database for information on how to deal with these invaders.

Your body sounds the alarm in the form of “an immune response.” There are many instances of an immune response and most of them start with the different types of white blood cells. For example, if you’re bitten by an insect, your body knows there’s been an “environmental breach.” Certain white blood cells will secrete enzymes to “digest” the poison and remove it from your body.

Does everyone’s immune system work the same way?

No, and that’s the really interesting thing. Everyone’s DNA has different “gene expressions” (i.e. some genes are switched on, others off) and immune cells are dependent on gene expression to decode what’s going on in the human body.

That’s why you might feel fine when exposed to pathogens in the environment, but your co-workers get sick. You have something in your body that is able to regulate itself in the face of those dangers. Others cannot.

In the future, when genomics (DNA testing) is standard, we’ll all know much more about how our bodies will respond to certain disease states – and what we can do to improve our chances of survival.

Researchers have also found that we can adapt over time – and generations – to tackle new pathogens. According to this report from biochemists at the University of Bristol, UK, the immune system can develop ways of dealing with new problems (such as irritants from chemical dyes) as they occur.

Backstory: Vaccines

Before vaccines, life was precarious. Certain diseases, caused by viruses with no associated cure, would most likely kill you.

In 1918, at the end of WWI, which saw the biggest mobilization of humans the world had ever seen, a deadly virus struck 500 million people around the world. At the end of WWI, 500 million people was one-third of the planet’s entire population. The mysterious virus spread fast – which is why we call it a pandemic – and it’s estimated that 20 – 50 million died as a result of infection.

Is this the “Spanish Flu”?

Yes, but curiously, not because it originated on the Iberian Peninsula, as far as we know. In fact, medical research wasn’t as advanced as it is today, so we have no idea who, or where, “Patient Zero” lived. But here’s how it got its name: During WWI Spain was “neutral” and so not subject to wartime censorship which nations deployed in order to keep their compatriots from freaking out (or spilling secrets to the enemy). This meant the first documented reports of a deadly pandemic originated in Spanish newspaper accounts – the news spread quickly – and that’s how it got its moniker.

It wasn’t until 1942 that Dr. Jonas Salk went to the University of Michigan to collaborate with his mentor Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr, on an influenza vaccine. This work formed the basis of the modern vaccination movement.

Do vaccines work?

Yes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), successful vaccination programs have led to a 99% drop in polio cases since 1988, and an 84% drop in measles since 2000.

Today, only three countries (Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan) remain polio-endemic, down from more than 125 in 1988.

How do vaccines work?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) vaccines contain the same germs that cause disease, but they’ve been “killed” or weakened to the point where they don’t make you sick. What they do, is very clever. Vaccines stimulate your immune system into creating antibodies, which then fight off the (viral load) intruder. As a result, you develop immunity to that disease.

It’s not a permanent state though. For example, as flu viruses morph and change (or combine) over the years into different “strains”, it’s important to get the vaccine which contains the latest nasties so your body can deal with the enemy.

But isn’t there a link between vaccines and autism?

No. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics: “There is no evidence of any link between vaccines and autism or autistic disorders. This has been demonstrated in many studies, conducted across very large populations.”

The controversy stems from the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine study (1998). This report was found to be flawed, was withdrawn, and the doctor who published it has since lost his medical license. To quell your fears, read this research, published by the National Institutes of Health in the respected journal “Paediatrics Child Health.”

What can I get vaccinated against?

Your primary care provider can let you know which vaccines are recommended. It’s also vital that you check the Center for Disease Control’s guide before traveling abroad, to know which vaccines you’ll need to protect you at your destination.

Currently the following disease states have proven vaccines:

  • Cervical cancer (HPV)
  • Cholera
  • Diphtheria
  • Hepatitis B
  • Influenza
  • Japanese encephalitis
  • Measles
  • Meningitis
  • Mumps
  • Pertussis
  • Pneumonia
  • Polio
  • Rabies
  • Rotavirus
  • Rubella
  • Tetanus
  • Typhoid
  • Varicella
  • Yellow fever

The World Health Organization (WHO) also just released news of the first Ebola vaccine for those working/living, or traveling to high-risk countries.

Supporting your immune system

At some point in your life, you might become “immune-compromised,” perhaps during pregnancy, after surgery, while fighting a virus, or under enormous stress. Then, when certain microbes come into contact with your body, your immune system is either distracted (with the prior virus), or depleted (ditto), and finds it harder to keep you safe. That’s why looking after yourself is crucial to keep your immune system functioning properly.

According to the Harvard Medical School: “General healthy-living strategies are a good way to start giving your immune system the upper hand.” As we age, our immune responses aren’t as quick, or effective, as they used to be, which can lead to more infections and other diseases, like cancer.

Here are some things to try to support your immune system in doing its job:

  1. Eat your vegetables: Proper nutrition enables your immune system to function well. Researchers have found that eating well is vital, especially as we get older.
  2. Wash your hands (often): Keep infections at bay with good cleanliness, especially if you have a weakened immune system.
  3. Take your vitamins: Studies show vitamin E and selenium cause suppression of the immune response system.
  4. Check your alcohol intake levels. Researchers have found that excessive consumption is involved in immunosuppression, leaving you vulnerable to diseases and infections.
  5. Get vaccinated: This gives your immune system an early warning system so it learns how to combat viruses and more (see below). 

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