A Test for your Immune System
As I sat here this morning, I thought to myself, "I haven't been sick, like flu and cold sick, in quite a few years." Yet, I've been around a lot of friends and family who have been down and out for the count, more frequently than I think might be normal. So, why have I remained healthy, yet others succumb easily to illness? The answer lies within the immune system.
What is Your Immune System?Your immune system is your body's biological defense mechanism against disease. It is basically a layered system made up of structures and processes. Think of it as a game of chess in which you are the King and the goal is to protect the King. Your first defense are your pawns with limited power; but then, you have your rooks, knights, bishops and queen, all with different but increasing powers to fight off an attack. Your body functions similarly. Your first line of defense is the innate immune system, which is triggered in all organisms automatically. It's job is to detect pathogens and bacteria that are foreign to your body. The second line of defense is the adaptive immune system, which is a "learned" response to previous exposures. It now can create a specific response to pathogens and bacteria foreign to your body.
The Layers of the Immune SystemOur bodies have mechanical, chemical and biological systems that fight disease. An example of a mechanical system is the open ended (i.e. exits from the body) respiratory system; when you cough, you are actually expelling irritants from your lungs. The digestive system works similarly (think diarrhea that exits through the lower GI, and vomit that exits through the upper GI). Your nose discharges and your eyes tear. These are all examples of your immune system flushing pathogens and bacteria from your body. Chemical and biological reactions and production is another example of a mechanical system within the innate immune system. These chemicals may work to provide an "unwelcome" environment (think pH) for bacteria, may compete with bacteria for food, and/or may actually "kill" bad bacteria. Examples include the many chemicals of the stomach, gastrointestinal, and reproductive system, all of which can change the pH to help balance against pathogenic bacteria.
Inflammation is another response within the innate immune system that works to fight bacteria and infection. Redness, swelling, heat and pain are the result of red blood cells being recruited (by a complex process) by the injured cells. In the case of a broken ankle, swelling is actually a good thing; it's the body's first response to the site to stabilize the joint!
White blood cells are a second defense of the innate immune system. These cells identify and eliminate pathogens, either by attacking them (by contact) or by engulfing and killing them. In the event of an open wound, white blood cells are recruited to the site to fend off bacterial infections and other pathogens or foreign objects. The increased production of white blood cells are in important trigger to the next layer, the adaptive immune system.
Two Systems Working TogetherThe above referenced responses are part of the innate immune system, meaning that they are automatic and are in all organisms. However, humans also have an adaptive immune system which is our body's ability to recognize previously presented antigens and "remember" the recruitment process to fight pathogens. Generally speaking, this is how vaccinations were created and why they work to fend off recurrent disease exposures. Both systems work together with a common goal: to detect a wide variety of agents, known as pathogens (from viruses to parasites), and distinguish them from an organism's own healthy tissue.
So, why is it some people get sick more frequently than others? More importantly, what can you do to improve your chances of not getting sick?
Immunodeficiency and Autoimmune Disorders
Immunodeficienc exists when one or more aspect of the immune system is inactive. Deficiencies can be inherited, developed and acquired. The immune system can decline after age 50, making older people more susceptible to disease. The immune system can also be affected by obesity, alcoholism, stress and poor nutrition. In fact, under-developed countries with high rates of malnutrition (potentially, a lack of a certain protein), have high rates of immune deficiency disorders. AIDS is an example of an acquired immune deficiency disorder.
With an autoimmune disorder, the immune system can be either overactive or under active (or compromised). With an overactive immune system, the body attacks and damages it's own tissues. Immune deficient diseases decrease the body's ability to fight pathogens, leading to increased susceptibility to infections. Examples of autoimmune disorders include (list not exhaustive): rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), Type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, Graves disease and a host of thyroid-related diseases. Individuals with an autoimmune disorder may be prescribed medication that suppresses immune system activity; the result may be increased vulnerability to viruses and bacteria. Hypersensitivity is another autoimmune disorder, varying in degrees, the simplest example being allergies and anaphylactic shock.
What You Can Do to Help Yourself
While a diminished or compromised immune system may be out of your control, there may be some things that you can do to lessen your vulnerability and susceptibility to diseases. Here's your top 8 list of things you can do to help yourself:
- Get Some Sleep - Studies have shown that sleep-deprivation damages the immune system. The presence of melatonin during sleep may counter oxidative stress caused by Inflammation. Additionally, changes at the cellular level occur most commonly during rest and sleep and a lack of sleep may interrupt the natural production of immune system cells that fight disease.
- Decrease Your Stress - Studies have shown that stress may reduce the body's immune functions. Does anyone remember getting sick the week of or after finals?Adrenaline and cortisol, hormones secreted during periods of stress, may suppress the "natural killer cells" ability to ascertain abnormal cells, making people more susceptible to infections.
- Eat Healthy Foods - Eating good foods can boost your immune system.
- Antioxidants (colorful foods - orange carrots and sweet potatoes, purple and red grapes, red sweet peppers, red cherries, dark green leafs, dark pink salmon)
- Protein (the appropriate amount of meat, dairy, eggs and nuts)
- Vitamins A, B, C, D, E and Zinc (most of these are found in a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and seeds)
- Herbal and Natural Supplements (ginseng, echinacea, garlic, and probiotics)
- Avoid Unhealthy Foods - Just as important as eating good foods, is keeping unhealthy foods out of your body. Avoid foods cooked at high temperatures (i.e. fried, seared, and charred); fats in food tend to oxidize at high temperatures. Also, avoid preserved and processed meats (i.e. hot dogs, sausages, bacon, deli meats). Finally, avoid sugar, as research is showing that sugar may lead to chronic inflammation, which may lead to autoimmune diseases. Sugar may also be linked to a slow response time of your secondary defense cells to fight offenders.
- Limit Alcohol Consumption - Increased or chronic alcohol use has been linked to immune deficiency, with lower white blood cells, T-cells and NK (natural killer) cells, all of which are vital to identifying and attacking disease. Furthermore, autoimmune disorders can develop as the liver's function is decreased and becomes diseased.
- Exercise Daily - When you exercise, your heart rate increases and your blood (and all the good white blood cells) circulates faster, improving your chances of fighting infection. Exercise also increases your breathing, which can expel irritants and bacteria through your mouth and nose (see surface barriers as a defense mechanism, above). Exercise also slows the release of stress-related hormones like cortisol. (Note: Consult with your doctor about the right intensity and amount of exercise for you, especially if you are already immune-compromised.)
- Keep it Clean - It sounds simple, yet eliminating germs from your spaces in the first place is critical. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water and clean your house and spaces regularly, especially where you prep food or touch things regularly (i.e. phone, toilet handle, and door handles). Change your bedding on a regular basis as your body sheds dead skin cells daily. Open up your windows frequently to let in fresh air and let out lingering germs.
- Vaccinations - Vaccinations are a critical step in building your body's secondary defense (adaptive immune system, above). Vaccinations are one reason why diseases like polio and measles were nearly wiped out.
It's hard to do everything right, but staying healthy is important to you and your families. Knowing if you have a compromised immune system is critical. Recognizing and taking steps to further protect yourself is even more important. After all, who likes getting sick?