Few aspects of the body are as impactful and underappreciated as the immune system. When everything is functioning as it should, little recognition is given to the immune system. However, no matter the current state of one's health, the tireless conglomerate of cells, tissues, proteins, and organs that make up the immune system are working around the clock to keep the body functioning at its best.
Even though the immune system may not be at the forefront of one’s mind, it is important to have a healthy understanding of it. Familiarizing oneself with the multiple elements of the immune system, understanding how it keeps the body healthy, and recognizing dysfunction, all help one better-support their immunity and overall health.
What is the Immune System?
The immune system spans multiple regions of the body including the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, and thymus gland. Its far-reaching influence supports overall wellness by combatting infection and other harmful substances such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, precancerous cells and growing cancer cells. Different aspects of the immune system found in various regions of the body work together to prevent bodily damage and remove potential threats to one’s health.
There are three primary tasks that the immune system is charged with; identifying threats and removing them, neutralizing pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi, and destroying dead or malfunctioning (including cancerous) cells within the body. Multiple stages and responses are involved in fulfilling these important functions.
How Does the Immune System Work?
To properly combat or prevent disease, the immune system must first accurately identify threats. Typically, the immune system is concerned with distinguishing between “self” and “non-self” substances. This categorization helps the immune system identify what has come from outside the body and may potentially cause harm, as opposed to cells and substances produced by the body itself. Identifying potentially harmful “non-self” invaders is most frequently done through the use of antigens.
Antigens are proteins located within or resting on the surface of harmful bacteria, fungi, microorganisms, and viruses. When antigens come in contact with an immune receptor, the body’s defenses respond by neutralizing, removing, or destroying the threat. Proteins similar to antigens can be found on the body’s own cells but a properly functioning immune system has learned that these cells are non-threatening and does not respond aggressively to them. In addition to the elements that allow for proper identification of threats, there are other elements involved in proper immune function.
Multiple Facets of Immune Function
There are various factors involved in proper immune function. Perhaps the biggest one, in a literal sense, is the skin. As the largest organ of the body, the skin acts as a physical barrier against viruses, bacteria and harmful substances. Anything that makes it through or subverts the skin falls under the jurisdiction of the internal immune system, which is composed of different types of cells.
Leukocytes, more commonly known as white blood cells, are essential for healthy immune function. These diligent defenders are produced in red bone marrow. One category of white blood cells known as lymphocytes are pivotal to one’s immune response in both the short and long term. Lymphocytes can be categorized as B cells or T cells. B cells remain in the red bone marrow after being produced to continue maturing and fully form. T cells exit the area and journey to the thymus. When lymphocytes recognize the presence of an antigen, B cells produce antibodies that cling to the intruder. Once attached, the two elements form an antigen-antibody complex. After this occurrence T cells direct phagocytes to enter into the fray. The phagocytes then take action to destroy and remove the unwanted substance.
In addition to alerting T cells of an attack, B cells also help prevent recurring disease. If a person was previously exposed to a harmful cell or substance, B cells can remember it and more quickly respond to subsequent attacks. For this reason, we are able to avoid multiple afflictions from certain diseases such as the measles.
When working as intended, the immune system seeks out and destroys intruders that would cause damage to the body. However, the immune system can malfunction and instead of searching out intruders, it can become confused and instead focus its attention on the body. The result is an autoimmune response aimed at attacking beneficial cells and tissues. This assault can cause serious health problems. A self-attacking immune response such as this may be caused by one or more autoimmune disorders. Currently there are over 80 known autoimmune disorders including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, Celiac disease, Lupus, and many others.
It is estimated that one in 12 Americans will develop an autoimmune disorder, which means it is of great importance to limit contributing factors such as poor thyroid function, stress, chronic low-level infections, vitamin deficiencies, hypercoagulation (thickened blood), exposure to heavy metals, and elevated estrogen levels. As conditions such as these degrade immune function there is greater risk of developing autoimmune disorders. If a patient is diagnosed with autoimmune disease, it is likely that they are afflicted by one or more additional autoimmune conditions.
Being aware of autoimmune dysfunction and responding appropriately to it is critical to maintaining proper immune function and good health.
Self-Improvement through Immunity
Having a greater understanding of the immune system, its various processes, and possible conditions that may cause dysfunction, allows one to better support and appreciate their body’s front line of defense. Actively taking steps to improve immune function through optimizing one’s diet, reducing stress levels, and resolving nutrient or vitamin deficiencies can go a long way in improving both immunity and overall health. Recognizing the importance of the immune system and all that it does will hopefully inspire you to pursue greater wellness through improved immunity.
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