What are you doing to support your immune system? Do you give it much thought? Do you view your immune system as your body's protective armor against outside threats?
I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation from Dr. Osguthorpe, a pediatric infectious disease doctor, and he gave such a great description of the function of our immune system and how it works. Bottom line: a strong immune system is the BEST protection against threats. It's protecting you from threats every single day that you're not even aware of!!!
Sadly, that's not the information that's being shared in the media. Instead, you're being fed fearful messages that you need an external factor to protect you whether that is a mask, a shot, or completely isolating yourself from other people and nature.
Let’s first separate fact from fiction and put things into perspective. Without your immune system you would die due to overwhelming infection. There is an endless list of things that can damage your body and you are exposed to them on a daily basis.
These are things like pathogens, bacteria, viruses, and cellular changes. Your immune system detects and responds correctly to thousands upon thousands of microbial and antigen-related issues without you being conscious of its actions at any time. There are more microbial cells in and on your body than human cells. And they are keeping invaders out of places they should not be.
Here’s where the immune system enters the picture. Your immune system plays a vital role in protecting you from infection.
How Does it Work and Why is it Important?
There are 2 types of immunity - innate immunity and adaptive(or cellular) immunity. These immune systems protect your body inside and out from various kinds of threats.
The innate immune system is your body’s primary protection against the outside world. It includes physical barriers like skin and mucous membranes that make it more difficult for threats to enter. It also includes cells that immediately respond to dangers like injury or infection but can’t respond or distinguish between species of organism. These are general responses not specific. This function keeps us from getting diseases like pneumonia.
Your digestive system has vital functions that protect you from infections. It secretes mucus, bile and saliva which make it hard for pathogens to colonize and to infect you. Your gut microbiota plays an important role as well. In a healthy microbiome, pathogens have a hard time finding a place to grow, colonize, and cause infection.
Your skin is a tremendous barrier against infection and has many cells responding to damage like cuts, abrasions, and bruises. When your skin is injured, general responses from immune cells help to kill invading pathogens and recruit higher level immune cells that respond specifically to the exact location and nature of an injury. Every body system plays a role in the innate immune system. From our eyes to our genital/urinary system, from our gut to our lungs, we are able to exist because of barriers and general responses to pathogens.
That’s only the beginning of the amazingly robust response our immune system coordinates.
The second part is your adaptive immune system. Adaptive Immunity is more complex and specialized. It consists of two main cell types B-cells and T-cells and their receptors recognize specific antigens and organisms. Antigens fit like a lock and key into a specific B or T cell receptor.
The innate immune system presents these antigens to T cells that can sound the alarm before the infecting organism can cause a disease. The innate and adaptive immune system work together to protect you from infections, allergens and injury.
In addition to T and B cells, there are 2 divisions of the adaptive immune response - Humoral immunity and cell mediated immunity. B cells are responsible for humoral immunity, creating antibodies that can detect and flag invading organisms. Once flagged, your body’s cells can recognize and eliminate the invading infection. Because antibodies are so specific and small they can label the organism anywhere in the body, even far away from the B cell that created the antibody. This is an incredibly well-designed protective element of your immune system.
Cell mediated immunity relies on special types of T cells to recognize and kill infected cells. Let’s say a virus infects your lungs. T cells specific to that virus can recognize cells infected and hijacked by the virus and they then eliminate the cell, recruit an army of immune cells to fight the infection, or trigger a self-destruct sequence in the infected cell. The T cells must act fast before the pathogen can replicate, escape and infect other cells in the body.
Your immune system also has something called Immune memory. It remembers the old enemies it has beaten and how to fight them. This makes future responses against the same threat more efficient and effective. When infected again with a pathogen we once responded to, we can create a faster more powerful response thanks to immune memory. Even if it’s 10 or 50 years after the fact.
HOW DO YOU OPTIMIZE YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM?
Managing stress is hugely beneficial for your immune system. Stress can have a significant impact on the state of your health. Unmanaged stress can suppress your immune system and make you more likely to be sick. Chronic high stress is a problem not just for your immune system but for many other body systems, so it’s imperative and necessary to manage and reduce your stress. Implementing daily practices like breathwork, meditation, using essential oils, journaling, and prayer are all effective ways to reduce stress and balance the nervous system.
Wash your hands; not obsessively, but regularly. This helps prevent the spread of pathogens to others, and also limits the power they can have on you.
Optimal Nutrition - Eat a healthy diet, with fruits, vegetables , healthy fats, and proteins, etc. This provides the body with nutrients, vitamins and minerals that you need to properly function and that includes your immune system.
Move Your Body - Be sure to exercise regularly. Have variety so you aren’t doing the same thing repeatedly. Moderate exercise repeatedly has been shown to create healthy foundation.
Get adequate sleep - studies show that far too many people are not getting enough sleep or the right kind of sleep every night. Ideally, you should be getting approximately 8 hours per night. Most of us don’t get enough restful sleep, which is another foundational component of a healthy life and immune system. PRO TIP: Use calming essential oils at night like lavender, vetiver, or cedarwood to support restful sleep.
And of course, if you have a compromised immune system, these practices above are even more important.
In conclusion, your immune system is incredibly and endlessly fascinating. It provides a robust defense against infection, constantly working to keep you healthy by keeping threats out and neutralizing effects of any that do make it into the body.
By practicing healthy habits and taking care of your body, you can keep your system strong and able to handle the challenges the world throws at you every day.
Dr. Osguthorpe, Pediatric Infectious Disease