We are currently in the throws of viral infection overload, toilet paper shortages and constant fear-based news reporting. I don’t know about you, but I loathe getting sick even if it is mainly because I will do anything to prevent my husband from contracting the ill-fated man flu. In all seriousness it is times like this that we need to ensure that we have a strong immune system therefore, I thought we could discuss just what the immune system does and what happens when it becomes out of balance.
Your immune system protects your body from infections, harmful substances, and germs that cause illness. It consists of a complex network of cells, tissues and organs. When your immune system is functioning properly you will hardly notice that it is there, however, if it is weak or out of balance you will notice certain health issues arise.
There are two categories within the immune system, they are known as the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. These systems work together whenever a germ or harmful substance triggers an immune response.
The innate immune system provides a general protection against harmful germs and substances; therefore it is also referred to as the non-specific immune system. It mainly fights using immune cells such as natural killer cells and phagocytes. The main job of the innate immune system is to fight harmful substances and germs that enter the body.
The adaptive (specific) immune system makes antibodies and uses them to target specific germs or threats that the body has been in contact with on previous occasions. After the threat has been taken care of, the adaptive immune system remembers it, making it respond more quickly when the threat presents again in the future. This is also known as an “acquired” (learned) or specific immune response.
The immune system contains certain types of white blood cells for example Lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are categorised as either B lymphocytes which produce antibodies that attach to specific antigens to make it easier for the immune cells to destroy the antigen. or T lymphocytes that attack antigens directly to support the immune response. T lymphocytes also release the chemical cytokines that are responsible for controlling the entire immune response.
As lymphocytes grow, they learn to differentiate between your own body’s tissues and chemicals that are not usually found in your body. Once B cells and T cells are formed, a few of those cells will multiply and provide an immune system “memory”. This allows your immune system to respond faster and more efficiently the next time you are exposed to the same antigen. In many cases, it will prevent you from becoming ill.
What happens when your immune system becomes out of balance?
When your Immune system is working effectively it protects us from many diseases and illnesses however, if it is not working effectively it may allow certain disease to develop.
Often this occurs when the immune response causes your body to attack normal, healthy tissues. For example, an overactive immune response can lead to autoimmune disease like multiple sclerosis, Rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, or lupus. There are many different factors involved in Auto Immune conditions however, therefore it is very important that you educate yourself about your condition and work closely with a health care professional to manage it as best as possible. Unfortunately, we don’t know what causes autoimmune diseases, just that the condition is multi factorial. If you have an immune system disorder, learn as much as you can about it. And work closely with your healthcare providers to manage it.
Immune system imbalance can also mean something less sinister is going on, in that your immune system reacts to substances that you are exposed to in the environment. These substances (allergens) cause reactions in those susceptible, they could be reactions to dust, mould, pollen or even certain foods.
Other conditions associated with an overactive immune response include asthma, eczema, hay fever/rhinitis or food allergies.
When your Immune system is underactive, or you have an immunodeficiency, this can also increase your risk of infection. Immunodeficiency may occur when the immune system is not as buoyant as it should be, resulting in recurring and sometimes life-threatening infections
So now that you have more of an understanding of how your immune system works, lets look at ways in which you can support your immune system to ensure it is working optimally and protect you from potential threats and viruses.
Six ways you can help your immune system
- Good hygiene. Personal hygiene has been lacking in many as we become blasé about potential immune threats. Keep germs at bay before it begins and continues to spread to others using these simple steps:
- Wash your hands with soap and water prior to preparing food and after using the bathroom, patting pets or touching your face.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough, or cough into your elbow rather than your hand.
- Wash and bandage any cuts or wounds.
- Do not scratch at healing wounds or blemishes or squeeze pimples. Doing so allows germs to enter your system.
- Stress Impacts your immune system. Most of us have experienced a certain number of stressors in our lives so, how does this stress have an impact on our immune system? When we become stressed, anxious or both it triggers a fight or flight response in the body. The body reacts by releasing a flood of chemicals and hormones into your system including the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol, which is secreted by the adrenal glands to help fight stress. In short bursts this reaction can actually reduce inflammation and immunity however, if the body sees this happening on an ongoing basis over time it will have the opposite affect and open the door to increased inflammation, and a reduction in the efficiency of White blood cells needed to fight infection. This process if chronic (long-term) will also inhibit the cross talk of immune cells and signalling pathways leading to a tired, overworked immune system. Let’s look at some proven ways that may help reduce stress.
- Mindfulness and Meditation have been shown to both lower cortisol levels and reduce inflammation.
- Yoga has also been shown to reduce stress hormones, calm the nervous system and reduce inflammation.
- Getting out in nature, exposure to green space leads to better health outcomes.
- Stay connected, self-isolation brings its own health issues, there must be a balance. Ensure that if you are meeting with friends and family that it is outside and if possible, and preferably in small groups. Even connecting over skype or FaceTime will help prevent the detrimental health effects associated with feelings of being isolated and alone.
- Get Outside into the fresh air.
- When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D from cholesterol. The sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays hit cholesterol in the skin cells, providing the energy for vitamin D synthesis to occur. Vitamin D has many roles in the body and is essential for optimal health. Deficiency in vitamin D is associated with increased autoimmunity as well as an increased susceptibility to infection.
- As mentioned above getting outside in nature also has positive effects on stress, go for a walk in the rain-forest, take a hike in the bush, even just walking barefoot on the grass will be beneficial.