How Does The Immune System Work?
The human body is full of incredibly intricate systems that work around the clock to keep us moving and grooving through life. The endocrine system regulates hormones, the nervous system controls communication in the body, the list goes on. One of the most famous systems in the human body is the immune system – and for good reason. You hear the term thrown around all the time, especially during pandemic times, but what exactly is the immune system? How does it work? And of course – how can you make yours stronger? Let’s hop on the learning train and learn all about the immune system.
What is The Immune System?
First things first, what exactly is the immune system? This intelligently designed network of organs, blood cells, antibodies, and chemicals defends the body against infection. You can think of it as an incredibly well-ochestrated army, with different units that specialize in separate areas of defense. The foreign invaders that the immune system is on guard against are called pathogens – microbes that enter the body that can cause disease.
While there are quite a few different types of pathogens, the main ones that cause most illnesses, infections, and diseases are viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. Not all of these are bad of course. Microbes make up a large part of life on Earth, and we live symbiotically with many of them. Aka, the human microbiome.
How Does The Immune System Work?
Now that you understand the main units that make up the immune system, how exactly do they work, and what do they do? The immune system’s first line of defense is the skin and the mucous membranes in the throat and gut. These work to try to prevent potentially harmful pathogens from infiltrating the body further. Unfortunately, many still do. Luckily we have plenty of backup lines of defense waiting to attack.
Since there are so many different kinds of microbes out there, how does the immune system know which ones to attack against? It can tell if a microbe is a pathogen based on the proteins on the surface of the cells. These proteins are called antigens, or antibody generators. Stored in the spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and lymph nodes live white blood cells, also known as leukocytes. These hardworking cells are constantly on the lookout for pathogens. When they detect one, they start to multiply and tell other cell types to do the same.
Antibodies, which are created by B lymphocytes, are proteins that lock onto antigens. B lymphocytes create special antibodies for each kind of antigen, like a particular flu virus or chickenpox. Fevers are a natural byproduct of the immune system trying to protect the body from infection. This is why you often get a high temperature when you’re fighting something. In a ‘healthy’ body the immune system typically grows stronger with age as we’re exposed to more and more pathogens over time. The body keeps copies of antibodies it’s produced so that it can defend itself against the same antigen if it comes back around. This process is called adaptive or acquired immunity, or immunological memory.
Fun fact, babies get antibodies when they are passed through the placenta during the third trimester of pregnancy, and through human milk, if their parent chooses to nurse them or give them pumped milk. This is called passive immunity, and while it doesn’t last indefinitely, it does protect the baby for the first few years of its life.
How to Boost The Immune System
It’s pretty cool how the body works to protect us from potentially harmful pathogens. But can you take steps to boost this response? Absolutely, here’s how to:
Immunizations: This is a hot topic in recent years, but immunizations are one of the health technologies that science has developed to protect us from viruses. It works like a synthetic replication of acquired immunity – introducing the body to antigens or weakened pathogens so we can develop antibodies against those specific antigens.
Diet: What you eat plays a huge role in how efficiently your immune system works. Sticking to a balanced diet full of whole foods, fresh produce, protein, and healthy fats helps to keep your immune system in tip-top shape.
Exercise: Different kinds of physical activity can help to boost the immune system by increasing blood and lymph flow in the body, which helps to circulate immune cells.
Reduce Stress: Some stress is inevitable, but when stress levels are left unchecked, it can decrease the body’s white blood cells, and increase cortisol levels, which over time can lead to chronic inflammation. You can help reduce stress levels through breathwork, meditation, and orgasms!
Recent years have made it that much more apparent how vital the immune system is, and how important it is to take care of it, along with the rest of our body. This one goes out to the immune system – thanks for all that you do. Keep up the good work!
Natasha (she/her) is a full-spectrum doula and health+wellness copywriter. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, health, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more education and empowerment. You can connect with Natasha on IG @natasha.s.weiss.