The human body has many systems that serve multiple purposes to help the body function. For instance, our skeletal system supports the body. Our muscular system provides movement. Our nervous system includes sensory information, and our cardiovascular system delivers oxygen and nutrients to tissues within the body.
In total, we have 11 organ systems that work together to help the human body function properly. Of these 11 organ systems, the immune system is an important system that helps defend the body from harmful pathogens and infection.
Our immune system is our first defense against harmful bacteria and illness. And in the time of COVID-19, it's imperative to understand how our immune system works and how we can strengthen it to protect us for years to come.
What is the Immune System?
The immune system is unique as it works in conjunction with the lymphatic system to protect against infection and harmful pathogens the body may encounter. The immune system is comprised of:
- Skin: the body's first line of defense, skin cells provide antimicrobial proteins to fend off infection and harmful microbes.
- Bone marrow: Bone marrow contains stem cells (repair system for the body) that develop into immune cells (neutrophils, basophils, macrophages etc.) that all form to fight off infection.
- Bloodstream: As blood continuously flows, immunes cells circulate throughout the body, fighting off infection.
- Thymus: T cells (white blood cells) are matured within this small organ located in the upper chest.
- The Lymphatic system: A network of vessels, tissue, and organs that helps transport white blood cells and lymph. Lymph is an extracellular fluid, which the Lymphatic System transports around the body to fight off infection.
- Spleen: An organ located behind the stomach. The spleen works as an important hub for immune cells to process information from the body and respond accordingly to harmful cells and fight off infection.
How Does the Immune System Work?
The immune system's main job is to fight off harmful bacteria and germs that enter through the skin. The two main parts of the immune system are:
- The innate immunity: The immune system you are born with
- The adaptive immunity: The system you develop when your body is exposed to microbes.
As we are all born with certain immunity levels, our immune system will protect us from outside microbes and bacteria as soon as we draw our first breath. Our body's external barriers (skin, mucous membranes) form the innate immune system, providing our first line of defense to outside pathogens. However, if pathogens manage to get past the natural immune system, the adaptive immunity kicks in.
The adaptive immunity develops and adapts to outside pathogens throughout our life and learns to protect the body if these pathogens get through the body's first defense line. As the body is exposed to diseases or vaccinations, the body generates antibodies to fight off illness and bacteria.
When we are vaccinated, antigens are introduced to the body. Though an individual does not become sick, the body will still produce antibodies to fend off pathogens that cause disease and illness. This way, our immune system builds up a "memory" of past pathogens and threats to the body that can continue to be fought off.
Why is the Immune System Important?
The immune system is an essential component of everyday life because it serves as a protector of the human body from harmful bacteria, cells, and other foreign tissues to which we are exposed.
Even if pathogens get through the first barrier of protection, specialized cells like white blood cells work to fend off and destroy harmful cells that have entered the bloodstream. Without maintaining immune health and balance, outside pathogens, infections, and diseases can be picked up within the body to have harmful effects.
How Can Viruses Affect the Immune System?
If the body is exposed to harmful cells from a virus, the immune cells and infecting pathogen cells will begin a "fight" of sorts. The pathogen will start to multiply and look to find a target cell where it can thrive. As the B cells make antibodies to find and destroy these harmful pathogens, pathogens create antigens to take over healthy cells within the body.
Antibodies will either look to bind with and fight off antigens or try to make an antibody early in response to the virus. However, as antibodies identify the attacking cells, the time to fight off the virus is slowed during the detection period. When harmful cells are identified, the adaptive immunity can then remember these cells and detect them faster if the body is exposed again to these same pathogens.
However, sometimes when a virus enters the body, it may take a long time for helpful immune cells to fend off and destroy viral cells. This time, the virus can establish an infection within the body, and normal body function changes. It is when we experience feeling of sickness. Viruses can affect specific places within the body, which is often the place of replicated symptoms.
For instance, rhinoviruses affect the airways within the nose, and the body responds with snot build up and sneezing, often represented as a common cold. The COVID-19, in turn, affects our lower airways in our lungs, leading to pneumonia and other respiratory issues.
By creating an inflammatory response to infection, the body works to locate cells to fight the disease, develop antibodies, and form cells to remember the future's infectious cells. Symptoms like snot, fever, swollen lymph nodes are the body's response to the fight against the virus, not caused by the virus.
Protecting Your Body from Viruses
To remain disease and infection-free, taking preventative action against infections is incredibly important. Prevention against infection includes:
- Hand washing: One of the most comfortable and effective preventative measures against infection. As the skin is the first line of defense against infection and harmful pathogens, maintaining proper hand washing techniques are vital to protect yourself from germs and other pathogens. After a workout, cooking food, washing surfaces, using the bathroom or changing a diaper, washing your hands thoroughly and adequately remains the simplest form of protection against infection.
- Vaccines: vaccinations remain the best form of protection against infections and viruses that can often get through the innate immune system (skin barrier). Vaccinations contain weakened or inactive components of an antigen, which will prompt an immune response from the body. Essentially, vaccines help the body fend off illnesses like influenza or tetanus by providing the body with a "blueprint" of what these infectious cells may look like, so the body can remember them if exposed in the future.
- Medicines: antiviral drugs are doctor-prescribed medicines that combat flu and other viruses within the body. Antibiotics, while still prescribed by a doctor, are medicines to help fight bacterial infections.
Look for Natural Remedies to Protect Yourself Against Viruses
Boosting your immune system and protecting yourself from viruses is easier said than done. Making dietary and lifestyle changes can be an excellent start for strengthening your body's immune system to fight off infection and disease. Some helpful remedies to boost immune system strength include:
Get adequate sleep
Getting enough sleep at night can significantly improve your body's immunity and improve your chances of fighting off harmful pathogens. Sleep also gives the body to rest, recover and repair from the day's activities to prepare for the next day.
With so many stressors and uncertainties in the world right now, it may seem more difficult than usual to make sure you are getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night. But using some simple remedies and other helpful techniques can help you get the rest you and your immune system need to function correctly.
Eat more whole plant foods
Keeping a well-balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes rich in nutrients and antioxidants can help provide immune support with every bite. These foods help reduce inflammation, improve regularity and healthy bacteria within the body. These components can help improve immune health and decrease the development of illness and infection.
Eat Healthy Fats
Salmon, olive oil, nuts, and seeds are all healthy fats that decrease inflammation within the body, leading to a lower risk of heart disease and chronic inflammation illnesses.
Fermented Foods or Probiotics
Fermented foods like yogurt provide healthy bacteria within the gut, helping immune cells differentiate healthy cells correctly and harmful pathogens. It can help your immune system maintain its healthy cells to protect from illness and infection. Probiotic supplements can be a suitable alternative if you aren't regularly eating fermented foods.
Reduce Your Sugar Intake
As high levels of sugar intake can lead to weight gain and obesity, it can, in turn, lead to an increase in getting sick. Obesity can be detrimental to cardiovascular health and can lead to chronic illness and heart disease. Decreasing sugar intake can reduce excessive weight gain, thus boosting immune system health and reducing illness.
Exercise Daily and Get Your Pulse Racing
adding moderate exercise to your daily routine is an excellent source to boost immune health without having to join a local gym or start researching half marathon workouts. Walking, jogging, biking, and hiking are great avenues for moderate exercise that get blood moving, improve cardiovascular fitness and endurance and reduce inflammation.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Though not a remedy to fight infection or illness, maintaining proper hydration can reduce the risk of dehydration symptoms that can be physically debilitating. Signs of dehydration include fatigue, irritability, decreased focus, headache, stomachache, and muscle cramps. These symptoms can all make you susceptible to illness and infection. By maintaining good hydration habits, you can reduce your chances of dehydration and support immune health and function.
What Happens When Your Immune System is Compromised?
With the immune system being incredibly intricate and composed of multiple components, there are instances where the immune system can become compromised and not function properly. These are called immune disorders, which fall into three separate categories:
This disorder occurs when one or more parts of the immune system do not function. These deficiencies occur either at birth or later in life from an outside catalyst. Immunodeficiencies later in life are often the result of drug use, alcoholism, or another disorder like diabetes or HIV.
In the case of autoimmunity, the immune system mistakenly targets healthy cells instead of finding and destroying harmful foreign cells attacking the body. These autoimmune diseases include celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
Best known as allergies, hypersensitivity occurs when the immune system alerts the body to a substance from the environment. The body reacts to the element as being harmful. Allergies to peanuts, dust, and shellfish often cause symptoms like anaphylaxis, dermatitis, vasculitis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
These hypersensitivities are often hereditary and are developed early in life. Seeing a doctor can help these individuals combat symptoms associated with their allergies and limit the risk of prolonged harmful effects.
The Immune System During COVID-19
As COVID-19 continues to affect individuals worldwide, it is important to note how the immune system reacts to the exposure to the coronavirus. Though in individuals who are asymptomatic or experience mild symptoms, the immune system is still working to protect the body from the virus. As the innate immune response works to locate and remove harmful COVID cells, the adaptive immune response also kicks in to fend off any remaining cells that may have crossed the skin's physical barrier and other protective tissue.
However, the instances of more severe cases of COVID-19 leading to hospitalization are testing the immune system's responsiveness and effectiveness. In these instances, the immune system will activate cells to fight harmful antigens but fails to control the disease properly. Cytokines secreted to fight off infection become oversaturated within the body, causing the immune system to become hyperactive. During this hyperactivity, cytokines that traditionally cause a controlled inflammatory response to fight off infection cause an excessive inflammatory reaction that can spread throughout the body and cause damage vital functions.
This increased inflammatory response causes damage to targeted organs like the kidneys, lungs, and heart, increasing the risk of long-term damage and death. In severe cases, blood clots can form within the lungs or brain, causing pulmonary embolism or stroke, fluid can fill the lungs, and vital organs can fail.
Whether individuals are asymptomatic, experience mild or moderate symptoms, or need to receive hospitalization from their COVID-19 exposure, the immune system remains our first defense line against this virus and takes preventative measures to ensure its strength and effectiveness remain a priority.
Take Care of Your Immune System, Take Care of Yourself
With any virus or disease, prevention is vital. And maintaining a healthy immune system is a critical component to ensure your health is properly taken care of. Washing your hands frequently (and correctly), adding moderate exercise to your daily routine, getting enough sleep, combatting daily stressors, changing up your diet, and hydrating are all effective ways to improve immune system health and strength to lower your risk of infection and disease.
However, as we are in the middle of a pandemic, there are new and helpful guidelines that can be practiced to not only limit your exposure to COVID-19 but limit your risk of exposing others. Wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, staying home if possible, washing your hands, and limiting exposure to those outside your inner circle are vital components to limit the spread and control of the virus.
Since the immune system is our first line of defense to fend off disease and infection, it is crucial to understand our role in protecting ourselves and others. Maintaining proper habits and guidelines can help protect us from exposure to harmful pathogens in our environments. Being knowledgeable and adaptive to viruses and infections can help us remain in our best health and protect us in the future.