Dr. Lee, the Healthy Professor

Understanding the Immune System

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The Swine Flu (H1N1) virus and its potential consequences have dominated the media over the past 8 months and this prompted me to provide a review of how our immune systems really works.

We need to understand that vaccines don’t strengthen the immune system but rather you need to have a strong immune system to build a defense against the virus. The vaccine merely awakens the immune system and signals it to build the appropriate antibodies.

We also need to understand that there is no way we can expect to receive a vaccine for every virus circulating on the planet. (e.g. West Nile, Norwalk, Herpes Simplex – cold sore, Herpes Zoster – Shingles, Mono Nucleosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome etc.). We need a strong, fast acting and enduring immune response to stay healthy and avoid the consequences of any virus.

Phrases using the words “immune system” are common in discussions about health. Magazines, supplement manufacturers, health practitioners, self-help consultants advise on how to “strengthen, support or activate the immune system.

Certain ailments are the result from a “weakened” immune system or “immune deficiency”, or “auto-immune” conditions. Select activities, food choices, toxins and behaviors “challenge” the immune system. Many consumers wonder "where" is this immune system?

The immune system is not a single or even a group of anatomical structures anatomically located in certain areas of the body. Rather this system is a collection of cells and biochemical activities conducted by tissues and organs throughout the body. Constantly challenged by foreign substances, this system isolates, destroys and generally defends the healthy cells.

Without an immune system, we die. To understand the power of the immune system, think about what happens to anything once it dies. That sounds gross I know. When something dies its immune system shuts down.

In a matter of hours the body is invaded by all sorts of bacteria, microbes, parasites etc. None of these things are able to multiply when your immune system is working, but the moment your immune system stops the door is wide open and it only takes a few weeks for these organisms to completely dismantle your body.

Thousands of times each day, clusters of bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, allergens, unidentified, micro-organisms and toxic chemicals try to take up residence in some part of the body and therefore present challenges to the immune system.

A healthy body is one that provides a rapid response to the challenges presented by these various “perpetrators” so you are able to carry out normal human activity with vigor, ease and surplus energy. When the immune system if functioning well we don’t notice it.

However there are occasions like scabs on the skin following an intrusion or inflammation which are side-effects of the immune system doing its job. When a mosquito bite gets red and itchy, it means the immune system is working. Allergies are an example of the immune system overreacting to certain stimuli.

Bacterial infections like streptococcus (strep throat) and viral infections leading to colds, flu, polio, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia are examples of the immune system not responding adequately to certain invaders.

Auto-immune disorders like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis are examples of the immune system becoming confused and overreacting or attacking the body it should be defending.

Even cancer and heart disease have an immune deficiency connection.

Components of the Immune System

The largest and most obvious components of the immune system are the skin that is slightly acidic to protect against bacterial invasion and the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and eyes (obvious potential points of entry) that posses antibacterial enzymes as protectors.

Inside the body are the:

  • Thymus gland: The maturation centre for all White blood cells.
  • Spleen: The spleen filters the blood looking for foreign cells. A person missing their spleen gets sick much more often than someone with a spleen.
  • Lymph system: This is a parallel circulatory system that collects, filters (lymph nodes) and removes biological and chemical toxins from the system.
  • Bone marrow: Bone marrow produces new blood cells. The marrow produces all blood cells from stem cells.
  • White blood cells: The white blood cells are probably the most important part of your immune system and are actually a collection of different cells that work together to destroy bacteria and viruses. Here are all of the different types:
    • Leukocytes – 3 types
      • Granulocytes (Neutrophils, Eosinophils, Basophils)
      • Lymphocyte (T-cells - Helper T-cells, Killer T-cells, Suppressor T- cells, Natural killer cells and B-cells)
      • Monocytes which evolve into Macrophages.
    • Phagocytes and Macrophages – the “Pack-Man” type of scavengers that clean up the debris caused by the action of the T-Cells.
  • Antibodies: also referred to as immunoglobulins and gammaglobulins. They are special proteins that respond to specific antigens (bacteria, viruses and toxins).
  • Hormones: These hormones are known generally as lymphokines.
  • Tymosin (thought to be produced by the thymus) is a hormone that encourages lymphocyte production Interleukins are generated by white blood cells. For example, Interleukin-1 is produced by macrophages after they eat a foreign cell. IL-1 has an interesting side-effect - when it reaches the hypothalamus it produces fever and fatigue. The raised temperature of a fever is known to kill some bacteria.

Nutrition – Nature’s Protector

Good nutrition is the foundation of a healthy immune system. Nutrition provides the body with enough building material to create all of those cells discussed so far. A nourished immune system can respond rapidly, accurately and with endurance.

Anti-oxidants like beta carotene, vitamin C, bioflavonoids, vitamin E , selenium, and grape-seed extract guard against “oxidative stress” and free-radical damage to prevent or slow the progress of many degenerative conditions including cancer.

Essential fatty acids help the body fight heart disease and produce the "super hormones" responsible for controlling other hormones and inflammatory conditions like eczema, psoriasis, asthma, arthritis, and migraines.

Fibre helps the digestive system in the elimination of toxic waste.

Protein provides the building blocks for that collection of white blood cells described.

In a perfect world all the nutrients required for optimum immune defenses would come from food. The world is not perfect. Therefore responsible supplementation has become a necessity, not an option.

So in addition to choosing a wide variety of healthy foods, high in protein, anti-oxidants, essential fatty acids, fibre and friendly bacteria, I strongly suggest supplementation in each of these areas to optimize immune function.


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