10 Things You (Likely) Don’t Know About Your Immune System

Antique Head ImageOnce the weather cools off, discussions shift from a run down of the pollen count and other allergens to the importance of shoring up the immune system. But what are we really talking about when we discuss the immune system and can we really fine-tune it to ward off illness?

To enjoy these fun facts, perhaps it’s best to first head back to school and gain a better understanding of the immune system…

Open your textbooks kids, it’s time to learn:

On the most basic level, the immune system is a complex system of organs, tissues, cells, and cell products that neutralize potentially pathogenic organisms or substances.

The immune system is essentially a three-layer system:

  1. At its most basic is the skin and mucous membranes, which act as a physical barrier to prevent invasion from foreign bodies and other antigens, such as parasites, bacteria, viruses and toxins.
  2. The second layer is known as the innate immune system, a broad-acting, short-term, non-specific immune response to pathogens such as bacteria or viruses.
  3. A third layer, meanwhile, is the most complex. At its root is a population of white blood cells known as lymphocytes that have a cellular membrane embedded with thousands of identical receptors that are used to recognize and bind to specific antigens and mount an immune response locally. However, if the infection is too large, the lymphocytes secrete a molecule that alerts helper T cells that combine with the molecule as well as fragments of antigens to form a type of cell called a lymphoblast, which then secrete a variety of interleukins that provides a more powerful type of immune response. These cells can also promote the growth of cytotoxic T cells, which are thought to destroy tumorous cells or cells infected with viruses. A third class of immune cells, known as phagocytes, meanwhile, work by engulfing microbes or other unwanted products in the bloodstream. The main phagocyte is the macrophage, which literally means “big eater,” based on its ability to gobble up foreign substances.

Alright, and on to the fun facts….

Antibacterial Affinity


Think slathering on the antibacterial soap will help protect you – and your immune system – from damage? In a previous post Mark discussed the concept of living in a “sanitized world” and determined that in many cases, antibacterial products can actually hinder as opposed to help the immune system. Specifically, the frequent hand washing can break down the natural oils on the skin that serve as the first line (or layer) of defense for the immune system. In addition, overuse of these products opens the door for the creation of super-bugs, or strains of common viruses and bacteria that have adapted and grown stronger against our antibacterial-agenda, that can prove fatal.

Let’s Get It On

A study conducted by researchers at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania suggest that having sex can shore up supplies of IGA, a protein from the immune system that plays a critical role in keeping pathogens from entering the body and helps them mount an attack in the event that they enter.

It’s the Simple Things


Need an immunity boost? A study of 100 men conducted by researchers at the medical school of the State University of New York at Stony Brook finds that “positive events of the day seem to have a stronger helpful impact on immune function than upsetting events do a negative one.” Furthermore, the study revealed that “having a good time on Monday still had a positive effect on the immune system by Wednesday”; the negative immune effect from undesirable events, however, lasts only one day. What did these men list as negative events? According to the New York Times, the biggest setback to immune function was caused by work problems from criticism by one’s boss and frustrating or irritating encounters with fellow employees. The Times also notes that “burdensome chores like irksome errands or annoying home maintenance tasks” also made the list. Topping the pleasurable list? Leisure activities including fishing and jogging.

Working on It


Mark has touched on the immune-suppressing dangers of Chronic Cardio. Here is further proof. In a study published in the British Journal Sports Medicine by researchers from the National Yang Ming University School of Medicine in Taiwan, an intense endurance exercise – which researchers classified as any activity performed at 85% percent of your maximum effort for at least 30 minutes – disrupted immune system function, destroyed some white blood cells, and triggered whole body inflammation for up to 72 hours. As such, the researchers note that “to gain maximal health benefits from exercise while avoiding potentially deleterious effects, it is important to determine the ‘appropriate’ amount of physical activity.”

Teflon Tough


A preliminary study of 69,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio who live near a DuPont manufacturing plant found that PFOA – a chemical used to make Teflon, food wrappers and dozens of other products – may harm the immune system, liver and thyroid. Specifically, the chemical – which is also known as CB – is thought to raise levels of two enzymes that are critical to immune function. Currently, there are no federal safety standards for PFCs in consumer products, but alternatives are available for food packaging and DuPont and other manufacturers have pledged to phase out PFOA by 2015.

Allergy Accident


The reality? Nobody is perfect, and really, no body is perfect either. Allergies, for example, are a complete mistake – or really, more of an over-reaction – by the body’s immune system. An allergy occurs when the body strongly reacts to an allergen that should be ignored. This allergen could be a certain food, pollen, or animal fur. The result? A runny nose, watery eyes, headaches, and, if you’re really lucky a rather attractive case of the hives! Lucky for us, most allergies can be controlled with over-the-counter meds or by limiting exposure to the irritator.

Chicken Soup for the Soul Immune System

Chicken Soup

Chalk this one up as an old wives’ tale that just so happens to be true (or untrue… depending on who you ask.) However, knowing that when you have a cold, you’ll try just about anything to feel better, we figured it’d be important to draw your attention to a study in the journal Chest that suggests that chicken soup can help mitigate the inflammatory response associated with colds and other upper-respiratory infections. Under further examination, the researchers determined that the vegetables and chicken included in the soup each individually had inhibitory activity, although they note that the potency of the effects determined very much on how the soup was made, with commercial soups differing the most in their inhibitory activity.

Other Food for Thought


Want to add a few immune-boosting foods to your diet? Research suggests that mushrooms – particularly Reichi, Maitake, and Shitake – are really good for shoring up the immune system because they work on cell lines directly involved in fighting some major disease processes, including enhancing production of tumor necrosis factor, interleukins, and interferon.” A second study, meanwhile, reveals that a compound found in Broccoli helps the immune system protect against cancer. Other foods that also fit the bill? Blueberries, green tea, orange vegetables, goji berries and yogurt. But don’t let those general recommendations have you running to your nearest grocery store to stock up. Remember: Don’t buy the hype of fad “super foods.” Eating a Primal Diet that periodically includes these foods and other vegetables and fruits will naturally give you all the immune support from food you could ask for.

Down Boy

Dog Training

Recent research from the folks over at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., suggests the immune system can be trained to respond more effectively to antigens. Writing in the journal Nature, researchers reported that they have designed a technique that allows them to essentially program immature T-cells from bone marrow to specifically target a virus – in this case cancer – and destroy the cells responsible for spreading the disease from primary tumors to other parts of the body. This same technology may also be used to one day create a vaccine against cancer.

Stress Out


Want to know the best way to boost your immune system? Chill out! According to the folks over at Web MD, and more specifically the director of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, “the most important thing you can do for your immune system is to achieve lifestyle balance and adopt the fundamentals of healthy living. This will give your immune system what it needs to function at optimal capacity.” A second physician, meanwhile, notes that “there is overwhelming evidence that stress — and the substances secreted by the body during stress — negatively impacts your ability to remain healthy.” Read up on all of our archived stress posts for tips and advice on how to manage and relieve stress.

programwitch, Bob.Fornal, Essjay in NZ, Roadsidepictures, nalilo, romanlily, minxlj, thornypup, nebarnix Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to Stress, Cortisol and the Adrenals: When ‘Fight or Flight’ Meets the Modern World

Cold Water Therapy

Drink Less Water?

Flu Shots: Do I Need One?

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