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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30 thoughts on “10 Things You (Likely) Don’t Know About Your Immune System”

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  1. And unless it was simmered a very long time, like 24 hours (which would oxidize the fats), don’t skim the fat off the homemade chicken broth. Chicken fat is packed with fat soluble vitamins and flavor. Of course, the best broth is made with a pasture-raised chicken (better than the misleading “free-range”) that lived on more than organic grain.

  2. So if happy times on Monday boost the immune system until Wednesday while stressful times last only a day, can I have two stressful days for every one happy day and stay balanced? Can I have a happy weekend, thus building up a cache of four extra days of better immunity so I can make it through a stressful work week? Will a happy summer carry me through a gloomy fall and winter?

  3. Great list, thank you.

    Nothing better than my mom’s homemade chicken broth when I’m feeling yucky. It works for me and that’s all that matters.

  4. Excellent advice, especially about stress – I’ve been saying for years that getting stressed ends up with my immune system having problems. I find I’m a lot less stressed these days due to having less immune problems, and vice versa!

    I’m not sure on the chicken soup though – this vegetarian will stick with the strawberries and broccoli 😀

    P.S. Thanks so much for using my pic here!

  5. I am glad I do not in West Virginia or Ohio! But seriously I did not know that chicken soup was the way to go, I was also one of those people who thought it was an old wives tale.
    “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”.
    This is simply amazing, training our bodies to fight disease and potentially helping with a cure for cancer!!
    Great article, Thanks Mark.

  6. Superb post, funny I was actually looking into how the immune system works and ways to boost it this afternoon. No surprise but your Damage control master formula covers all the bases, supplement wise. Just need to get stress levels down and relax the mind!

  7. Please correct me if I am wrong, but aren’t soup stocks best if made with a chicken carcass or beef bones? As gross as I always thought it was to watch Grandma cook years ago, it turns out her simple country cooking was probably more nutritious than any of us ever realized. I don’t know if this provided a boost to immunity or aided health in other ways, but I doubt canned supermarket soups are made this way.

  8. Rodney,

    You aren’t wrong (IMHO). But leftover bones is just one way to make broth. I hate storing an old carcass in the fridge; the meat dries out and it is hard to debone when chilled. I prefer another way.

    I also like to make broth by simmering a whole uncooked chicken in a slow cooker appliance for a few hours (I add a touch of vinegar to acidulate the water to release bone minerals into the water). I add a bay leaf, diced carrots, onions, and celery if I have time. When the meat is cooked thoroughly, but not yet falling off off the bones, I (carefully, so it doesn’t fall apart and splash scalding water!)lift and with support under the chicken, drain it slightly over the pot, then remove the chicken to a platter, and let it cool a few minutes. While still warm, I quickly pull the main meaty portions off and use it for the next meal or store it in the fridge for quick meals and snacks later.

    The broth is already very nice by this point, but I add back the bones, skin & cartilage, and simmer many hours longer, increasing the richness, depth, and color. After several more hours simmering, I strain off the broth and cool it, then use or freeze it. I leave this fat with the broth. this broth will gel!

    If I need more broth, I add more water to the strained chicken carcass and simmer about 24 hours (yes, a 2nd batch of broth!); this fat I do skim off after it is chilled, because it is probably oxidized.

  9. Good post Mark. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with stress. I always seem to get a slightly runny nose and feel a little depleted if I’m not getting enough sleep or have a rough week at work.

  10. this is why I love MDA.
    I had no idea about most of these.
    now if you need a video of someone lunging in the grocery Im your woman—-some true science? I send everyone here.
    including my HUSBAND who is currently stressed *out*


  11. What about heredity? I wonder whether is any research on the extent to which baseline levels of immunity vary between individuals. I have a friend who eats garbage all day, hasn’t done a day’s exercise in 15 years and yet never gets sick. And she has been through some pretty stressful times too. She’ll probably drop stone dead at the age of 50 ;-), but as I say, she just never gets sick.

  12. ‘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.’

    I find this supprising, the advise i normally hear is not to work out more than 45 mins, if you workout the PB way you most likely work out intensely (85% max) ie sprints, weights / body weight routines with little rest, does this mean 20 mins might be the optimum cut off point?

  13. Great post. I’ll be adding MDA to my RSS feeder

    The chicken stock using the entire carcass is the best flavored way as well. You can’t get a good chicken stock from a bouillon cube.

  14. Beet juice.

    Radically excellent anti-inflammatory. Blood purifier. Will do wonders for your immune system. Also, walking/ Simple, sustained half hour (or) hour walking, because …. for the immune system to operate correctly, the lymph system – your sewer – must be tip top, in order for the by products of immune system hunter killers to be washed out of your body. Walking is what pumps (or) powers the lymph to flow. This is essentially what echinacea does, stimulate the lymphatic system to move out all the stuff making you sick.

    Walking and beet juice. Do it.

    Beet Juice – https://thurly.net/030i

  15. At its root is a population of white blood cells known as lymphocytes that have a cellular membrane embedded with thousands of identical [emphasis added] receptors that are used to recognize and bind to specific antigens and mount an immune response locally.

    They’re not identical, that’s the point. A master system is generic, and diversifies in the foetus to a wide range of precursor cells as well as lymphocytes with varied but specialised sensitivity, knocking out any with responses that are triggered then (thus cutting back on potential auto-immune responses later). After birth, the system is activated, and only those cells that are able to pick up specific antigens do so; these multiply and build up enough numbers to cope – unless they are overwhelmed before they can, or the threats use tricks to get past them (as malaria and HIV do). Vaccination is a trick to get past the first case by pre-sensitising the immune system to increase the appropriate cells in advance.

  16. Excellent post Mark.
    But with all of the corruptions in the American food supply (hormones in beef, antibiotics in chicken, pesticides in fruits and vegetables), should you not have recommended eating strictly organic fare?
    Hormones in beef promote obesity in humans and are suspected of causing cancer.
    Antibiotics in chicken destroy the good bacteria in our intestines which are part of our immune system.
    Pesticides in fruits and vegetables suppress thyroid function thus, also promoting obesity.
    These are just a few of the problems with the American food supply.
    There isn’t enough space here to begin discussing chicken manure and rendered animal parts being fed to cows (remember Mad Cow disease in England?).
    I believe that present day methods of “factory farming” are at the root of much illness in America.
    How do you respond to this, Mark?

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  18. It would be wise to eat a high quality food- high in nuinterts, e.g. organic and whole foods, green leafy veg, so that your body gets what it needs. Also you should consider probiotics to help with good bacteria as antibiotics will kill some of the good bacteria while it does its job, just don’t take them at the same time!Probiotics are products containing living beneficial bacteria, which colonize’ the entire lining of our intestine. The amazing potential benefits that the bacteria in our intestine include: * They enable the entire digestion and absorption functions of the intestine to operate efficiently * They protect us from challenge and infections by potential pathogens * They continuously prime and condition our immune system to function properly, throughout our entire life * They can help protect us from allergy and intolerance and can reduce the symptoms in existing sufferers

  19. The first and last fact are literally identical. The basic point being “avoid stress.”

    l think you should instead include something like, “Avoid medication when you (one) are (is) sick,” as the use of medications and other quick-fixes prevents one’s immune system from building up the natural tolerances and resistances it needs to stay ahead of the bacteria and viruses that it cannot immediately eliminate. Similar in a sense to toning your figurative “lmmune muscle,” if you will.