I’m always fascinated by the concept of the ‘immune system’. It’s all that stands in the way of you and certain death, and yet most of us don’t know what it is, or how to strengthen it. I’ve noticed that its most common usage is when a child gets super grotty or eats something gross off the floor, and a parent (let’s face it, the dad) will shrug and say ‘ah well, good for the immune system.’ Well, dear parent, buckle up! Today, we are taking a deep dive into the most crucial part of your physical health and why you need to give it just that little bit more attention!
The immune system is that function in your body which recognises foreign substances (what we call antigens) when they enter your system. They then set to work quelling that antigen so that it can’t wreak havoc with your general health. I like to think of your immune system as the FBI or - given that we are Aussie Pharmacy - the Australian Federal Police (the AFP). They monitor our borders for things which are coming in that oughtn’t be, and once they detect it, they swiftly move against it so that we as Australians are not impacted. The ultimate goal is that you would be as immune as possible to as many different diseases and infections. Humans have three different kinds of immunity.
- Innate immunity: We all have some kind of defence against bacteria. After all, skin is the first layer of defence. But beyond this, your white blood cells fight the antigens that penetrate your skin.
- Adaptive immunity: This is the type that we develop over the course of a lifetime. One of the most remarkable things about our bodies is our capacity to adapt and react to the things we are exposed to. It might be that our bodies have done this naturally or that science has given us a leg up with a vaccine. Either way, we are more immune to something in the future which we haven’t been in the past.
- Passive immunity: This is when you borrow immunity from an external source. The main way this happens in humans is through breastmilk, where the hard work of the mother’s immune system is temporarily given to the baby.
There is also such thing as herd immunity (which isn’t really an aspect of our bodies) where we are unlikely to contract a disease because the overwhelming majority of people are immune to it from other means. For example, it is almost impossible to contract polio or tuberculosis in modern times because of the hard work of immunologists in the 20th century who all but defeated it. Now you can’t get it, because almost no one else has it.
So what is it? Well, as the name implies, it is a system of different components rather than a singular thing. The main component are your white blood cells, known as leukocytes, of which there are two main types:
- Phagocytes: These are the main driving force against infection. If we are to continue the AFP metaphor, we could consider these the agents that are kicking down doors, guns raised ready to lead the villain away in handcuffs.
- Lymphocytes: These help your body to remember the antigen and how best to combat them in future. Think of these as the intelligence which gathers data against the villain. There are two subtypes of lymphocytes.
- B lymphocytes - all lymphocytes start out their lives in the bone marrow, and if they stay there, they will become B lymphocytes. These locate the antigens in your body by creating immunoglobulins which lock onto specific antigens. One these are created, they stay in our bodies so that we can fight that same germ more effectively next time. This is the underlying logic behind vaccination. It is mimicking a natural phenomenon in your body and contrary to some, it doesn’t give you autism, or the ability to connect to 5G.
- T lymphocytes - if the blood cell moves into the thymus gland, they become T lymphocytes, which lead the charge in the fight, calling the phagocytes into do the dirty work.
This is why leukaemia is such a brute of a cancer. It affects your bone marrow’s capacity to grow white blood cells, which means that you are defenceless against any and all diseases. But even without something this severe, we can still live a worse life if our immune defence is undergunned. There are a number of things to boost your immune defence, including but not limited to:
- Cut out smoking.
- Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.
- Avoid being sedentary and get plenty of regular exercise.
- Stay in a healthy weight bracket.
- Cut down on the amount of alcohol you’re drinking.
- Make sure you are getting enough sleep so that your body has the chance to fight back against antigens.
- Keep up your personal hygiene. Wash your hands regularly, and cook meat properly
- Minimise your stress as this has a very negative impact on your capacity to bounce back from illness.
- Keep up to date with your vaccines. This will mean that you are immune from a larger number of diseases.
- Take a multivitamin like immune defence to give you all the vitamins and minerals you need.
If your immune defence is low, you are much more likely to experience frequent infection with severe symptoms. Imagine a life where you always feel healthy, and in those rare bouts of sickness, you bounce back quickly. Alternatively, imagine a life where you are sick more often than not, it lasts longer than it should, and you eventually die prematurely because your body cannot fight back against an infection picked up in one of your many visits to hospital. When you lay it all out like this, it’s not a difficult choice.
Hopefully, you’re all now eternally grateful for your immune system. May you raise a toast in its honour in the near future.
Floyd - Senior Pharmacist