All You Need to Know about Immune Health
You don’t need to be a health expert to talk about immunity. By and large, even any school kid knows that the immune system is the body’s natural way of defending itself against all sorts of dangers, including viruses, bacteria, foreign bodies, and other perceived health risks. The aim of the immune system is to conserve the current state of balance. Part of the immune system is innate and part of it is acquired. Illness is a failure of human immunity, inflammation is one of its responses, and there are several ways in which we can define it.
The above would cover the basics. However, it’s important to distinguish between innate immunity and acquired or adaptive immunity. It’s just as crucial to understand what cellular and humoral immunity is, and why the immune system’s inflammatory response is not a bad thing at all—on the contrary, it literally shows that you’re alive. Bearing all that in mind, we’ll attempt some cursory definitions in what follows, as well as provide you with the most scientifically accurate ways in which you can boost your immune system. We cover dietary supplements, vitamins, and so-called ‘super-foods’, all for your convenience.
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All the ways to define immune response
The definition of immunity
The immune system is the body’s mechanism of protection against potential threats, which is active through its detection of and response to antigens. These antigens are usually proteins, which the immune system picks up on the surface of viruses, bacteria, funguses, and regular cells. Antigens can also come in synthetic form, such as chemicals, drugs, foreign bodies, and toxins found in the human organism. In fact, the body itself contains antigen protein, also known under the name of HLA antigens.
Typically, the human immune system only reacts to non-HLA antigens, except in the case of auto-immune disorders. For the rest of its activity, the immune system seeks out and breaks down antigens which it understands as risks.
Types of immunity
- Innate (non-specific) immunity. As its name suggests, this is the immunity you were born with. Its aim is to create an initial line of defense against antigens and iterations of it include tear and skin oil enzymes, skin, mucus, gastric acids, and the cough reflex. Non-specific immunity also includes innate humoral immunity, which is a chemical (specifically a protein), manifest in the complement system within the human body, as well as in several substances such as interferon and interleukin-1. That latter substance is actually what causes us to develop a fever.
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- Acquired immunity. This type of immune response is developed throughout one’s life as a reaction to it being exposed to various types of antigens. The immune system reacts to them by creating a defense line for each.
- Passive immunity. This immunity is created as a response to antibodies produced by other bodies. One example of this is the antibodies present in the immune systems of newborn babies, which developed in uterus, as a response to the antibodies in their mothers’ placenta. They are active until 6 to 12 months, at which point they disappear. Passive immunization also refers to the temporary antibodies we develop as a reaction to an injected antiserum. The most common example of such immunization is basically any vaccine, such as immune serum globulin, given for hepatitis.
The immune system is also based within certain types of blood cells. Specifically, these are lymphocytes B and lymphocytes T, antibody-producing and antigen-attacking white blood cells. Other blood-borne chemicals which contribute to the makeup of the immune system include interferon and complement protein. Lymphocytes are not innate, but rather they develop as a reaction to various antigens, both foreign and contained within our own bodies.
As we grow, these lymphocytes learn to distinguish between the two types of antigen origins and to react accordingly (by ignoring or attacking them). Once a response has been generated, a few lymphocytes will store it (much like a memory) and then reproduce, to teach that memory to the rest of the immune system. An example of this is the body’s reaction to chickenpox: once you’ve had the disease or been immunized against it, the immune system will not react to it again.
Inflammation is a response of the immune system to tissue injury. Lots of things can damage the cells within our bodies: from trauma and bacteria, to toxins, heat, or anything else. When a cell is damaged, it produces several substances, including bradykinin, prostaglandins, and histamine.
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As a reaction, the blood vessels will spill fluids into the tissues, in an attempt to isolate the foreign substance and prevent it from further spreading to other tissues. This is actually what causes inflammation per se. The aforementioned chemical substances also draw phagocytes, white cells that ‘eat’ germs, dead, or damaged cells. Once phagocytes die, the dead tissue, bacteria, and white blood cells come together to form pus.
Auto-immune responses and allergies are immune system anomalies. Inefficient immune systems will allow diseases and disorders to appear, because of a series of anomalous reactions. Signs of a poorly functioning immune system include allergies, where the system responds violently to a substance other bodies would typically find harmless, and autoimmune disorders, in which the system is literally attacking itself. Also on the list are anaphylaxis, graft versus host disease, serum sickness, and transplant rejection.
How to boost your immune system naturally
Of course, Dr. Oz will want you to believe that you can naturally boost your immune response efficiency, because that means you’ll also be buying his immunity boosters, ‘tested and true’. The immunity supplement market is full of hoaxes and charlatans, which is why we took to a more reliable source. Before you take one ‘wonder’ sugar pill or the other, check out some of the natural strategies and lifestyle changes below. They are recommended by the Harvard School of Medicine, for a stronger immune system.
Bear in mind that they don’t offer miracle pills and wonder foods. One of the key takeaways to their approach is to specify that the immune system is not a single entity. It is a multi-faceted system, made up of countless cells and the reactions between them. Immunity boosting has just recently come to the attention of medical researchers, and there’s still a lot they don’t know about it. However, the following tips are beyond scientific proof—they are commonsense pieces of advice for healthy, clean living.
- Quit smoking.
- Base your diet in whole foods, especially fruit, veg, and whole grains. Avoid saturated fats. Strive to eat fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy starches. They naturally contain minerals and vitamins that can fight off disease.
- Work out as often as you can and try to stay generally active.
- Keep an eye on your weight. Watch your calorie intake, fast if you feel it is good for your metabolism, go through carb cycling, or adopt a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle if you’re so inclined. Just remember to do everything with good measure—no excess has ever made anyone healthier.
- Also, keep your blood pressure in check. Much like a healthy weight, a good blood tension level helps keep heart problems at bay.
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol, and drink less frequently.
- Get plenty of quality sleep.
- Practice good hygiene. This applies both to your body and to your home.
- Get regular health tests and screening, as is appropriate for your age, sex, and other risk factors.
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Sounds logical, right? Beyond this very commonsensical advice, the Harvard experts also have a couple of more specialized tips, as follows:
- Always question what’s being sold to you. How can all those products on your supermarket aisles promote immunity boosting, when world-class researchers haven’t yet been able to answer pressing immune system questions like “What is the cure for AIDS”? We do know a few things, like the fact that the human body produces more lymphocytes than it could possibly use. Furthermore, those cells self-destroy in a cellular death process known as apoptosis. But beyond that, we still don’t know what types of cells to boost for enhanced immunity, nor are we aware of the number of T cells an HIV/AIDS patient needs, in order to stay healthy.
- Mind your stress levels. Though it’s hard to establish a scientific definition of stress and even harder to study its effects on the immune system, several studies on rats have made this correlation. Mice previously infected with influenza and then placed in stressful situations produced fewer antibodies. Similarly, mice inoculated with herpes were unable to produce functional T cells. And social stress caused more harm than physical stress: it exposed rats to a risk of death that was twice as large as that in the control group, which had been deprived of water, food, and living space.
- Understand that, the older you get, the more you’ll have to work at maintaining your immune system. This is one of the few solid correlations that scientists have been able to establish. Life expectancy has increased in the western world, but the number of immune infections and inflammatory diseases that kill people aged 65 and over has remained fairly constant. Another link that research has been able to establish is that between the aging of the thymus and a lower number of T cells it is able to produce as it atrophies. At the same time, studies on rats have proven that older immune systems suffer from a form of ‘memory loss’, meaning that they forget previously established immune responses to microbes. Finally, older people have a lower rate of micronutrient absorption, which may also lower the efficiency of their immune response.
Foods to build a strong immune system
As previously explained, there are few clearly established correlations between lifestyle factors and immunity. However, one relatively solid link is the one between malnutrition and poor immunity. Most of the research available to us at this point, however, is based on animal studies; this has shown, for instance, that some deficiencies (in vitamins A, B6, B9, C, and E, as well as in zinc, selenium, copper, and iron) will cause lower immune responses. So, for the time being, all we have is some genera rules of thumb. In terms of nutrition, always go for whole foods. If you believe you aren’t getting enough of a particular macronutrient, supplement it with a good vitamin and mineral complex from an established producer.
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Whatever you choose to do, remember that, insofar as immunity is concerned, variety really is the spice of life. In other words, don’t amp up doses of a single vitamin or mineral—strive for diversity, both with your diet, as well as with your supplement intake. With all that in mind, certain foods and vitamins have been comparatively better researched than the rest. Since they’ve proven to produce fairly good results, we’ll include them here for your reference.
Herbal supplements that boost immunity
Aloe vera. Topical aloe vera-based formulas can help heal small burns, wounds, and frostbites. In combination with hydrocortison, the plant can also help reduce inflammations of the skin.
Echinacea. No, we can’t tell you if long-term echinacea intake can stave off colds, since none of these claims have been proven yet. Several experts actually warn against prolonged use of these herbs and products based on them, because they can cause severe side effects for people who suffer from certain allergies. However, periodic use of echinacea supplements will likely boost your energy levels.
Garlic. Far from being the wonder food many tout it as, garlic does, actually have some health benefits. It has proven especially benefits in lab tests designed to understand what stops infections. It has produced great results against fungus, viruses, and bacteria. And, finally, a 2006 study on southern European populations has found that certain cancers occur less often in people who eat a lot of garlic.
Ginseng. At the moment, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is definitely encouraging more independent research on the properties of Asian ginseng. However, its ability to boost immunity has only been documented by a few very small studies.
Probiotics. The human body is fully capable of producing probiotics in the intestinal tract—that much we know. And certain types of gastrointestinal bacteria have been linked with an increase in the production of specific types of T cells. However, beyond this tentative correlation, we don’t know if the marketing claims of probiotic and prebiotic producers can be verified just yet.
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Vitamins to boost immune system health
Vitamin A. Vitamin A is, indeed, active in warding off infections and maintaining mucosal areas, as it promotes the production of T cells, B cells, and cytokines. And the link between infection risks, low immune response, and vitamin A has also been established.
Vitamin B2. Vitamin B2 has been shown to improve resistance to bacteria-borne infections in lab mice.
Vitamin B6. It may just promote the growth of tumors. But, on the other hand, vitamin 6 has been linked with immune response, namely the lymphocytes’ ability to turn into T and B cells, so moderate dosage is recommended.
Vitamin D. There’s a long-established connection between tuberculosis and vitamin D production, caused by exposing the skin to natural sunlight. This is because the bacteria that causes tuberculosis receives an anti-microbial response from sun-exposed skin. However, further research is required in order to verify other immunity boosting claims for vitamin D.
Vitamin E. A study on patients aged 65 and upward has shown that upping their daily intake of vitamin E from 30mg to 200mg increases the production of antibodies in response to hepatitis B and tetanus (but not pneumococcal immunization or diphtheria).
Selenium. At the moment, a large-scale study looking at the effects of using selenium and vitamin E to prevent prostate cancer is underway. The results are yet to be seen, but there are certain correlations between low levels of selenium and increased risks of bladder, rectum, lung, colon, and other cancers.
Zinc. This is an important element in your immune system as, without it, your T cells won’t function properly. However, don’t go too much over the 15-25mg daily recommended dose, as this might actually inhibit your immune response.