Your Immune System: How it Works and How to Make it Work Better

The world is full of germs. The good news: exposure to germs allows your body to adapt and strengthen accordingly. Even better news: there are ways to empower your immune system without having to get sick.

A healthy immune system is equipped to repel and remove harmful bacteria, viruses, and other substances, and prevents them from inflicting disease or damage. When a new threat is encountered, the immune system is able to adapt its fighting style—a truly formidable capability. Unfortunately, not all immune systems are equal. Stress, poor diet, age, and pre-existing diseases can compromise the immune system and weaken its fortifications. The solution is not necessarily to hide from every possible germ. Nor is it a good idea to go around licking doorknobs. You can strengthen your immune system without having to expose yourself to serious illness.

How does the immune system work?

Your immune system is a complex network of organs, white blood cells, antibodies, and chemicals, designed to protect your body from foreign pathogens. The immune system is comprised of many components but generally speaking it contains two principle main defense mechanisms: the innate system and the adaptive system.

The innate immune system is inherited from your parents and active from birth. It provides a general defense against harmful germs using physical barriers like the gastrointestinal tract or the eye’s cornea.

Other elements of the innate immune system include:

  • Skin – This is your body’s first line of defense. Skin acts like a waterproof barrier to keep germs out.
  • Spleen – This blood-filtering organ destroys damaged red blood cells, removes bacteria-containing microbes, and also helps create antibodies and lymphocytes.
  • Bone marrow – The spongy tissue inside your bones makes billions of new blood cells every day which help the body fight infection. It also produces platelets which help blood clot.
  • Stomach – The mucous lining of the stomach contains antibodies to prevent germs from proceeding through the digestive tract. If that fails there’s always the stomach’s acid, which is capable of killing most bacteria.
  • Mucous membranes – These line the insides of your lungs and other tracts. Germs get stuck on the mucous membrane and are transported away by tiny hair-like things called cilia. The same way your nose hairs prevent certain allergens from entering the respiratory system, the cilia of mucous membranes prevent microbes from getting to the body’s organs.

Because the innate system essentially operates at the borders between the body and the outside world, it is the first part of the immune system to respond. It fights against harmful substances by employing phagocytes (or “eating cells”) which can trap and neutralize any germs that entered the body. Everything is the recorded and analyzed through the adaptive system.

The adaptive immune system is developed overtime as your body is exposed to different kinds of microbes, viruses, and chemicals. With the help of the innate system, the adaptive system is able to make antibodies to fight specific pathogens. It may take several days after an initial encounter with a new pathogen before the adaptive system is able to create a substantial number
of antibodies. But once formed, antibodies can stay in your body for years and years.

Main elements of the adaptive system include:

  • White blood cells – This is a powerful army of cells, trained to seek and destroy harmful invaders. White blood cells (or lymphocytes) are also major players in the lymphatic system.
  • Lymph nodes – These small glands filter out and destroy germs, preventing them from recirculating throughout the body.
  • Thymus – The thymus helps produce white blood cells. It also plays a key role in recording new invaders so that, if needed, the body will be prepared to fight them off again in the future (before you feel sick).

A properly working immune system recognizes foreign invaders, mobilizes, attacks and kills these germs that are meant to cause you harm. Once your body is exposed to a foreign invader, it learns about them and remembers their characteristics. So then why do we keep getting sick from colds and flus?

How to strengthen your immune system

One reason may be that your immune system is simply not operating at its best. Weakened immune systems are generally less reflexive and less capable of forming antibodies, making them more susceptible to infection and illness. Weakened or compromised immune systems have more difficulty recording and learning from new pathogens. So even if the body is infected by the same bacteria or virus, a weak immune system will behave as if the pathogen is brand new.

Some tips to strengthen every immune system:

  • Eat healthy – A nutritious diet comprised of plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables goes a long way. No need to completely eliminate sugar and red meat from your diet. Just make sure they aren’t regular staple foods.
  • Take vitamin supplements – High-quality supplements can provide you with essential vitamins that your regular diet may be lacking. A diet rich in anti-oxidants and omega 3’s will also enrich and protect the brain, giving it an added layer of security and vitality.
  • Get adequate sleep - Sleep a minimum of 6 hours per night and the body will respond accordingly. Not only does sleep help the immune system recover, it helps the entire body, including muscle fatigue and chronic inflammation.
  • Exercise – Regular exercise has numerous benefits. And you don’t need to run a marathon to reap its rewards. Long walks in the park and frequent stretching are enough.
  • Decrease stress – Easier said than done, I know. But there are plenty of doable, everyday actions to alleviate chronic stress and eliminate acute stress. Laughing at funny YouTube videos and maintaining a positive attitude can go a long way.
  • Deep breathing exercisesDeep breathing is prescribed for a vast array of problems. Long-term benefits include improved metabolism, stronger immune system, and reduced cortisol levels.

Another reason we keep catching the same sicknesses is that we’re not actually catching the same sickness. Some diseases (like the flu, common cold, and coronavirus) change so rapidly that the immune system is forced to re-design and re-create antibodies each time the disease is encountered. Every new strain requires a slightly different method of attack. This is why, even though the immune system is able to record and learn, catching the flu once does not grant you immunity to all future flu viruses.

Germs are everywhere. You can’t run from them, but nor were you meant to live in a bubble. A little maintenance keeps your immune system fit for action.

Summary

The world is full of germs. The good news: exposure to germs allows your body to adapt and strengthen accordingly. Even better news: there are ways to empower your immune system without having to get sick.

Your immune system is a complex network of organs, white blood cells, antibodies, and chemicals, designed to protect your body from foreign pathogens. The immune system is comprised of many components but generally speaking it contains two principle main defense mechanisms: the innate system and the adaptive system.

The innate immune system is inherited from your parents and active from birth. It provides a general defense against harmful germs using physical barriers. The adaptive immune system is developed overtime as your body is exposed to different kinds of microbes, viruses, and chemicals. With the help of the innate system, the adaptive system is able to make antibodies to fight specific pathogens. Weakened immune systems, however, are generally less reflexive and less capable of forming antibodies, making them more susceptible to infection and illness.

Fortunately, there are ways of strengthening every immune system.

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