How does our immune system work?

We talk about the immune system a lot, but how many of us actually know what it is exactly?  The many functions of our bodies can be complex and seem mysterious, and the immune system is no exception. So we asked our naturopaths to break it all down to basics.  Here’s what you need to know about immunity!

First up, what is the immune system?

It’s a complex network of defences that protect us from the army of germs we’re surrounded by every day.  These germs take up many forms -like bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and are literally everywhere. What they have in common is the ability to make us sick. 

We into contact with bugs both good and bad all the time. It’s constant!  Many of them live on our skin and in our bodies without harm.  Some can even be beneficial. But when we are exposed to one that isn’t harmless, our body mounts an immune response. This does two things. It tells us there’s a baddie about, and it sharpens our immune system to respond better and faster in future.  

We talk about “immunity” as a measure of how well we resist getting unwell from the bugs that surround us.  When our immunity is reduced, we have less resistance and can get sick more often and stay sick for longer. When our immunity is strong, we are more resistant to getting sick, and recover faster when we do come down with something.

What is the immune system made of?

What is the immune system made of?

Our immune systems are not made up of just one organ or a single type of cell and it doesn’t reside in a particular location. Instead, it’s an orchestrated collective of many cells, tissues and body systems throughout the body.

To make it simple, the immune system has two arms. One arm is ‘always on’ – ready to go despite what might be thrown at it. It doesn’t recognise any particular pathogen and react accordingly, it just blocks, breaks or destroys anything that isn’t ‘us’. This is known as the ‘innate’ or ‘non-specific’ immune system. 

The second arm activates once these intruders get past the first arm which has sounded an alarm. It involves an army of soldiers recruited to fight the enemy. What makes it special is that it can recognise different types of enemies and remember the best way to fight it in future. This is called the ‘adaptive’ of ‘specific’ immune system.  It gets better and faster at fighting pathogens it’s fought before.

So how does it work?

The first arm – our ‘always on’ immune system includes physical defences like our skin and mucous membranes, and the secretions it produces containing acids, enzymes and sticky mucous. It also includes particular cells that randomly seek out anything foreign to destroy and inflammatory signals that produce body-wide alarms like a fever.

The second arm comprises an army of soldiers called white blood cells. These white blood cells take a variety of different forms.  Some make antibodies – the little particles that tag invaders as ‘the bad guy’.  Others act as look-outs, surveying the chemical soup of our bodies and watching out for bad guys to tag.  Some become ‘memory’ cells to recognise an invader to fight faster the next time. And some become assassins actively killing invaders

What role does our gut play in the immune system?

Basically, your gut is where the outside world meets the inside world of our body.  That tube from mouth to bottom is actually really large in terms of surface area. It’s equal to about the size of half a badminton court! Because of the food and liquids we take in, our gut encounters masses of foreign substances every day. So it makes sense that a lot of our immune surveillance would be stationed in the gut.  In fact, around 70% of our bodies entire immune system is associated with the gut. Plus, the trillions of friendly bacteria in our gut also helps support a healthy immune system too.

How can I tell if my immune system is working?

How can I tell if my immune system is working?

A healthy, robust immune system should help protect you from catching every bug that’s going around.  It also means you bounce back quicker when you do fall ill. 

But having a strong immune system doesn’t mean you should never get sick! Activating an immune response is important as it strengthens the immune system to remember and fight back harder next time. Never getting sick can actually be as unhealthy as always getting sick because this can indicate a system too depleted to mount an appropriate response.

Having a cold or flu every year or two is actually quite normal and healthy. Your symptoms may be quite intense but they pass quickly and resolve completely.  This means your immune system has the vitality to leap into action quickly and the strength to recover fully.

What happens if my immune system isn’t working properly?

If you do catch every bug or infection going, it can be a sign of a weakened immune system. You may feel run down and overworked. So if you feel under pressure, under the weather, tired, or just plain not well – then take heart! You can turn this around. It’s all too easy with our busy lives to choose convenience over the healthier choice sometimes.  And even too many late nights can take a toll!  Helping to turn low immunity around means looking at your lifestyle and making healthier choices where you can.  But don’t put too much pressure on yourself! Stress is a big one for lowering our immunity too. 

So, how can you support a healthy immune response?

So, how can you support a healthy immune response?

A big one that is often overlooked is getting plenty of good rest.  When you’re unwell, don’t try to ‘soldier on’ – stay home and rest! Sleep is the time for our bodies to heal and repair, and we need that even more when we’re under the weather. 

Eating fresh foods that are minimally processed and ensuring you are getting the full spectrum of nutrients in your diet is also key. Protein, minerals and vitamins are the raw materials that make our immune systems work.  Fill up on these! 

Sometimes we also have to remove the roadblocks to good health as well. We all have unhealthy habits we would rather we didn’t – so taking stock of yours and working on reducing or removing them is a great first start. This might mean ditching alcohol or cigarettes, giving up favourite ‘junk’ foods that aren’t fuelling you or even just stopping to smell the roses more often. In fact, stress is one of the biggest culprits of a depleted immune system – so, slowing down and breathing deeply can work wonders to improve immune health.