Understanding your immune system will help you take the needed steps to strengthen its ability to protect you from disease causing pathogens, like harmful viruses, bacteria, and mutated cells that can lead to cancer.
While your immune system is extremely complex, and involves multiple organ systems, it overall function is pretty simple. It’s designed to protect you from infection and “unhealthy cells.”
Unhealthy cells are cells that have been damaged in some way. They can be inflated by microbes such as viruses and bacteria. Or by DNA damage leading to precancerous and then cancer cells.
And while the mission of your immune system is to protect you from illness, the deployment of your immune system is like a military operation. This involves numerous cell types that either circulate throughout your body. Or reside in specific areas as an early warning defense system.
What is key to this whole operation is communication.
Like in a real war, the first places that are targeted for destruction are the communication operations. If these areas are destroyed or damaged, then the enemy (in this case the pathogen) increases its ability to cause cellular destruction.
To help you in understanding your immune system let’s first start with the various bases of operation.
Bone Marrow: Your immune system starts in the bone marrow from stem cells that then develop into mature immune cells. This conversation can take place in the bone marrow. As well as other key locations throughout the body.
These stem cells will go down one of two pathways.
Pathway One is the myeloid lineage which fuels the innate immune system. This branch of the immune system is for general protection against common pathogens. And through this branch or pathway we get the following immune cells:
These cells are considered “the first responders” to infection.
Pathway Two is the lymphoid lineage while fuels the adaptive immune system. This branch of the immune system develops throughout our lives. As we are exposed to specific harmful viruses and bacteria, your immune system will develop specific cells that are designed to destroy these invaders.
This branch of your immune system gives rise to:
B and T cells – they initiate responses to specific microbes based on previous encounters or what is called immunological memory. Or they are created and programmed to respond to new pathogens to help protect you from serious illness.
NK Cells – these are the Natural Killer cells and their function is to do exact what they are called. Kill the pathogen so that it cannot replicate and continue to sicken your body. Sometimes these cells are also referred to as lymphocytes.
Skin: This is your first line of defense against microbes. Your skin is your largest organ. So making sure your skin is healthy with a good blood supply is key in protecting you from pathogens. Plus your skin will produce and secrete key antimicrobial proteins to help defend you.
Bloodstream: Immune cells circulate throughout your bloodstream. When blood tests are done specific immune cells, like white blood cells, are monitored to give a snapshot of your immune system. If the blood test shows that the readings for these various components are lower and higher than the normal range, then further tests will be done to see if there is a problem inside your body.
Thymus: This is a small organ located in your upper chest. One of its functions is to help T cells mature.
Lymphatic system: This is a network of vessels and tissues that help rid your body of toxins, waste, and other unwanted materials. One of its primary functions is to transport lymph, which is a fluid that contains infection-fighting white blood cells.
Within your lymphatic system are lymph nodes. They are communication hubs where immune cells sample the material in the lymphatic system. If these immune cells recognize a piece of a pathogen brought from another part of the body, they will then respond to that pathogen piece.
Their response is to activate, replicate, and then leave the lymph node to circulate, find, and address that pathogen.
If you’re lymph nodes are swollen, then it can be an indication that your body has started to active this immune response.
Spleen: Located behind the stomach, it is used by your body to process information from the bloodstream. When blood-borne pathogens are recognized, the spleen will then activate and enriched immune cells to help in the fight to control and rid the body of this pathogen.
Mucosal tissue: These are primary entry points for pathogens. These mucosal tissues are located in two primary areas:
They contain specialized immune hubs to quickly mobilize your immune system to defend you from these pathogens. It is estimated that 70 to 80 percent of your active immune system is determined by your gut microbiome. Which makes your gut health extremely important to your overall immune system response.
In understanding your immune system we also want to talk about specific immune cells. This can become extremely complicated so here is a general overview:
Basophils and eosinophils help protect you against parasites.
Neutrophils are the most common innate immune cells and circulate in your bloodstream. They can ingest bacteria and degrade them inside special compartments called vesicles.
They are also key in protecting you from infections due to injury.
Monocytes develop into macrophages. Macrophages can be found in both the bloodstream and surround tissue. They ingest and degrade bacteria. And when activated they coordinate with monocytes to communicate with other immune cells to notify them of a potential problem. Macrophages also recycle dead cells like red blood cells and help to clear away cellular debris.
Dendritic cells create antigen molecules to help identify and locate pathogens and allergens. They help the adaptive immune B and T cells better identify these pathogens and allergens for destruction.
Natural killer cell recognize and kill virus-infected and tumor cells. And they can do this in a way that doesn’t cause additional damage to the surrounding healthy tissue.
B cells produce antibodies to help neutralize infectious microbes. Antibodies serve three major functions in your immune system:
Function 1 is neutralization which covers the pathogen in antibodies so that the pathogen cannot bind to and then infect other cells.
Function 2 is to serve as a red flag to alert neutrophils and macrophages to engulf and digest the pathogen.
Function 3 is to complement the process of directly destroying bacteria.
T cells have a variety of roles and can get extremely complicated. In a nut shell they help kill infected cells. Plus they are key to the communication process of the immune system to activate and recruit other immune cells to help eliminate the pathogen.
As you can see your immune system is extremely complex and multifaceted. Because of this no one nutritional component is key to its operation. Rather, various ingredients and nutrients are needed to help optimize your immune system and its response to pathogens.
Future articles will examine these nutrients to help further your understanding your immune system.
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