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Immune System: On The Defensive


What Does The Immune System Do?

The immune system's function is to provide immunity - the body's innate ability to counter infections. We all have both natural and specific immunity. Natural immunity produces quick-acting, all-purpose cells which are released as the first line of defence against pathogens (organisms that cause diseases, for example viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites).

There may be fever and swelling at this stage. At the same time, a delayed response (called specific immunity) is produced by the body against specific target pathogens (those viruses, bacteria and parasites). The cells involved in specific immunity help the body create a memory of past defence against a disease. When the body recognises a repeat pathogen, it calls up the memory and sets out to destroy the invader before the disease develops.

Are Some People Just Born With A Stronger Immune System Than Others?

Most individuals are not born with a stronger immune system. Rather it is more likely to have people born with a weaker immune system, showing either low production of antibodies, or production of low levels of antibodies in response to certain diseases, such as cancer. If the person is born with HIV/AIDS or autoimmune disease, naturally he has a weaker immune system than others.

However, environmental and behavioral factors affect the strength of the immune system. Thus, high stress levels, unhealthy interpersonal relationships, poor nutrition, poor hygiene, promiscuity, lack of exercise, smoking, excessive drinking, lack of sleep all contribute to decrease one's natural immunity.

Thus, when one is down with the flu, doctors commonly prescribe "getting adequate rest" (about a minimum of eight hours a day) as part of the treatment. Certain medications can also cause a drop in immune levels. These include carbamazepine (for thyroid disorders), immunosuppressants and antibiotics. Such drops are mostly seen if the medication is taken for more than two weeks.

Why Do We Need To Have A Healthy Immune System?

A healthy immune system not only helps to protect, but also limits the damage done by attacking viruses or pathogens. It is also important in aiding the body's natural ability to heal from injuries.

What Changes Can We Make To What We Eat To Improve The Immune System?

Choose a diet low in red meat and high in fish, fruit, whole and fortified grains and vegetables. Target colorful fruit and vegetables, particularly blueberries and broccoli, as they contain higher amounts of antioxidants which help to reduce the free radical/ oxidative damage done to the tissues in the body. Change the way you cook the food. Cut down on deep-fried and barbecued foods. Boil, grill, stir-fry or steam instead. Reduce the amount of processed food eaten.

What Changes Can We Make To What We Drink To Improve The Immune System?

What changes can we make to what we drink to improve the immune system? Include a cup of black or green tea a day as it is rich in polyphenols plus other antioxidants which help combat free radicals that can cause DNA abnormalities and accelerate ageing. A yogurt drink may be consumed particularly after you have been prescribed antibiotics. Look for brands that contain active cultures, for example the good bacteria, lactobacillus.

If you love booze, do limit the amount and choose the type of alcoholic beverage wisely. A glass of wine a day or a can of beer a day is all right, but amounts in excess of that impair the absorption of B vitamins and zinc, causing less effective liver functioning, which in turn affects the immune system. It is generally well accepted that red wines provide better health benefits than others. 

Should We Include Vitamins Or Mineral Supplements And If So, Which Ones?

The most common vitamins and minerals used by the body to build immunity include the vitamin B-complex group, vitamins A, C, E, folic acid, iron, zinc and selenium. Although supplementation is not necessary if you are healthy and eating wisely from all food groups, the hectic and stressful schedules of most urbanites (though healthy) may result in improper eating habits.

This may result in decreased absorption of essential nutrients necessary for optimal body functions from food. As a result, supplementation may be required. This is especially so if you tend to eat more processed food (canned food, frozen takeaways), suffer from malnourishment or are elderly. Then, supplementation with a multivitamin containing all essential vitamins and minerals is advised, rather than stocking up on specific ones.

What Effect Does Smoking Have On The Immune System?

Cigarettes contain more than 4,000 chemicals, of which 400 have been identified to be poisonous and 40 cancer-causing. Some of these chemicals increase the risk of infections as the immune system is constantly overloaded with pathogens. Some chemicals can also cause the normal cells to become abnormal, thus changing the behavior of these cells. These effects are also seen in passive smokers who inhale second-hand smoke. However, the good news is that the immunity slowly increases within 30 days after quitting smoking.

What Effect Does Stress Have On The Immune System?

A recent major new "meta-analysis" a study of studies - (by psychologists Suzanne Segerstrom, University of Kentucky, and Gregory Miller, University of British Columbia,) has elucidated intriguing patterns of how stress affects human immunity, strengthening it in the short term but wearing it down over time.

This is because short-term stress actually "revs up" the immune system, an adaptive response preparing for injury or infection, but long-term or chronic stress causes too much wear and tear, and the system breaks down. It was also found that the immune systems of people who are older or already sick are more prone to stress-related change as the body is not able to self-regulate the normal function and proliferation of cells.

What Effect Does The Lack Of Sleep Have On The Immune System?

Research suggests that sleep loss may put you at a higher risk of infection by lowering your body's natural resistance to illness. In surveys in which respondents classified their insomnia as "serious", such respondents reported multiple health problems. Even patients who had difficulty falling asleep, needing at least two hours to fall asleep every night, had greater use of medical services. Research also suggests that the efficacy of flu vaccinations may be compromised in the short term in people who do not get adequate sleep. This could be because the preventive and recuperative functions of sleep are lost.

Are There Any Other Benefits To Having A Strong Immune System?

You will feel better, look better, have less chance of allergic triggering eczema, asthma and so on, and you'll have a better quality of life.

 

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