Know your im­mune sys­tem

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THE IM­MUNE sys­tem is a com­plex net­work of cells, tis­sues, or­gans and chem­i­cals that work to­gether to pro­tect the body. It’s the body’s se­cu­rity force, and nor­mally co­ex­ists peace­fully with the other or­gans and cells of the body. When func­tion­ing well, the im­mune sys­tem does an amazing job to dis­tin­guish be­tween the bod­ies own healthy cells and dam­aged ab­nor­mal cells, germs and other harm­ful sub­stances.

The or­gans of the im­mune sys­tem are called lym­phoid or­gans be­cause they house special white blood cells called lym­pho­cytes, im­por­tant com­po­nents of the im­mune sys­tem. These or­gans in­clude the bone mar­row, the thy­mus gland, the spleen and the lymph nodes.

Masses of lym­phoid tis­sue are found around the di­ges­tive and res­pi­ra­tory tracts – ma­jor pas­sages that con­nect the in­side of the body to the out­side en­vi­ron­ment. Other lym­phoid tis­sues in­clude the ton­sils, ade­noids, and the ap­pen­dix.

Any­thing that trig­gers the im­mune sys­tem to re­sponse is called an anti­gen. An anti­gen can be a germ such as a virus, a can­cer cell or just an alien chem­i­cal. On the other hand, the im­mune sys­tem pro­duces special sub­stances to neu­tralise or de­stroy of­fend­ing anti­gens. These are called an­ti­bod­ies.

IM­MUNE SYS­TEM DIS­OR­DERS Un­der­ac­tive im­mune sys­tem

When a per­son’s im­mune sys­tem is un­der­ac­tive, his de­fences are low and he be­comes prone to dis­eases like var­i­ous kinds of in­fec­tions and can­cers. HIV/AIDS is a classic ex­am­ple of what hap­pens with an un­der­ac­tive im­mune sys­tem.

Over­ac­tive im­mune sys­tem:

Usu­ally, al­ler­gic dis­or­ders oc­cur when the im­mune sys­tem re­sponds to a false alarm. In an al­ler­gic per­son, nor­mally harm­less ma­te­rial such as grass pollen, some foods, mould, or house dust mites is mis­taken for a threat and is at­tacked. Here, the im­mune sys­tem cre­ates an­ti­bod­ies to these rel­a­tively be­nign sub­stances, and special cells re­lease a sub­stance called his­tamine that pro­duces the symp­toms of an al­lergy are of­ten used. That is why drugs called an­ti­his­tamines are of­ten used to treat al­ler­gies.

The crazy im­mune sys­tem

When the im­mune sys­tem goes berserk and launches an at­tack against the body’s own healthy cells or tis­sues, a special group of ill­nesses called au­toim­mune dis­eases oc­cur. Here, the im­mune sys­tem’s recog­ni­tion ap­pa­ra­tus breaks down, and the body be­gins to dam­age and de­stroy its own tis­sues and or­gans. As a re­sult, dis­eases like lu­pus, rheuma­toid arthri­tis, thy­roid dis­or­ders, type 1 di­a­betes or sev­eral skin dis­or­ders like sclero­derma or vi­tiligo, to name just a few, are cre­ated.

PRE­VENT THEM

These con­di­tions can be very chal­leng­ing for doc­tors to treat, but for­tu­nately there are many things that we can do to pre­vent them and keep the im­mune sys­tem healthy and func­tional.

Avoid tox­ins

Mankind to­day is ex­posed to an alarm­ing ar­ray of un­healthy sub­stances in the food we eat, the wa­ter we drink, the air we breathe and the var­i­ous things we ap­ply to our skin and hair. Thou­sands and thou­sands of harm­ful chem­i­cals now pol­lute our en­vi­ron­ment. They stress the im­mune sys­tem and can cause it to mal­func­tion.

Par­tic­u­larly com­mon tox­ins in­clude the chem­i­cals added to some pro­cessed foods and drinks, ci­garette smoke, ex­cess al­co­hol, pre­scrip­tion and non­pre­scrip­tion drugs, and in­dus­trial chem­i­cals.

We need to avoid these tox­ins as much as pos­si­ble. It is also an im­por­tant pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sure to do a cleans­ing or detox­i­fi­ca­tion pro­gramme a few times each year.

Prac­tise good nu­tri­tion

A prop­erly func­tion­ing im­mune sys­tem is de­pen­dent on good bal­anced nu­tri­tion. Doc­tors have long recog­nised that mal­nu­tri­tion leads to im­mun­od­e­fi­ciency, but it is now clear that over­nu­tri­tion is now an even big­ger fac­tor ad­versely af­fect­ing im­mune func­tion. Even mod­er­ate nu­tri­tional im­bal­ance, in­volv­ing the lack of spe­cific trace min­er­als and nu­tri­ents, can mas­sively com­pro­mise the im­mune re­sponse.

For ex­am­ple, a de­fi­ciency of the min­eral se­le­nium greatly in­creases one’s risk of in­fec­tions like HIV and some can­cers. And spe­cific foods like fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles rich in phy­tonu­tri­ents and an­tiox­i­dants, and foods high in healthy es­sen­tial fatty acids will fos­ter a healthy im­mune sys­tem.

Use nat­u­ral im­mune boost­ers

The an­tiox­i­dants are im­por­tant im­mune en­hancers. The ACES – vi­ta­mins A,C, E and se­le­nium – are prime ex­am­ples. Ad­e­quate vi­ta­min D3 from sun­shine or sup­ple­ments pro­vides enor­mous ben­e­fits to the im­mune sys­tem. In com­ple­men­tary medicine, sev­eral herbs such as echi­nacea, gold­enseal, schizan­dra, rose­mary, green tea, licorice, gin­seng, as­tra­galus, aloe vera, sage, gar­lic, as well as honey are known to en­hance the im­mune sys­tem.

Medic­i­nal mush­rooms like shi­itake, and maitake strengthen im­mune sys­tem func­tion. Re­search sug­gests that a par­tic­u­lar com­pound in the mush­rooms called beta-glu­cans is re­spon­si­ble. These mush­rooms are avail­able in a pop­u­lar sup­ple­ment called cell ac­ti­va­tor.

Con­trol stress

The im­mune sys­tem and the ner­vous sys­tem are closely linked. In­ter­est­ingly, the body pro­duces its own im­mune sys­tem sup­pres­sant, a steroid hor­mone called cor­ti­sone that is pro­duced in large amounts by the adrenal glands dur­ing se­vere stress. Sus­tained high lev­els of cor­ti­sone de­press the im­mune sys­tem and this is one big rea­son why stressed in­di­vid­u­als are more prone to in­fec­tions and can­cer. Ad­e­quate rest­ful sleep is also crit­i­cal for a bal­anced im­mune sys­tem.

Para­dox­i­cally, chronic stress can also con­trib­ute to the im­mune sys­tem mal­func­tion­ing and cause al­ler­gies and au­toim­mune dis­ease.

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