(Jamaica Gleaner) Wednesday, 30 November 2016
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 auto-immune 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.
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.
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.
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.