10 Things You (Likely) Don't Know About Your Immune System

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Once the weather cools off, discussions shift from a run down of the pollen count and other allergens to the importance of shoring up the immune system. But what are we really talking about when we discuss the immune system and can we really fine-tune it to ward off illness?

To enjoy these fun facts, perhaps it’s best to first head back to school and gain a better understanding of the immune system…

Open your textbooks kids, it’s time to learn:

On the most basic level, the immune system is a complex system of organs, tissues, cells, and cell products that neutralize potentially pathogenic organisms or substances.

The immune system is essentially a three-layer system:

  1. At its most basic is the skin and mucous membranes, which act as a physical barrier to prevent invasion from foreign bodies and other antigens, such as parasites, bacteria, viruses and toxins.
  2. The second layer is known as the innate immune system, a broad-acting, short-term, non-specific immune response to pathogens such as bacteria or viruses.
  3. A third layer, meanwhile, is the most complex. At its root is a population of white blood cells known as lymphocytes that have a cellular membrane embedded with thousands of identical receptors that are used to recognize and bind to specific antigens and mount an immune response locally. However, if the infection is too large, the lymphocytes secrete a molecule that alerts helper T cells that combine with the molecule as well as fragments of antigens to form a type of cell called a lymphoblast, which then secrete a variety of interleukins that provides a more powerful type of immune response. These cells can also promote the growth of cytotoxic T cells, which are thought to destroy tumorous cells or cells infected with viruses. A third class of immune cells, known as phagocytes, meanwhile, work by engulfing microbes or other unwanted products in the bloodstream. The main phagocyte is the macrophage, which literally means “big eater,” based on its ability to gobble up foreign substances.

Alright, and on to the fun facts….

Antibacterial Affinity

Think slathering on the antibacterial soap will help protect you — and your immune system — from damage? In a previous post Mark discussed the concept of living in a “sanitized world” and determined that in many cases, antibacterial products can actually hinder as opposed to help the immune system. Specifically, the frequent hand washing can break down the natural oils on the skin that serve as the first line (or layer) of defense for the immune system. In addition, overuse of these products opens the door for the creation of super-bugs, or strains of common viruses and bacteria that have adapted and grown stronger against our antibacterial-agenda, that can prove fatal.

Let’s Get It On

A study conducted by researchers at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania suggest that having sex can shore up supplies of IGA, a protein from the immune system that plays a critical role in keeping pathogens from entering the body and helps them mount an attack in the event that they enter.

It’s the Simple Things

Need an immunity boost? A study of 100 men conducted by researchers at the medical school of the State University of New York at Stony Brook finds that “positive events of the day seem to have a stronger helpful impact on immune function than upsetting events do a negative one.” Furthermore, the study revealed that “having a good time on Monday still had a positive effect on the immune system by Wednesday”; the negative immune effect from undesirable events, however, lasts only one day. What did these men list as negative events? According to the New York Times, the biggest setback to immune function was caused by work problems from criticism by one’s boss and frustrating or irritating encounters with fellow employees. The Times also notes that “burdensome chores like irksome errands or annoying home maintenance tasks” also made the list. Topping the pleasurable list? Leisure activities including fishing and jogging.

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