No matter what time of year it is, there is always something “going around.” Your immune system is designed to protect us from these bugs and viruses; unfortunately our immune system was designed before the advent of air travel, superhighways, and high-speed trains. Sickness can travel quickly, so it is important to be vigilant.
Infection and Immunity: The Role of Your Immune System in Fighting Infections
These strategies exploit our knowledge of the immune system, allowing us to prepare for when we do come in contact with something that might make use ill. Here are some infection fighting strategies that can help.
- Maintain surveillance. The most important thing you can do to keep your guard up against disease and infection is to practice good hygiene. Wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer whenever you’ve been in a public area. Don’t bite your fingernails or pick your nose (or as I like to call these, “repeated self-inoculation”). Thoroughly wash your fruits and vegetables before you eat them. Be considerate of others: use tissues, cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough, and don’t shake people’s hands when you are sick.
- Put up walls. Did you know that your skin is the largest organ in your immune system? You probably don’t think of your skin as part of the immune system, but it provides a very real barrier to bacteria and viruses. To a virus, which may be as small as a millionth of a meter, a 1 millimeter cut on your hand is a mile-wide doorway to your body. That’s why it is important to keep your hands in good condition—sealing these barriers can stop a bacteria or virus from gaining entrance. And it is not just your hands. Mucus is a very real barrier in your nose and eyes, which is why you want to these lubricated if they are dry. And it is why you want to keep your gums in good shape. Most importantly, you want to make sure your digestive tract is in balance. This is where the bulk of your immune cells exist—and with good reason. You are constantly exposed to pathogens through eating and drinking. When your gut is not in balance, you might be more susceptible to infection. People with unhealthy digestive systems can get “leaky gut”, where microbes can enter their system more easily. Natural probiotic products can help maintain a balanced gut environment.
- Know your enemy. There are two components to the immune system: innate immunity and adaptive immunity. Innate immunity is the part of your immune system that can quickly react to a pathogen and produce a broad, non-specific immune response. Adaptive immunity takes a few days to develop, generating a highly targeted and potent response to a specific foreign invader. The two work in concert to help clear your body of infections. And when you do clear an infection, your body has a system to remember the invader. The next time you are exposed, you can fight off the infection more quickly, without many symptoms. We can prime the adaptive immune response to a pathogen—it’s called vaccination. With vaccination, you expose the body to a part of the pathogen, which will allow you to develop antibodies and cells that will attack the pathogen if you are ever exposed. Getting vaccinated is a very reliable way to build up your immune system and prevent specific infections.
- Counterattack quickly. Like people, classes of pathogens are both different and the same; that is, while one type of virus may look different to your immune system than another type of virus, there may be aspects of those two viruses that are the same. Additionally, those conserved features may be different from anything your body contains. For example, some bacteria have cell walls. Your cells do not have cell walls (they have what is called a plasma membrane—which is basically a bag to contain everything in your cell). Some bacteria that have cell walls have a type of sugar (lipopolysaccharide or LPS) on the outside that your cells don’t have. Now, your cells have developed a system to detect LPS and initiate an innate immune response when LPS is detected. This innate immune response helps make the cellular environment inhospitable for the pathogen. It also revs up the adaptive immune system so your body can start making a specific response to whatever you have been exposed to. LPS isn’t the only feature that triggers this response; there are many pathogen associated molecular patterns (or PAMPS) that can be recognized by pattern recognition receptors (or PRRs). We can exploit this feature by turning on this innate response either before or early in the infection process. Supplemental products that contain components PAMPs will quickly initiate this immune response, making your body an inhospitable place for any pathogens that enter your system.
Fortunately, these tactics are not mutually exclusive—you can use them together to help prevent unwanted infections. They have an additional bonus, too. Immunity at the population is called herd immunity—when most of the people in an area have strong defenses against a type of infection, the infection has a very hard time spreading. So when you use these strategies to maintain your health, you are not just ensuring that you feel great, you are helping the people around you feel great.