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>>Germs & My Immune System {video}

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Introduction of Innate and Adaptive Immune Responses (How can we enhance them naturally?)

The age old question continues, that is whether germs cause dis-ease or whether they take advantage of it. Perhaps it is both. Does trash make flies or are they attracted because they smell garbage? How do healthy cells repel attackers? How is it that some people recover quickly from an illness and some do not? It turns out that theses immune concepts are simple but the process is very complex. Here is a summary.

Humans have a multi-layer system that is designed to defend against the many microorganisms that have coexisted with us for thousands of years. Many factors affect how one’s body resists being invaded, including pathogenic opportunity, the environment, hygiene practices, the health of the host (and comorbidities), genetics, nutrition, age and of course one’s immune system.

Our body’s initial defense strategy is to limit exposure. It is programed to react and correct any unhealthy situation, for example, swatting a mosquito, sneezing/coughing at dust or vomiting bad food. Although limiting exposure to pathogens by using good hygiene, not smoking, physical distancing and protective equipment (when appropriate) is helpful, it can be overdone. It is actually helpful to allow exposure throughout life to the outside world so that one’s immune system can respond and develop a memory against potential microbes. Traveling down the birth canal, is our first healthy exposure, then crawling on the ground, being around pets, associating with other children, drinking spring/well water, gardening/touching dirty things, etc. Further explanations can be found in the book for parents Let Them Eat Dirt and other places.

Our body’s first line of defense against an invasion is a barrier to the outside world. Our skin (epithelium) provides a physical barrier between the inside and outside of our body. This layer is equipped with beneficial bacteria and oils (on our skin), sticky mucus (in the sinus and lung linings), tear enzymes, strong acid (in the stomach) and beneficial bacteria (in our gut) to repel and neutralize invading pathogens. Maintaining a healthy barrier is important. Membranes are helped by vitamins A, B, C, E, zinc, selenium, MSM, NAC, CoQ10, pre and probiotics and healthy dietary oils. Membranes can also be protected by limiting excess sun exposure and avoiding toxins and chemicals from personal care products, tobacco and poor quality food.

Our second defense against pathogens is the innate or cellular immune response. This non-specific, automatic, rapid process (within 24 hours) initiates an inflammatory response and calls crucial, white blood cell, first responders to the scene of infection (the wound, respiratory tract, gut lining, etc.). The first responders include Natural Killer cells (NK), Neutrophils, Macrophages and Dendritic Cells. With some overlap, each type of cell has special duties. (Viruses hijack our cells to reproduce, while bacteria and parasites can multiply on their own.)

Dendritic cells and macrophages patrol the body looking for signs of infection. They bind infected cells and expand the cell’s call for help using cytokines (signaling chemicals of which there many types). Macrophages (and NK) in the area secrete interferons (INF) which trigger both infected and uninfected cells to go into anti-viral (or anti-bacterial, etc.) response mode and inhibit replication. INF also calls more macrophages and immune cells such as NK and dendritic cells into action.

Natural killer cells that have been activated by INF and other cytokines (from macrophages and T helper cells, etc.) evaluate each cell when they arrive on scene. (Glyconutrients help this communication process.) If a cell is healthy, they move on. If not, then NK mark the infected cell for removal and attack and disable it with cytotoxic granules (perforin and granzymes). (Apoptosis is the term for natural cell suicide.) NK also use cytokines (INF, etc.) to amplify the immune response and call more dendritic cells and macrophages into action. Macrophages (and NK) also secrete tumor necrosis factor (TNF) to kill infected cells. Various immune cells (macrophages, monocytes, dendritic, etc.) consume (called phagocytosis) the sick and damaged cells. (Side note: Interleukin-6 (IL6) is a major pro-inflammatory cytokine produced by a number of cells at the site of infection. Balancing it is important. There are many interleukins.)

Our third defense is the adaptive or acquired immune response (which takes 7-10 days or longer to respond). The bone marrow creates custom made T and B lymphocytes. (T cells are finished in the thymus – which atrophies after age 65). T cells are either helper cells or cytotoxic killer cells. They secrete INF and other cytokines to boost NK and help both innate and adaptive immunity. Helper T cells communicate with B cells to stimulate them to produce antibodies. They also create memory T cells that can rapidly deploy later if this or a similar pathogen returns. B cells produce specific antibodies (Ig M, Ig G, etc.) that bind the pathogens and finish whatever the innate immune system and cytotoxic T cells were unable to resolve. (In some cases, the initial innate response is enough to stop the invaders.) B cells also create memory cells that can rapidly reproduce with that specific antibody as needed. While typical T and B cells last for weeks to months, some plasma memory cells are thought to last up to 60 years

Additionally, new immune cells are made and put into memory with subsequent infections. Further, there is some cross reaction from one pathogen to the next (i.e. exposure to one type of virus may cause resistance or possibly sensitivity to another similar virus). (See more discussion about this phenomena on our Immunity & Vaccine page.)

Many people have immune systems that are weakened and thrown out of balance by stress, nutrient poor and man-made foods, medications, environmental chemicals & pollution, lack of sleep or exercise, electromagnetic fields, and many health problems such as chronic pain, diabetes, obesity or high blood pressure. In fact, Cleveland Clinic reported that in one study only 12% of Americans were considered metabolically healthy - that would include their immune system.

For good health it is important to have an immune system that is both protective and balanced. A healthy system should not be overactive and intolerant (autoimmune) nor should it be unaware and passive (sickness). It should not be too aggressive (cytokine storm) nor should it be timid and ineffective (sickness). A healthy immune system should support a rapid, strong, prolonged response, a pathogen attack that is selective and a balanced, appropriate inflammatory reaction. A healthy system should eliminate invaders while limiting collateral damage and becoming calm again once the fight is over. Prolonged immune activity creates degenerative and autoimmune problems.

When cytokines are boosted in the circulation, they cause symptoms like fever, sleepiness, lethargy, muscle pain, nausea and loss of appetite. Natural practitioners call this the healing crisis. It is a sign that your body is working to rid your body of a pathogen and it makes you feel compelled to rest and eat less food (diverting healing energy to your recovery). The healing crisis can be assisted with natural remedies, rest, hydrotherapy and good nutrition. It is a response that is also important to monitor and support so that your body can recover without over reacting. (See details on our Cytokine Storm page.)

Immune function is supported by lowering stress, cold showers, exercise and sleep. Immune system modulators are foods or supplements that help balance (both strengthen and calm) such as: vitamins A, B, C, D, E & K, zinc, quercetin, selenium, calcium, magnesium, colostrum, L-glutamine, L-glycine, ALA, resveratrol, melatonin, NAC, CoQ10 and probiotics (e.g. Lactobacilus rhamnosus). 

Modulating herbs include: Echinacea, garlic, ginger, turmeric, panax ginseng, Ashwagandha, Cat’s Claw, peppermint, pleurisy root, chamomile and yarrow. Many of these are explained in the MATH+ videos on our Coronavirus Update June 2020 and you can look them up individually.

Also consider excellent herbs that help prepare the immune system but maybe should be discontinued during a severe infection: Andrographis, Astragalus, elderberry and medicinal mushrooms (i.e. reishi, maitake, and turkey tail).

This information is for educational purposes and is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. 

Please discuss any questions and concerns with your health care provider.

How Your Immune System Responds to Viruses by Harvard Medical School


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