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The Immune System

What Does The Immune System Do?

Your body is constantly under attack from things that are trying to do it harm such as toxins, bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses.

The purpose of the immune system is to act as your body’s army and defend against this constant stream of invaders.

The Immune System

What Makes Up The Immune System?

The immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body against invaders.

The cells involved are white blood cells, or leukocytes, which seek out and destroy disease-causing organisms or substances.

Leukocytes are produced by bone marrow and are also stored in many locations in the body, including the thymus, spleen, lymph nodes and Peyer’s Patches (which protect the interior of the intestines).

The leukocytes circulate through the body between the organs and nodes via lymphatic vessels and blood vessels.

There are two basic types of leukocytes:

  • Phagocytes

    There are a number of different phagocyte cells. The most common type is the neutrophil which primarily fights bacteria. Other types of phagocytes have their own jobs to make sure the body responds appropriately to a specific type of invader.

  • Lymphocytes

    The two kinds of lymphocytes are B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes. Lymphocytes start out in the bone marrow and either stay there and mature into B cells, or they leave for the thymus gland, where they mature into T cells. B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes have separate functions: B lymphocytes are like the body’s military intelligence system, seeking out their targets and sending defenses to lock onto them. T cells are like the soldiers, destroying the invaders that the intelligence system has identified.

    It is the lymphocytes that allow your body to recognize previous invaders and to help destroy them if they reappear.

Your immune system also includes your Adenoids and your Tonsils, which trap harmful bacteria and viruses that you breathe in or swallow.

How Does The Immune System Work?

When pathogens (organisms capable of producing disease) attempt to get into the body, they first must get past the body’s external armor, mainly the skin or cells lining the body’s internal passageways.

The skin provides an imposing barrier to invading microbes. It is generally penetrable only through cuts or abrasions.

5 Interesting Facts About The Immune System

  1. Getting under 5 hours of sleep a night has been shown to greatly depress immune function in your body. Seven or eight hours of sleep each night is ideal.

  2. Studies show that people who lack humor in their lives tend to have less protective immune responses.

  3. While the body needs some sunlight to produce vitamin D, too much sunshine can suppress the immune system.

  4. As soon as one month after quitting smoking, smokers can strengthen the immune system.

  5. The number one way to boost the immune system is to reduce stress.

The digestive and respiratory tracts — both portals of entry for a number of pathogens — also have their own protection. Pathogens entering the nose often cause the nasal surfaces to secrete more protective mucus, and attempts to enter the nose or lungs can trigger a sneeze or cough reflex to force microbial invaders out of the respiratory passageways. In addition, the stomach contains a strong acid that destroys many pathogens that are swallowed with food.

If pathogens survive the body’s front-line defenses, they still have to find a way through the walls of the digestive, respiratory, or urogenital passageways to the underlying cells. These passageways are lined with tightly packed epithelial cells covered in a layer of mucus, effectively blocking the transport of many pathogens into deeper cell layers

Mucosal surfaces also secrete a special class of antibody called IgA, which in many cases is the first type of antibody to encounter an invading pathogen.

When pathogens are detected by your body, several types of cells work together to recognize them and respond. These cells trigger the B lymphocytes to produce antibodies, specialized proteins that lock onto specific antigens (proteins on the surface of pathogens).

Once produced, these antibodies continue to exist in a person’s body, so that if the same antigen is presented to the immune system again, the antibodies are already there to do their job. So if someone gets sick with a certain disease, like chickenpox, that person typically doesn’t get sick from it again.

This is also how immunizations prevent certain diseases. An immunization introduces the body to an antigen in a way that doesn’t make someone sick, but does allow the body to produce antibodies that will then protect the person from future attack by the germ or substance that produces that particular disease.

Although antibodies can recognize an antigen and lock onto it, they are not capable of destroying it without help. That’s the job of the T cells, which are part of the system that destroys antigens that have been tagged by antibodies or cells that have been infected or somehow changed. (Some T cells are actually called “killer cells.”) T cells also are involved in helping signal other cells (like phagocytes) to do their jobs.

Antibodies also can neutralize toxins (poisonous or damaging substances) produced by different organisms. Lastly, antibodies can activate a group of proteins called complement that are also part of the immune system. Complement assists in killing bacteria, viruses, or infected cells.

All of these specialized cells and parts of the immune system offer the body protection against disease. This protection is called immunity.

Humans have three types of immunity — innate, adaptive, and passive:

  • Innate Immunity

    Everyone is born with innate (or natural) immunity, a type of general protection. Many of the germs that affect other species don’t harm us. For example, the viruses that cause leukemia in cats or distemper in dogs don’t affect humans. Innate immunity works both ways because some viruses that make humans ill — such as the virus that causes HIV/AIDS — don’t make cats or dogs sick.

  • Adaptive Immunity

    The second kind of protection is adaptive (or active) immunity, which develops throughout our lives. Adaptive immunity involves the lymphocytes and develops as people are exposed to diseases or immunized against diseases through vaccination.

  • Passive Immunity

    Passive immunity is “borrowed” from another source and it lasts for a short time. For example, antibodies in a mother’s breast milk provide a baby with temporary immunity to diseases the mother has been exposed to. This can help protect the baby against infection during the early years of childhood.

What Can Go Wrong With Your Immune System?

Allergic Diseases

The most common types of allergic diseases occur when the immune system responds to a false alarm. In an allergic person, a normally harmless material such as grass pollen, food particles, mold, or house dust mites is mistaken for a threat and attacked.

Autoimmune Diseases

Sometimes the immune system’s recognition apparatus breaks down, and the body begins to manufacture T cells and antibodies directed against its own cells and tissues. As a result, healthy cells and tissues are destroyed.

Misguided T cells and autoantibodies, as they are known, contribute to many autoimmune diseases. For instance, T cells that attack certain kinds of cells in the pancreas contribute to a form of diabetes, whereas an autoantibody known as rheumatoid factor is common in people with rheumatoid arthritis. People with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) have antibodies to many types of their own cells and cell components.

Immune Complex Diseases

Immune complexes are clusters of interlocking antigens and antibodies. Normally, immune complexes are rapidly removed from the bloodstream. Sometimes, however, they continue to circulate and eventually become trapped in the tissues of the kidneys, lungs, skin, joints, or blood vessels. There, they set off reactions with complement that lead to inflammation and tissue damage. Immune complexes work their mischief in many diseases including malaria and viral hepatitis, as well as many autoimmune diseases.

Immune Deficiency Disorders

When the immune system is missing one or more of its parts, the result is an immune deficiency disorder. These disorders can be inherited, acquired through infection, or produced as a side effect by drugs such as those used to treat people with cancer or those who have received transplants.

Temporary immune deficiencies can develop in the wake of common virus infections, including influenza, infectious mononucleosis, and measles. Immune responses can also be depressed by blood transfusions, surgery, malnutrition, smoking, and stress.

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is an immune deficiency disorder caused by a virus (HIV) (human immunodeficiency virus) that infects immune cells. HIV can destroy or disable vital T cells, paving the way for a variety of immunologic shortcomings. The virus also can hide out for long periods in immune cells. As the immune defenses falter, a person develops AIDS and falls prey to unusual, often life-threatening infections and rare cancers.

How Do Your Keep Your Immune System Healthy?

To keep your Immune system healthy, follow these 3 rules:

  1. Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet. A well-balanced diet with healthy proteins, complex carbohydrates, and good fats can effectively boost your immune system.

  2. Exercise. Exercise decreases your chance of infection by slowing the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

  3. Wash your hands regularly. Proper hand washing is the most effective barrier against the spread of infectious diseases. This article explains the proper way to wash your hands. There is even a video.

This article is part of a series called “Your Body: An Owner’s Manual” which explains how your body systems work and how to maintain them. The first article in the series included a picture of my wife, fitness coach Kathie Lamir, who exemplifies a healthy body. Pictures of Kathie were so well received that I have included one with each article in the series

Personal Trainer Kathie Lamir Tries Archery

Your Body: An Owner’s Manual

There was a time when I didn’t know much more about the human body than that my wife’s was beautiful!

Fitness Guru Kathie LamirSee what I mean?

How strange, I thought. We only get one body. It has to last a lifetime. And the better it works, the better we feel. Why wouldn’t we want to know everything about how it works and how to maintain it?

Yet most of us don’t. We know more about the insides of our car than how our body functions.

Maybe that’s because cars come with owner’s manuals, but your body doesn’t.

Well, problem solved.

This article introduces a 12-part series that will explain how your body works. This series is the instruction manual for your body that you never got.

This initial article will briefly describe the 11 human body systems.

Articles about each of the body systems will follow, one a day. Each article will answer these questions . . .

  1. What Does The System Do?

  2. What Makes Up The System?

  3. How Does The System Work?

  4. What Can Go Wrong With The System?

  5. How Do You Keep The System Healthy?

And each article will include “5 Interesting Facts About The System.”

Before starting this discussion of our body systems, however, you must understand that dividing your body into 11 systems for the purpose of studying them does not mean that they are independent systems. Far from it, they are interconnected and dependent on each other.

In fact, some body parts are part of multiple systems. For example, the long bones (like the femur) are not only part of the skeletal system, but they are also part of the circulatory system because they manufacture blood cells. And the ovaries are part of the endocrine system as well as the reproductive system. More about all of this later . . .

These are the 11 main human body systems, presented in alphabetical order.

Circulatory System

The circulatory system is made up of your heart, blood vessels and blood. Your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood from your left ventricle into your biggest artery, the aorta. From there, the aorta branches into smaller arteries, which then branch into even-smaller arteries that travel all over the body. When blood reaches the smallest blood vessels, called capillaries, an exchange occurs. Oxygen, nutrients and hormones are deposited into the cells and waste material from the cells, such as carbon dioxide, is collected for the return trip to the heart.

Veins carry the blood back to the heart where it enters the right atria, passes through the right ventricle and is sent to your lungs where, in capillaries in the lungs, the waste carbon dioxide is deposited and oxygen is picked up. The newly oxygenated blood returns to the heart and, this time, it enters the left atria. From there it goes to the left ventricle and, from there, it is pumped again .

Click here to learn more about your circulatory system.

Digestive System

Your digestive system consists of organs that break down food into the protein, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and fats that your body uses for energy and for building and repairing cells and tissues.

Food passes from your mouth down through a muscular tube called the esophagus, and into the stomach, where food continues to be broken down. The partially digested food passes into the small intestines where it is broken down into nutrients which enter the bloodstream through tiny hair-like projections called villi. The liver, the gallbladder and the pancreas produce enzymes and substances that help with digestion in the small intestine.

The last section of the digestive tract is the large intestine, which includes the cecum, colon, and rectum. Indigestible remains of food are eliminated through the anus.

Click here to learn more about your digestive system.

Endocrine System

The endocrine system is made up of a group of glands that produce the body’s long-distance messengers, or hormones. Hormones are chemicals that control body functions such as metabolism, growth, and sexual development. The glands, which include the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, adrenal glands, pineal body, pancreas, ovaries, and testes, release hormones directly into the bloodstream, which transports the hormones to organs and tissues throughout the body.

Click here to learn more about your endocrine system.

Immune System

The immune system is our body’s defense system against infections and diseases. Organs, tissues, cells, and cell products work together to respond to dangerous organisms (like viruses or bacteria) and substances that may enter the body from the environment.

An anatomic response physically prevents threatening substances from entering your body. Examples of the anatomic system include the mucous membranes and the skin. If substances do get by, the inflammatory response goes on attack.

The inflammatory system works by excreting the invaders from your body. Sneezing, runny noses, and fever are examples of the inflammatory system at work.

When the inflammatory response fails, the immune response goes to work. This is the central part of the immune system and it is made up of white blood cells, which fight infection by gobbling up antigens. About a quarter of white blood cells, called the lymphocytes, migrate to the lymph nodes and produce antibodies which fight disease.

Click here to learn more about your immune system.

Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system has three main purposes. It removes excess fluid and waste products from the spaces between the cells and returns them to the blood stream. It aids the immune system in destroying and removing waste, debris, dead blood cells, pathogens, toxins, and cancer cells. And it also absorbs fats and fat-soluble vitamins from the digestive system and delivers these nutrients to be used by the cells of the body.

Click here to learn more about your lymphatic system.

Muscular System

The muscular system is made up of tissues that work with the skeletal system to control movement of the body. Some muscles—like the ones in your arms and legs—are voluntary, meaning that you decide when to move them. Other muscles, like the ones in your stomach, heart, intestines and other organs, are involuntary. This means that they are controlled automatically by the nervous system and hormones—you often don’t even realize they’re at work.

Muscles also generate heat to help regulate your body’s temperature and maintain your posture.

Click here to learn more about your muscular system.

Nervous System

The nervous system is the control system and the network of communication for your body.

Think of your brain as a central computer that controls all voluntary and involuntary bodily functions.

Your “computer” acts through a network that relays messages back and forth from the brain to different parts of the body.

This “network” consists of the spinal cord and nerves. The spinal cord runs from the brain down through the back to nerves which branch out to every organ and part of your body.

When a message comes into the brain from anywhere in the body, the brain tells the body how to react. For example, if you accidentally touch a hot stove, the nerves in your skin shoot a message of pain to your brain. The brain then sends a message back telling the muscles in your hand to pull away. Fortunately, all of this occurs lightning fast.

Click here to learn more about your nervous system.

Reproductive System

The reproductive system allows humans to produce children. Sperm from the male, which is produced in the testes, fertilizes the female’s egg, or ovum, in the fallopian tube. The fertilized egg travels from the fallopian tube to the uterus, where the fetus develops over a period of nine months.

Click here to learn more about your reproductive system.

Respiratory System

The respiratory system brings air into the body and removes carbon dioxide. It includes the nose, trachea, and lungs.

When you breathe in, air enters your nose or mouth and goes down a long tube called the trachea. The trachea branches into two bronchial tubes, or primary bronchi, which go to the lungs. The primary bronchi branch off into even smaller bronchial tubes, or bronchioles. The bronchioles end in the alveoli, or air sacs. Oxygen follows this path and passes through the walls of the air sacs and blood vessels and enters the blood stream. At the same time, carbon dioxide passes into the lungs and is exhaled.

Click here to learn more about your respiratory system.

Skeletal System

The skeletal system has a number of functions, some obvious and some less so. Of course, it supports your body and gives it structure.

However, in addition, your skeletal system works with the bones to allow movement, protects your internal organs, produces blood (in the bone marrow) and stores minerals such as calcium and phosphorous which it releases into the blood when necessary.

Click here to learn more about your skeletal system.

Urinary System

The urinary system eliminates waste from the body, as urine. The kidneys remove waste from the blood. The waste combines with water to form urine. From the kidneys, urine travels down two thin tubes called ureters to the bladder. When the bladder is full, urine is discharged through the urethra.

Click here to learn more about your urinary system.

Oh . . . if you want to learn more from the world’s greatest personal trainer, my wife Kathie Lamir, this is her website.