Our immune system, when healthy, is a bulwark against attacks from the outside. However, it can and should be trained, strengthened, honed. Want to understand the immune system better? Co-founder and product developer Sven explains it, boiled down to the essentials.
Viruses and bacteria are inevitable, but…
The immune system is a champion in the battle against pathogenic germs. Typifying the saying «what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger», the immune system actually trains itself through contact with each pathogen. And there’s plenty of opportunity: from the perspective of in vitro scientists, at least, the outside world is a hostile place, teeming with germs. Bacteria, fungal spores, and viruses lurk in every nook, just waiting for a chance to colonize our bodies. Thanks to our vigilant immune systems, however, very few infections cause symptomatic disease.
We can’t change the fact that we’re constantly exposed to pathogenic germs, including dangerous viruses and bacteria; it’s an occupational hazard of being an Earthling. Take our lungs which, when spread out, have the surface area the size of a tennis court. With that kind of surface area, each breath has great potential to expose the lung mucosa to previously unknown bacteria or allergens. Essentially under continuous microbial attack, the immune system works at full capacity, around the clock.
Perpetual defense training
The first layers of the intestines and lungs are actually part of our skin. The intestines, for example, are a channel running through us, from entry (mouth) to exit (yes). That’s why the intestinal mucosa contain the largest percentage of antibodies (immunoglobulin A IgA) in our body. These keep our intestines fit and our immune defenses intact.
It’s perfectly normal for bacteria or allergens to challenge the immune barrier; it’s what they do. To overcome the challengers, however, the immune system must be kept in shape or quickly coaxed back into regular «exercise». Once it falls out of practice, the immune system must get back into practice. An example: if someone hasn’t eaten wheat (gluten) in a year and then starts eating it again, the body must learn to tolerate the gluten all over again. Essentially, the body’s defenses must be retrained to elicit an effective immune response to it.
For the immune system to function, it must constantly evolve or it will forget the defenses it has learned. The human body’s defense line performs more than a million genetic manipulations per second to produce and reproduce new antibodies under appropriate conditions. One million per second. This mass processing rate is how our body, over time, grows to recognize itself and other bodily substances in contrast to invaders—how it maintains the proper immune response.
The common cold as an «immune jog»
Having a cold, for example, can be seen as necessary (if inconvenient) immune training. More than 200 different viruses are known to cause this condition, a harmless but annoying part of life for the vast majority of people. The next time you have a cold, take heart: your immune system is just going out for a bit of a hill workout. Our immune system must fight cold viruses as often as possible in order to take effective action against them in the future. The less exposure we have to a virus, the less protection we have at our disposal. Without constant contact with bacteria or allergens, our immune system would forget the proper response to stimulation. Take a run or be taken for a ride!
Having a cold is nothing more than “immune jogging”—a little re-up for your system. Continuous exposure to any stimulus is essential and, accordingly, we actually need to stay in regular contact with problematic pathogens or allergens. That said, there are some dangerous pathogens that should never be purposely confronted, for there is little or no chance of escaping alive. This is the case with the Marburg virus, the Ebola virus and the Hanta virus, to name just a few.
«Having a cold is nothing more than ‘immune jogging’»
Our immune system is a marvel of complexity and ingenuity. Understanding the basics of immune function is vital to our daily lives; it helps us better assess where danger lies and when we are in fact being counterproductive by overprotecting ourselves. With a little bit of knowledge, we can bolster a champion immune system and do so much to improve our health.