Boost Your Immune System!
Boost your immune system! Actually wait, don’t do that. Because you know what a boosted immune system looks like? Lupus, or worse, leukemia. Yet the words ‘boost your immune system’ have become almost banal in their overuse in our collective vocabulary. Clearly there is a large amount of misconception about what the immune system is and how it functions.
So what is the immune system? It is a dizzyingly complex arsenal of weapons, made up of proteins and cells. I’ll attempt to give a brief overview:
✤ Antibodies: These are proteins, also known as immunoglobulin (Ig). There are five types: IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG and IgM. IgG has four further subtypes, and IgA has two subtypes. Each type of antibody has the ability to recognize and kill foreign pathogens such as bacteria or viruses.
✤ Complement: The complement system is a series of proteins that ‘help’ antibodies do their job. They are important in killing certain types of bacteria, and attracting white blood cells to a site of infection.
✤ Blood: Lots of different types of immune cells are found in the blood, each with different functions. Neutrophils attack bacteria and fungi. Eosinophils target larger parasites. Basophils are involved in allergic reactions. Lymphocytes, of multiple types along with multiple functions, including the production of antibodies. Monocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells.
✤ Proteins and receptors: chemokines, which are small signaling molecules that are secreted by cells, as an immune response. Interferons, also released by cells involved in fighting viruses and tumors. The Toll pathway, that is so ancient that it’s found even in the plant immune system!
So…the immune system is a hugely complex surveillance system made of proteins and cells, whose primary function is to distinguish between self and non-self. Every cell in your body has ID tags on it that tell your immune system ‘I’m a friend! Don’t kill!’ Any cells that don’t have these tags are automatically labeled enemy, and dealt with as such. Even better, pathogens such as bacteria and viruses actually do have ‘enemy’ tags that tell our immune system that they are enemies. That is the function of the immune system.
Immune cells can also be ‘primed’. What does this mean? If you take a cell from the immune system and expose it to a foreign pathogen or substance, it becomes ‘activated’. This is known as an inflammatory response. Then, if you challenge this activated cell by exposing it to another pathogen, it will kill that pathogen faster than if it had not been primed.
“Boosting” the immune system typically means the invocation of an inflammatory response. When the ‘testimonials’ of snake-oil products cite ‘studies have shown that product X encourage the activation of the immune system’, that simply means that they usually demonstrate an inflammatory response.
So is this a good thing? Is it good for your immune system to be on a constant state of ‘red alert’? Long term, the inflammatory response is bad. The body cannot sustain this state of hyper-vigillance; it is associated with damaged arteries, strokes, heart attacks and even cancer.
The take home message? Adequate sleep, regular exercise and a healthy diet are the best methods for maintaining an optimal immune system. There is no miracle product to increase your baseline. If the product does activate your immune cells, this is not necessary good news in the long run.