Understanding how it works can help you stay healthy
You may not think about it very often, but your body is surrounded by danger.
Danger can be external, in the form of infections, for example, from bacteria, viruses and other organisms. Danger also can be found internally. Our systems are designed to neatly remove our waste and if they can’t, we suffer from inflammation, a physiologic effect that feeds numerous chronic diseases.
Your first — and best — line of defense against all of these dangers is a healthy immune system.
Learning how your immune system works and how you can help keep it strong is the best strategy for optimal self-defense and good health as you age, says rheumatologist Leonard Calabrese, DO, who heads Cleveland Clinic’s Section of Clinical Immunology and manages its Clinical Immunology Clinic.
We sat down with Dr. Calabrese to learn more about the amazing immune system. Here is what he had to say:
Q: What is your immune system?
A: Your immune system is a highly integrated physiologic system that protects you from internal threats as well as external threats such as infections, toxins and malignancies. It plays a key role in helping you grow, develop and live longer, and it stays on alert for anything that threatens your health.
Think about it: we are literally teeming inside and out with trillions of microorganisms, and it’s our immune system that has to figure out who is harmful, who is neutral, and for that matter, who is helpful to our bodies. When working properly, your immune system ignores the helpful bacteria in your body and targets the bad.
The immune system works at its peak during our reproductive years, and it declines as we age.
Q: What happens during an immunological response?
A: Your immune system can react in variety of ways. First and foremost, it does everything it can to repel dangerous threats and get rid of them promptly on its own.
Consider two radically different scenarios:
- A localized infection with a bacterium such as staph or strep may induce an inflammatory response, such as a boil
- A generalized infection such a the flu may stimulate a generalized attack and result in an inflammatory response, such as a fever
Inflammation can help your body fight an acute and specific threat, but long-term inflammation is not good for you. Factors such as poor diet, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle make inflammation worse. As a result, chronic inflammation can hasten cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and general premature aging.
Sometimes your immune response isn’t strong enough to fully fight off an infection, which makes it harder for your body to recover. This can be referred to as an immunodeficiency when it’s severe.
At other times, immune responses go overboard. When this happens, the immune system can’t distinguish between your body and its invaders, and autoimmune disease develops.
Q: How does the immune system work?
A: Your immune system is highly complex and is integrated into virtually every other organ system. It has multiple components, including the coverings of our body internally and externally, which are alive with intricate defenses. It also has a rapid response team known as the innate immune system. Finally, when these defenses are not enough, it has a highly refined and specific set of defenses known as the adaptive immune system, which can target danger signals with great precision and accuracy. Vaccinations activate the adaptive immune system and protect us from future invaders.
Q: What threatens your immune system?
A: Although no drug or supplement can maximize your immune system and make it run perfectly, you can take steps to optimize how well yours works.
- If you smoke, quit. It’s the single, biggest, most avoidable threat to your immunological health.
- Limit excess alcohol, as well as any drugs that might compromise your immune system.
- Avoid carcinogens as much as you can, including too much sun exposure.
- If you’re overweight, drop those pounds because they are known to boost inflammation.
Q: What areas should you focus on to boost your immune system?
A: To help keep your immune system strong, focus on exercise, diet and nutrition, and manage your mental health and stress levels. An exciting amount of work is going on in each of these areas that has proven that, like other physiologic systems, with the right information you can train and maintain your immune system for optimal health.
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