About immunity

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – only if you work on your defence

We all heard of immunity; it goes hand in hand with health. There are pathogens every corner you take, every surface you touch. Germs live everywhere: air, food, plants, animals, soil and water.

Most germs won’t harm you. Your immune system is there just for that, to protect against infectious agents. However, some germs are difficult enemies because they’re constantly mutating to breach your immune system’s defences. Knowing how germs work can increase your chances of avoiding infection.

The bad guys, named and shamed

A very short description of the infectious culprits: bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoans, helminths.

  • Bacteria is one cell organism, invisible to the naked eye, visible if you could join 1,000 of them; they will fit the pencil end. A study published in May 2016 in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A.” estimated there may be as many as 1 trillion different types of bacteria. Most bacteria are harmless to humans, and many that live in and on the body serve beneficial functions.

The nasty ones invade, damage and infect you:

Gram-positive cocci:

Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Streptococcus pyogenes causing diseases like pneumonia, ear infections, strep throat, superficial and deep skin infections, sepsis.

Gram – negative cocci:

Gonococcus causing gonorrhoea and meningococcus causing meningitis.

Gram-positive rods:

Clostridium perfringens causing food poisoning, Clostridium botulimum – botulism, Clostridium tetani- tetanus, Clostridium difficile -colitis, Bacillus anthracis – anthrax

Gram negative rods:

E. coli –urinary tract infections, food poisoning, meningitis, Salmonella – food poisoning, typhoid fever, Vibrio species-cholera, Bordetella pertussis- whooping cough, Haemophilus influenzae- meningitis, sinusitis, ear infections, pneumonia, sepsis

Others which don’t belong to above categories:

Helicobacter pylori-  stomach and intestinal ulcers, Mycobacterium tuberculosis – tuberculosis, Treponema pallidum- syphilis, Borrelia burgdorferi – Lyme disease, Chlamydia trachomatis – chlamydia etc.

  • Viruses are not cells but genetic material. They invade cells, hijacking its machinery or destroying it. “We live in a bacteria-driven world,” said Martha Clokie, a microbiologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K. Those bacteria are endlessly being subtly manipulated by viruses, as vast majority of viruses infect bacteria.

It’s debatable whether viruses are alive, but if so, they are the most abundant organisms on the planet. Speaking of size, if 1,000 bacteria equal the size of the pencil end point, it takes 55 million viruses to equal the full stop I’ll end this sentence with. Studies say that if you strung all the viruses in Earth’s oceans together, they cover the distance to Mars and back 12 trillion times.

 Examples of viruses we, as humans, are familiar with are: common cold, influenza, measles, chickenpox, shingles, genital herpes, AIDS, Ebola, SARS, Swine flu and the last entry which is turning the world upside down as we speak, COVID 19.

  • Fungi: some we eat and they taste good, some make us sick. The yummy ones are mushrooms, molds that form the blue or green veins in some cheese, yeast in our daily bread. But no one wants yeast causing candida (thrush in mouth and throat), ringworm, athlete’s food fungi.
  • Protozoans live in your intestinal tracts and most are harmless hunters and gatherers (they feed with microbes). Others cause malaria, giardia, toxoplasmosis. Food and water or mosquitoes’ bites are the usual gates protozoans enter human host.
  • Helminths are worms (tapeworms and roundworms). If they or their eggs enter human host, will take residence inintestinal tract, lungs, liver, skin or brain, where they will live off the body’s nutrients.

The good guys, named and supported

There’s a difference between infection and disease.

Infection happens when bacteria, viruses or other microbes enter the body and start multiplying.

Disease occurs when the cells in your body are damaged, signs and symptoms of an illness appear.

In response to infection, your immune system springs into action. An army of white blood cells, macrophages, phagocytes, B and T killer cells, antibodies and other mechanisms goes to work to rid your body of whatever is causing the infection. For instance, in fighting off the common cold, your body might react with fever, coughing and sneezing.

In other words, if your immune system is at its best shape, cells will not be damaged, the army of soldiers will stand to their call, on the battlefield, there to annihilate the germs, blocking their ways into cells and avoiding damage. You will display symptoms, fever for example. Fever is so unreasonably feared, people jump in distress and usually run to paracetamol and Calpol. That’s not the enemy you need to grapple with but just the signalling of a fight taking place within. And that should better be the case! I would rather be worried about people who never display fever. Sure, starting 42C body temperature can lead to seizures and brain damage (babies are special, 38.5C is high temperature you should look into) but other than that, I advise to keep an eye on temperature but avoid focusing on how to put it down. Instead, inform yourself and proceed to enforce your army, equip soldiers with powerful weapons aka support your immune system.

The health of the gut is essential for immune function as 70% of our immune tissue is found in the gut. Supporting a good balance of microflora is essential for immune function. A separate blog will give you more details on gut, this is a hugely important topic!!!

Stress can deplete immune function. There are so many ways to relieve stress: breathing techniques, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, qi gong, tai chi, walks in nature, gentle exercising, massage, laughter, calming music, talking to a trustable and compassionate friend etc. You should never ignore the power of such actions!!!

Have you heard of HTPA axis? In translation, that names the relationship between hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands (suprarenal). The first two are located in your brain, the last are placed of top your kidneys This axis is a major neuroendocrine system that control stress and regulates immunity, digestion, sexuality, energy, emotions. A short – lived stress (when someone jokingly and mildly scares you) will only have adrenaline and noradrenaline as neurotransmitters called in to handle it. Sustained period of stress (distress) will signals adrenals to produce more than the usual amount of cortisol (an essential hormone needed for a normal functioning of the body), which suppresses the highly demanding metabolic processes of the immune system. Increased production of cortisol during stress results in an increased availability of glucose in order to facilitate fight or flight response. Your blood sugar level will be spiralling.

Beta-Glucans, compounds usually found in mushrooms (shitake and reishi), oats, yeast  have been shown to possess immune-stimulatory properties, increasing resistance to infections and handing your immune systems the tools to fight, if infection took place. It increases phagocytosis (ingesting bacteria and killing it), increases number of cytokines and macrophages (the soldiers of your immune system) and therefore can be a useful intervention when immune function is reduced or under stress.

Nutrients which play specific roles in immune function include vitamins and minerals.

Vitamin A – increases number of neutrophils, macrophages and natural killer cells. Eat butternut squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, leafy vegetables,  

Vitamin C – stimulates neutrophils, increases lymphocytes and interferon, has antioxidant and antihistamine properties. Eat broccoli, bell peppers, brussels sprouts, spinach, cabbage, tomatoes

Vitamin D – supports all round immune function, is synthetized by skin through exposure to UV (sunlight) therefore best and quickest way is to get out in the sun, walk the meadows barefoot and do some colour therapy staring at the blue sky and green trees. Get it through food: oily fish, organic butter, eggs.

Zinc– increases lymphocytes and T killer cells. Oysters are the leaders on the food list providing zinc. Seafood, red meat, poultry, beans, eggs, wholegrains (not refined and not that sort of wholegrains which might come assorted with so much sugar in the cereal packs shelves are loaded with). Eat a handful of pumpkin seeds daily instead of a supplement.

Selenium– I read that one Brazil nut per day supplies enough selenium the body needs. Other sources are, again, oily fish, eggs. Seaweed is a rich source too.  

There’s plenty you can do to boost immune system, watch this space!

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