Our Body’s Immune System
Inside your body there is an amazing protection mechanism called the immune system. It is designed to defend you against millions of bacteria, microbes, viruses, toxins and parasites that would love to invade your body. To understand the power of the immune system, all that you have to do is look at what happens to anything once it dies. That sounds gross, but it does show you something very important about your immune system.
When something dies, its immune system (along with everything else) shuts down. In a matter of hours, the body is invaded by all sorts of bacteria, microbes, parasites. None of these things are able to get in when your immune system is working, but the moment your immune system stops the door is wide open. Once you die it only takes a few weeks for these organisms to completely dismantle your body and carry it away, until all that’s left is a skeleton. Obviously your immune system is doing something amazing to keep all of that dismantling from happening when you are alive.
The immune system is complex, intricate and interesting. And there are at least two good reasons for you to know more about it. First, it is just plain fascinating to understand where things like fevers, hives, inflammation, etc., come from when they happen inside your own body. You also hear a lot about the immune system in the news as new parts of it are understood and new drugs come on the market — knowing about the immune system makes these news stories understandable. In this article, we will take a look at how your immune system works so that you can understand what it is doing for you each day, as well as what it is not
Your immune system works around the clock in thousands of different ways, but it does its work largely unnoticed. One thing that causes us to really notice our immune system is when it fails for some reason. We also notice it when it does something that has a side effect we can see or feel. Here are several examples:
When you get a cut, all sorts of bacteria and viruses enter your body through the break in the skin. When you get a splinter you also have the sliver of wood as a foreign object inside your body. Your immune system responds and eliminates the invaders while the skin heals itself and seals the puncture. In rare cases the immune system misses something and the cut gets infected. It gets inflamed and will often fill with pus. Inflammation and pus are both side-effects of the immune system doing its job.
When a mosquito bites you, you get a red, itchy bump. That too is a visible sign of your immune system at work.
Each day you inhale thousands of germs (bacteria and viruses) that are floating in the air. Your immune system deals with all of them without a problem. Occasionally a germ gets past the immune system and you catch a cold, get the flu or worse. A cold or flu is a visible sign that your immune system failed to stop the germ. The fact that you get over the cold or flu is a visible sign that your immune system was able to eliminate the invader after learning about it. If your immune system did nothing, you would never get over a cold or anything else.
Each day you also eat hundreds of germs, and again most of these die in the saliva or the acid of the stomach. Occasionally, however, one gets through and causes food poisoning. There is normally a very visible effect of this breach of the immune system: vomiting and diarrhea are two of the most common symptoms.
There are also all kinds of human ailments that are caused by the immune system working in unexpected or incorrect ways that cause problems. For example, some people have allergies. Allergies are really just the immune system overreacting to certain stimuli that other people don’t react to at all. Some people have diabetes, which is caused by the immune system inappropriately attacking cells in the pancreas and destroying them. Some people have rheumatoid arthritis, which is caused by the immune system acting inappropriately in the joints. In many different diseases, the cause is actually an immune system error.
Finally, we sometimes see the immune system because it prevents us from doing things that would be otherwise beneficial. For example, organ transplants are much harder than they should be because the immune system often rejects the transplanted organ
Basics of the Immune System
Let’s start at the beginning. What does it mean when someone says “I feel sick today?” What is a disease? By understanding the different kinds of diseases it is possible to see what types of disease the immune system helps you handle.
When you “get sick”, your body is not able to work properly or at its full potential. There are many different ways for you to get sick — here are some of them:
Mechanical damage – If you break a bone or tear a ligament you will be “sick” (your body will not be able to perform at its full potential). The cause of the problem is something that is easy to understand and visible.
Vitamin or mineral deficiency – If you do not get enough vitamin D your body is not able to metabolize calcium properly and you get a disease known as rickets. People with rickets have weak bones (they break easily) and deformities because the bones do not grow properly. If you do not get enough vitamin C you get scurvy, which causes swollen and bleeding gums, swollen joints and bruising. If you do not get enough iron you get anemia, and so on.
Organ degradation – In some cases an organ is damaged or weakened. For example, one form of “heart disease” is caused by obstructions in the blood vessels leading to the heart muscle, so that the heart does not get enough blood. One form of “liver disease”, known as Cirrhosis, is caused by damage to liver cells (drinking too much alcohol is one cause).
Genetic disease – A genetic disease is caused by a coding error in the DNA. The coding error causes too much or too little of certain proteins to be made, and that causes problems at the cellular level. For example, albinism is caused by a lack of an enzyme called tyrosinase. That missing enzyme means that the body cannot manufacture melanin, the natural pigment that causes hair color, eye color and tanning. Because of the lack of melanin, people with this genetic problem are extremely sensitive to the UV rays in sunlight.
Cancer – Occasionally a cell will change in a way that causes it to reproduce uncontrollably. For example, when cells in the skin called melanocytes are damaged by ultraviolet radiation in sunlight they change in a characteristic way into a cancerous form of cell. The visible cancer that appears as a tumor on the skin is called melanoma.
Viral or Bacterial Infection
When a virus or bacteria (also known generically as a germ) invades your body and reproduces, it normally causes problems. Generally the germ’s presence produces some side effect that makes you sick. For example, the strep throat bacteria (Streptococcus) releases a toxin that causes inflammation in your throat. The polio virus releases toxins that destroy nerve cells (often leading to paralysis). Some bacteria are benign or beneficial (for example, we all have millions of bacteria in our intestines and they help digest food), but many are harmful once they get into the body or the bloodstream.
Viral and bacterial infections are by far the most common causes of illness for most people. They cause things like colds, influenza, measles, mumps, malaria, AIDS and so on.
The job of your immune system is to protect your body from these infections. The immune system protects you in three different ways:
- It creates a barrier that prevents bacteria and viruses from entering your body.
- If a bacteria or virus does get into the body, the immune system tries to detect and eliminate it before it can make itself at home and reproduce.
- If the virus or bacteria is able to reproduce and start causing problems, your immune system is in charge of eliminating it.
- The immune system also has several other important jobs. For example, your immune system can detect cancer in early stages and eliminate it in many cases.
Components of the Immune System
One of the funny things about the immune system is that it has been working inside your body your entire life but you probably know almost nothing about it. For example, you are probably aware that inside your chest you have an organ called a “heart”. Who doesn’t know that they have a heart? You have probably also heard about the fact that you have lungs and a liver and kidneys. But have you even heard about your thymus? There’s a good chance you don’t even know that you have a thymus, yet its there in your chest right next to your heart. There are many other parts of the immune system that are just as obscure, so let’s start by learning about all of the parts.
The most obvious part of the immune system is what you can see. For example, skin is an important part of the immune system. It acts as a primary boundary between germs and your body. Part of your skin’s job is to act as a barrier in much the same way we use plastic wrap to protect food. Skin is tough and generally impermeable to bacteria and viruses. The epidermis contains special cells called Langerhans cells (mixed in with the melanocytes in the basal layer) that are an important early-warning component in the immune system. The skin also secretes antibacterial substances. These substances explain why you don’t wake up in the morning with a layer of mold growing on your skin — most bacteria and spores that land on the skin die quickly.
Your nose, mouth and eyes are also obvious entry points for germs. Tears and mucus contain an enzyme (lysozyme) that breaks down the cell wall of many bacteria. Saliva is also anti-bacterial. Since the nasal passage and lungs are coated in mucus, many germs not killed immediately are trapped in the mucus and soon swallowed. Mast cells also line the nasal passages, throat, lungs and skin. Any bacteria or virus that wants to gain entry to your body must first make it past these defenses.
Once inside the body, a germ deals with the immune system at a different level. The major components of the immune system are:
- Lymph system
- Bone marrow
- White blood cells
- Complement system