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Your Immune System, Explained

The Cabinet — 08.17.20
by Annie Goodman & Ryan Hynes, with contribution from Dr. Neeta Ogden

The immune system is often touted as an essential part of our health — our greatest asset. 

However, we don’t often have a clear sense of what this foundational protection system actually is, or how we can best support it. We sat down with one of Hilma’s scientific advisors, Yale-trained allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist Dr. Neeta Ogden, to dive in — not only to understand the science behind how the immune system functions but to also learn how we can best foster an environment that keeps our bodies healthy.

The Scientific Foundation

Dr. Ogden simply defines the immune system as “the surveillance and defense system for our entire body.” 

The reason the immune system can seem like a broad, abstract idea rather than a tangible system is because, like a machine made up of a million different pieces, the immune system is composed of several working systems in the body.  Immune cells and proteins circulate throughout the body, residing in a variety of tissues and organs like our skin, intestines, lungs, bloodstream, lymph nodes, bone marrow, and almost everything in between.

Each immune cell becomes the designated project manager for the system it oversees: identifying and flagging problems, communicating with other cells, and working to protect its assigned part of the body. Dr. Ogden emphasizes that these cells are incredibly intuitive and discerning. They have the ability to release particular signals depending on the type of external threat posed to the body. An infection caused by cellular damage, like a sunburn, or damage caused by infectious viruses and bacteria elicit different molecular patterns in the body. 

How It Works

The immune system is “always-on”: it is constantly working to recognize, eliminate, and remember infectious intruders like bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. 

“The cornerstone of our host defense system has two arms: innate and adaptive immunity,” Dr. Ogden says.

When a pathogen successfully enters our bodies (it happens to everyone), innate immunity is our first line of defense, releasing an initial immune response. Meanwhile, adaptive immunity is the army of B and T cells that are sent to infection sites to produce things like antibodies, cytokines, and immune memory. Both of these responses exist to eliminate any virus or bacteria while also ensuring the body will be able to remember how to spring into action the next time a virus or bacteria shows up.

Why It Matters

Dr. Ogden explains that a weak immune system can happen for a number of reasons. “Immunodeficiencies are medical conditions that cause depressed immune systems. Some people are born with them while others can develop them later in life.” Things like stress, malnutrition, excessive alcohol use, smoking, underlying health conditions, and psychological stressors can significantly impact our immune systems, eventually leading to chronic medical conditions if ignored.

Having a compromised immune system, or being “immunocompromised,” is dangerous in the long-term because it makes it harder for your body to fight off foreign invaders efficiently or successfully.

However, you don’t need to have a big, life-altering illness for your body to wave a red flag that your system might be struggling. Small symptoms like frequent sinus infections, acne, skin issues, hormonal disruptions, etc. can be as much of a sign that you need to tend to your immune system as severe illnesses would be.

How To Protect It

Supporting your immune system starts with a commitment to healthy habits in your everyday life.  Rather than one quick fix or magic pill, it’s about consistency and a holistic approach.  Dr. Ogden suggests focusing on the below core pillars when it comes to keeping your immune system strong:

Even though our system should be able to be there for us during challenging periods like cold or flu season, Dr. Ogden recommends taking supplements like Zinc to help expedite the duration of a cold. She also suggests adding immune supporting ingredients to daily life whether through teas, foods or herbal supplements. “For example, more turmeric, garlic, and ginger are simple places to start to prevent immune deficits that might occur from the stressors of daily life."

Footnotes

This information is for educational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult a physician before treating any disorder.

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