immune system

Many people take their immune system for granted. We all know how important its role is in keeping us healthy, yet the majority of us don’t tend to it as we should. We expect it to work even when we pay no attention to it until it’s too late. As a result, we get sick over and over again or when more serious health issues appear.

What is the Immune System?

The immune system is a highly complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work closely together to protect the body from infection. The immune system manages to distinguish between the “self” and “non-self”, meaning it knows what cells are from inside the body (“these cells are fine here”) and what cells are invaders (“get these guys out”). The bottom line is that the immune system is a very elaborate and complex system designed to deal with a repetition of offenses 24/7.

A healthy immune system should have an appropriate and timely response to immune system invaders, but even a healthy immune system can be overtaken. The immune system can become weakened and reduce the immune response when there are repeated attacks on the immune system, or certain factors are suppressing it.

The Immune System’s Anatomy

The anatomy of the immune system can be looked at in a few ways– the functional anatomy and physical anatomy. Both are needed for acute and long term protection for your body. Let’s first take a look at the physical anatomy.

Physical Anatomy of the Immune System

The physical anatomy includes the body’s structures and systems that play a role in immune function. The digestive and lymphatic systems both play a critical role in the immune response. 

The digestive system includes a number of systems, physical structures, and chemicals that are needed for immune health including HCl, pepsin, mucosal lining, and gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). In fact, about 70% of your immune system is located in the gut!

The lymphatic system includes lymphatic organs and tissues which are vital in immune health because they clear away infection and keep bodily fluids in balance. Parts of this system include the tonsils, adenoids, bone marrow, thymus, lymph nodes, and spleen.

Functional Anatomy of the Immune System

The functional anatomy includes three main lines of defense against invaders: the physical barrier, innate immunity, and adaptive immunity. 

Physical Barriers

Physical barriers are considered “non-specific”, meaning that they continually protect the body against a broad range of pathogens and do not have a specific response to any particular pathogen or infection. 

Some physical barriers Include:

    • Digestive System 
      • Acidic Gastric Juice
      • Enzymes
      • Healthy Gut Flora
    • Natural Expulsion
      • Coughing
      • Crying
      • Defecating 
      • Sneezing
      • Spitting
      • Sweating
      • Urinating
      • Vomiting
    • Saliva
    • Skin
    • Sweat
    • VALT (vulvo-vaginal associated lymphoid tissue) found in the mucosal lining of the reproductive and urinary tracts

These all help to remove pathogens and harmful substances from entering the body.

Innate Immunity

Along with the physical barriers, innate immunity also refers to “non-specific” defense mechanisms that are considered our second line of defense. It comes into play immediately or within hours of an antigen’s appearance in the body. Antigens can be toxic or invading molecules like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, which are all capable of stimulating an immune response. 

Innate immunity includes chemicals in the blood and immune system cells that attack foreign cells in the body. It is the innate immune system that is responsible for evaluating danger, distinguishing between friend or foe, and pushing the adaptive immune system into action. Think of innate immunity as your 24-7 security and management system that is always ready to make rapid, but non-specific immune responses to whatever foreign invaders the body is exposed to.

Adaptive Immunity

The adaptive immune response is more complex than the innate. Adaptive immunity refers to antigen-specific immune response. The antigen (aka harmful chemical) first must be processed and recognized. Once an antigen has been recognized, the adaptive immune system creates an army of immune cells specifically designed to attack that particular antigen. 

Adaptive immunity also includes a “memory” that makes future responses against that  specific antigen more efficient. This third line of defense is capable of targeting their attacks against specific invaders that may have bypassed physical barriers and innate immunity.

You can see how the immune system is complex and multi-layered to help provide acute and long term immune response as well as protect against future exposure.

Vaccinations and immune suppressors, like antihistamines, stomach acid blockers, and the overuse of antibiotics can bypass many of these systems and can begin to provide artificial or short term immunity. However, it doesn’t come without long term negative effects on the immune system.

Sometimes Getting Sick is a Good Thing

The Role of Inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s response to harmful stimuli, such as pathogens, irritants, and damage. The immune system uses systemic and localized inflammatory responses to eliminate the original cause of injury and clear old or damaged tissue. Inflammation creates pathways for immune responders to get inside the affected tissues by dilating blood and lymphatic vessels and increasing tissue permeability (making it easier for the immune responders to get through to the infected area). 

Tissue repair then occurs to fix the damaged cells and tissue. To accomplish this healing, proper inflammation and anti-inflammation are important. Problems arise when long term inflammation occurs (known as chronic inflammation) and the immune system doesn’t have enough anti-inflammatory molecules to respond. This results in inflamed tissues for long periods of time, which causes damage.

The Role of a Fever

A fever is a defense that the body provides against infection, so it’s actually a good thing. Most of the time fevers are generally harmless and can be a sign that the immune system is working properly to try and heal itself. Normal fevers are between 100 and 104 degrees.

When you stop/ break a fever with fever-reducing medicines (like Tylenol) the fever is unable to work on fighting the infection.

Our body is created to protect us against numerous foreign substances. However, it can’t do its job properly if we don’t take care of our immune system, i.e, eating junk food, staying up late, taking too many medications, being stressed out day after day, etc. This can all lead to a weakened immune system, making your body more vulnerable to:

  • Chronic Infections
  • Allergies
  • Chronic Inflammation
  • And can lead to Autoimmune Disease

In today’s world, we are exposed to so many different factors that weaken our immune system and make us sicker. At the in2GREAT Functional Medicine Clinic in Kansas City, we offer immune support IV therapy to help counteract those harmful exposures and boost your immune system. Get in contact with us if you are interested in Viral Immune Vitamin C IV, Basic Immune Support IV or Myer’s + Vitamin C IV. Also, keep an eye out for Part II of the Immune System Series to see other ways that you can reboot your immune system!

Dr Corey Priest, DC - Functional medicine practitioner

About the author

Dr. Corey Priest has been practicing functional medicine since 2001. in2GREAT was founded in 2014 by Dr Priest after 13 years of experience with his other practices. Over his career, Dr. Priest has worked with and helped well over 10,000 patients under a functional medicine model.

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