The immune system protects the body from harmful substances and disease causing germs. It recognizes and responds to antigens or the disease causing substances. Antigens are usually proteins present on the surface of cells, viruses, fungi, bacteria, toxins, chemicals, drugs and foreign particles. The immune system recognizes and destroys, or tries to destroy, substances that contain antigens. Our body is made up of cells. These cells also have proteins that are antigens. They include a group of antigens called HLA antigens. However, our immune system learns to see these antigens as normal and usually does not react against them.
Immune response is the process by which the body recognizes and defends itself against bacteria, viruses, and substances that appear foreign and harmful.
Disorders of the immune system
They are of four types:
1. Immunodeficiency disorders
2. Autoimmune disorders
3. Allergic disorders
4. Cancers of the immune system
Immunodeficiencies occur when a part of the immune system is not present or is not working properly. Immunodeficiencies can affect cells of immune system like B lymphocytes, T lymphocytes, or phagocytes. Primary immunodeficiencies are conditions that a person is born with. However, the symptoms of the disorder may not be seen until later in life. Secondary immunodeficiencies are acquired immune system disorders as a result of some infections or may be produced by drugs (like chemotherapy). Secondary immunodeficiencies can also be the result of malnutrition, burns, or other medical problems. Secondary immunodeficiency include: HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). This disease destroys the immune system.
In this condition, the immune system attacks the body's healthy organs and tissues as though they were foreign invaders. They include several diseases like:
- Type 1 Diabetes usually diagnosed in children and young adults
- Lupus or Systemic lupus erythematosus: A chronic disease marked by muscle and joint pain and inflammation.
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis: A disease of children in which the body's immune system attacks the joints of the knee, hand, and foot as foreign tissue.
- Scleroderma: A persisting autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and damage to the skin, joints, and internal organs.
- Ankylosing spondylitis: A disease that causes stiffness and pain in the spine and joints.
- Juvenile dermatomyositis: An autoimmune disorder marked by inflammation and damage of the skin and muscles.
Allergic disorders are caused by allergens leading to swelling, watery eyes, and sneezing and at times, life-threatening reactions called anaphylaxis. Allergic disorders include conditions like asthma and eczema. In asthma, the lungs become oversensitive to certain allergens like pollen, molds, animal dander, or dust mites. The airways in the lungs become swollen making it hard to breathe. Eczema, also known as atopic dermatit, is a condition in which skin becomes itchy that leads to redness, swelling, cracking and "weeping" clear fluid. It is usually seen in persons who have allergies, hay fever, or asthma.
Cancers of the Immune System
- When cells of the immune system multiply without control it causes cancers of the immune system.
- Leukemia involves abnormal overgrowth of leukocytes while lymphoma involves the lymphoid tissues
Ways to boost immune response
- Get enough sleep. Manage stress. Sleep deprivation and stress overload increase the levels of hormone cortisol. Prolonged elevation of cortisol suppresses immune function.
- Avoid tobacco smoke, smoking can increase the risk of bronchitis and pneumonia. It also increases middle ear infections in kids.
- Drink less alcohol. Excessive consumption weakens the immune system.
- Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. These can provide the nutrients needed by the immune system.
- Have yogurt. It contains probiotics which can help reduce the incidence of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.
- Get enough sunlight. Sunlight triggers the production of vitamin D. In the summer, a 10-15-minute exposure is enough (without sunscreen). Low vitamin D levels increase the risk of respiratory infection.
- Eat garlic. Garlic is a broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent as recommended by Ayurveda. It is a good immune booster. It should be consumed raw if possible because heat can destroy its key active ingredient. It can be added to foods just before serving.
- Eat mushrooms, such as shiitake and maitake. Shiitake mushrooms provide some of the best immune-boosting benefits. Concentrated extract of shiitake is reported to enhance immune response in women with breast cancer