Immune System 101 (Part 1): A no-nonsense guide

Immune System series

Immunity:  The basics (and why you must not ‘supercharge your immune system). 

Covid-19 has put our immune systems into focus.  The most common question we have been asked in 2020 is, ‘how can I boost my immune system and fast?’ 

This is not a new question though.  The multivitamin industry is a multi-billion pound mega market in large part because it promises to supercharge your immune system.  Like most supplements though there more big promises and half-truths than actual substance. 

Supplements and multivitamins are useful if you are severely malnourished and / or nutrient deficient (e.g. you are sick).  They can also be useful to plug some gaps in your diet.  But they will NEVER be a miracle cure on their own.  

Here’s what you need to know to have a healthy immune system.  I use the term ‘healthy‘ to describe the ideal standard for an immune system because a ‘supercharged’, ‘boosted’ immune system is actually NOT good for you.  An overactive, overpowered immune system can actually make you sick and lead to autoimmune issues. 

The first thing you need to know about your immune system is that it is an absolute masterpiece on its own…


Your immune system kicks serious butt

It’s true.  It is a highly sophisticated defence mechanism that protects your body from harm every single day of your life. 

Your immune system has two parts to protect you against disease.  The innate and the adaptive.  

The innate:  Your first line of defence is your skin and mucous membranes.  Once a virus or disease tries to enter your body your innate system kicks in.  Your proteins and cells increase the inflammation in your body (yep – this can be a good thing at times!) to create a protective barrier that will try to stop any infection that has penetrated your body.  Think about when you suffer a cut.  Your body works rapidly to heal the wound and stop any infections.  

The adaptive:  If the pesky virus or disease manages to sneak through your first line of defence then the adaptive system kicks in.  This is what most people try to ‘boost’ when they think about the immune system.  Your body quickly works to recognize the disease, create antibodies or immune cells, and defeat the infection, bacteria, or virus  

Think of it as a bank vault with an army of armed security guards behind it.  If an intruder tries to break into the bank vault it creates all sorts of ways to protect the cash inside.  It becomes a fortress.  If, somehow, the intruder manages to break through the vault he will be met by an army of armed security guards, who call in more and more of their guards from outside until the intruder is finally removed.  

The problem for us when we are talking about the coronavirus is that our bodies do not recognize it yet (hence the term ‘novel coronavirus’).  This makes it harder to produce the antibodies to fight it off, so we get sick at various degrees.  But, assuming your body can overcome the disease – and the vast, vast, vast majority of people do overcome it – then your immunity (the cells) stay in your body forever.  

This is how vaccines work.  A lower dose of the bug is introduced into your body.  Your immune system then learns about it and creates the methods to destroy it.  This, in theory, keeps you safe from bigger doses of the virus in future.  

Therein lies the most important part of your adaptive immune system. You have to adapt to the disease, and to do so you must come in contact with it.

But, you can’t improve your immune system’s ability to fight the virus without fighting it first.

Why a superduper, mega-boosted immune system is bad for you

As we discussed above, our immune systems are highly intelligent and very powerful tools to destroy nasty viruses and infections and diseases.  There are things we can do to help it do what it naturally should do (we will discuss this in part 2), but we must be careful not to mess with it.  So if someone says that they have a pill to boost it up then run in the opposite direction because a boosted immune system is not good for you.  

I should know.  A few years ago I had a stomach flu.  On a Sunday night, I started to feel unwell.  Then on Monday morning, my face had swollen up massively, my tongue was dangerous swollen and I had a painful hive rash that rapidly spread all over my body.  I was rushed to hospital and given a number of strong antihistamines and a steroid injection.  Was this the stomach flu that caused this?  No, it was an overactive immune system.  For nearly two years afterwards I would get hives and swellings on a regular basis.  It was not pleasant.  When I had my appointment with a specialist I was told that I was suffering from an autoimmune disorder.  In short, I had an overactive or ‘boosted’ immune system that was going crazy when I suffered from minor issues.  

Thankfully, over time my immune system has corrected itself but I, like many others, can safely say you do not want it to be boosted.  What you need is a healthy, balanced immune system. 

Apply this to your own body for a second.  Due to the clever marketing of certain industries, you perhaps think that having a superhuman immune system will make you feel healthier, stronger, faster, resilient.  Perhaps you think it will help you shake your cold symptoms within an hour of that first sniffle.  

This is far from the case.  In fact, you will likely feel sick as a parrot.  Think about what happens when you get a cold.  The congested nose, the high temperature, the aching muscles and bones, the tickly and sore throats.  These are not the symptoms of your cold.  They are the byproduct of your immune system working correctly.   

The same goes for allergies.  Think hayfever.  The watery and itchy eyes and the constant sneezing.  This is your immune system reacting to a foreign invader. 

A boosted immune system leads to these symptoms being magnified and potentially being chronic.  If it gets worse you can end up with an incurable autoimmune disease.  

It is time to think differently about our immune system health

We need healthy, functioning immune systems not supercharged, boosted ones.  

A healthy, functioning immune system protects you from disease.  It knows when to fight infections, and when to rest because you are infection free.  To make this happen, we need to stop trying to boost it and start focusing on the things that make it harder for our bodies to function normally. 

That is what our focus will be in part two of this series.  Tune in tomorrow. 

Important note:  If you have a immune suppressing disease like diabetes or cancer, please follow the advice of your doctor and/or practitioner.  They may prescribe supplements or medication to help your immune system.  This article discusses the more general problem of ‘boosting’ healthy immune systems.  That said, the lifestyle changes we suggest in subsequent articles will be a big help to you as well.  

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