The immune system is our body’s defense mechanism which fights harmful intruding agents and pathogens (called Antigens). It consists of various types of White Blood Cells (WBCs) and their network system, which can be compared to the organization and functioning of an Army.
There are 2 types of WBCs. Granulocytes (WBCs containing granules- like macrophages, neutrophils, mast cells, and eosinophils) possess substances in their granules which can destroy Antigens. They represent our Innate immunity and are like ‘soldiers’ of the army. If the pathogen attack is severe, prolonged, and unmanageable by the Granulocytes alone, the ‘officers’ of the army which are the Lymphocytes (WBCs without granules) representing our Adaptive Immunity, are called in. They have more advanced recognition, strategy and fighting techniques, which they can execute with the help of the Granulocytes, and by producing ‘Antibodies’ specifically directed to that particular antigen.
The Lymphocytes unlike the Granulocytes have memory, which enables a faster and efficient protective response when the same antigen attacks again, and its destruction happens before we even know it or present with symptoms! This is what is called ‘being Immune’ to a particular infection. The functioning of the WBCs is facilitated by Cytokines that act like messengers and activators.
Immune deficiencies maybe Primary (genetic or present since birth) (example Severe Combined Immune Deficiency SCID) or more commonly, Secondary, as seen in infections like HIV, people on chemotherapy, radiation, or long term high dose corticosteroid medicines, people suffering from severe malnutrition, aged people >70 years and those suffering from significant heart, lung, kidney or liver disease. Such patients are prone to infections, and even relatively mild infections can make them very ill and sometimes be life threatening. People with such conditions require high level of protection and intensive therapy.
Reduced or sub-optimal immunity may be seen for short or prolonged periods in many people due to inappropriate diet, lifestyle and stress. This makes a person catch common infections quickly and recurrently, with a more prolonged recovery time. Such people often appear down with cold, cough, fever, bowel upset, body pains, weakness and low energy. This can be effectively tackled or prevented by a healthy lifestyle.
The main 5 factors which determine and affect Immunity are Diet, Lifestyle, Sleep, Physical activity and Hygiene-Protection
A nutritious diet containing good amounts of Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Proteins, Vitamins (A, B group, C, D, E), and Minerals (Zinc, Selenium, and Iron), along with certain herbs and spices is beneficial for maintaining optimal immunity. Adequate amounts of water intake and good hydration is important, with a recommended intake of at least 10 glasses (2.5 liters of preferably lukewarm water daily).
Modern lifestyles globally are associated with a lot of Stress. A state of stress is when the body is made to cope with more (physically or mentally) than it can. Stress, fear and tension cause lot of consumption of nutrients and resources, thereby weakening the immune system. Stress causes release of steroids in our body which also suppress the immune system. Frequently catching infections or falling ill are a sign of stress and weakened immunity and warrant consideration of conscious stress management. Smoking or Tobacco chewing can also have suppressive effects on immunity.
Sleep has a number of effects on the immune system like better functioning of Lymphocytes, cytokines and antibody production. Reduction in either adequate duration or quality of sleep can reduce immunity. Therefore, it is essential to make it a habit to have 8 hours of undisturbed sleep at night on most days. Stress and lack of sleep are often inter-related and can form a vicious cycle, each increasing the other.
Regular and appropriate physical exercise which makes you feel energetic and refreshed, is associated with improving one’s immunity. It is important that the exercise should not be exhausting, stronger and more vigorous than what one is used to, cause body pain/injury, or be performed in an adverse environment, as in such cases it induces stress which can have adverse effects on immunity.
If starting a new physical exercise regime, increase the rigor and duration gradually, perform suitable warm ups- cool downs, and stop if body signals fatigue or stress. Some of the appropriate regular physical exercises include walking, jogging, and swimming, or indoor exercises like Yoga (including breathing exercises like Pranayama), performing stretches, walking on treadmill, aerobics, and cycling. Including these activities for at least half hour daily for 5 days in a week along with simple breathing techniques is recommended and beneficial for immunity. Sports and outdoor games can be a form of physical exercise, mental relaxation and social bonding.
Hygiene and Protection
Cleanliness and Hygiene in simple daily habits like proper bathing and cleaning of body parts, wearing clean clothes, washing hands before meals and after coming from outside, regular brushing of teeth, covering nose and mouth while coughing and sneezing, not spitting or throwing garbage in public and maintaining clean surroundings, go a long way in minimizing infections and improving community health.
It is important to make sure that children and those at risk like elderly and people with health conditions are immunized according to the recommended vaccination schedule to protect them from the more severe and serious infections. Vaccines use killed or highly weakened live organisms (whole/ part) to expose the individual to that particular pathogen and stimulate the adaptive immune response to create Antibodies and Memory cells. So, vaccines ensure long lasting protection from that particular infection without actually suffering from it. If several people of a population are vaccinated (exposed to the pathogen) and thereby become immune to a particular infection, then the spread of that infection will minimize even to those people who are not vaccinated (exposed) or immune. This is called herd immunity.
Certain practices like giving antibiotics for common viral infections, lack of regular exposure to nature, fresh air or sunlight, and living in unventilated/AC houses can actually have a suppressive impact on the immune system. It is like reducing the alertness and the training of the army!
However, if there is an epidemic or pandemic, it is advisable to follow regulations by health authorities related to restricted travel, social distancing and hygienic measures. Even though this does not improve immunity, it can enable protection and curtailment of rapid disease spread.
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