We’ve spoken a lot about immunity recently, but what exactly is immunity?
To understand how immunity works, we have to start first by looking at the different parts of the immune system. While most people know that the immune system’s main function includes protecting us from potentially harmful pathogens (like germs, bacteria, viruses, and fungi) this protection is actually much more complex than meets the eye, and involves two different subsystems within the immune system as a whole.
Is There More Than One Immune System?
Immunity as a whole is a summary of the protective effect of many different cells and subsystems, and the immune system can be broken down into two separate (but related) parts. The first, is called our innate immune system. This is what comes to mind when most people think about immunity – the innate immune system is our first line of defense against pathogens. This includes things like external barriers to germs (like our skin and gut membrane) and provides great protection on first-contact. The innate immune response is general and non-specific, which means that its job is to protect against anything harmful that could potentially get into our bodies. Once a bacteria, germ, or virus has entered our system however, the innate immune system isn’t great at preventing the spread.
This is where our adaptive immune system comes in!
Adaptive immunity, also known as acquired immunity, is the immune system that we develop throughout our lives through things like exposure and vaccinations. A few of the differences that set adaptive immunity apart from our innate immunity, is that the adaptive response is specific to the invading pathogen and because of this, our immune system builds up a “library” of antibodies that can be used as reference if we were to be infected by that same pathogen in the future. You see, the adaptive system is very smart – when it encounters an invader once, it can then “remember” the correct response so that in the future, our immune system responds very quickly and with more force than it did the first time to prevent us from getting sick. Pretty incredible, isn’t it?
Different Types of Immunity
With our different branches of the immune system also comes different types of immunity – active and passive. Active immunity occurs when an exposure to a disease triggers an antibody response from the immune system, sound familiar? That’s because this type of immunity has a lot to do with our adaptive immune system! Passive immunity, on the other hand, is when someone is given the antibodies to a disease rather than producing them. For example, when a baby is born it receives antibodies from its mother. While passive immunity is only temporary, both types work together to protect our bodies from possible infection.
Key Components of the Immune System
Now that we’ve covered the branches of the immune system and the different types of immunity, it’s important to recognize the components that actually create an immune response. That is, the cells in our body that make immunity possible. Our immune systems never get a break - it’s like having our own personal security detail 24/7 to monitor for invasions, and we can thank our scavenger cells (also known as phagocytes or specialized white blood cells) for that! These cells circulate our body and are responsible for detecting pathogens. But what happens when they actually find an intruder? The phagocytes have the ability to completely engulf the germ and digest them. That’s right – they “eat” potential threats for us…how cool! Another type of immune cell worth noting is our natural killer cells – these are a major component of our innate immune system and they specialize in identifying cells that are infected by a virus or that are possibly cancerous by identifying changes in the cell structure. When it comes to our adaptive immune response, there are a whole different group of specialized cells that help recognize and produce antibodies. Without going into too much detail, there are T cells which help to identify infected or cancerous cells, activate other immune cells, while also playing a role in memory. There are also B cells, which, when activated by T cells, multiply very quickly and begin producing antibodies. The B cells also help to develop our body’s immune memory. These are just a few of the many components involved in your immune response. Enzymes, cytokines, basophils, eosinophils and so many more are also responsible for our immunity.
What Do Antibodies Do?
When talking about immunity you’ll hear the word antibody quite frequently, but do you know what an antibody is? We’re happy to clarify! Put simply, antibodies are made up of proteins and sugar molecules, and have the ability to attach to germs and potentially harmful substances. When the antibody attaches to a bacteria let’s say, that bacteria becomes neutralized and also attracts other immune cells to help get rid of the harmful substance. You can think antibodies as a sort of pathogenic search and destroy beacon!
Tips for Supporting Immunity
With so many moving parts involved in immunity, it’s extremely important to support the many different elements of the immune system. Simple things like regular exercise, reducing stress levels, and making sure you’re getting a good night’s rest are all great ways to support your immune system. All of these help to reduce inflammation which can put additional stress on the immune system and can have significant effects on the immune response long term. On top of this, a proper diet filled with nutrient-dense whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains is by far one of the most effective ways to support natural immunity. A well-rounded diet means providing your body with all of the nutritional elements needed to mount a proper immune response like vitamin C, vitamin D3, zinc, iron, and protein (to name a few). When diet is lacking, or when you simply want to support immunity in times where your body may need some added attention - for example, in colder months, during travel, or during periods of increased stress – supplementation is the perfect way to ensure that the needed components are available when we’re at heightened risk of exposure and/or infection. Some of our favourites for immune support include Vitamin D3 with Lingonberry, Vitamin C with Zinc and Chaga, and OptiMSM which are all part of our new immune bundle! If you’re looking for the perfect way to compliment your immune system, we also have an entire immune collection dedicated to helping you feel great all year long, so be sure to check it out in our shop!
So there you have it – immune system 101! While immunity goes into much deeper detail than we’ve covered here, we hope that this provides you with not only a good basic understanding of immunity, but also an appreciation of the complexity and wonder that is our immune system. Staying healthy doesn’t have to feel like a chore – simply provide the immune system with what it needs, and it will do the work!