Basics of the Immune System
Let’s start at the beginning. What does it mean when someone says “I feel sick today?” What is a disease? By understanding the different kinds of diseases it is possible to see what types of disease the immune system helps you handle – you can then avoid getting sick.
When you “get sick”, your body is not able to work properly or at its full potential. There are many different ways for you to get sick — here are some of them:
- Mechanical damage – If you break a bone or tear a ligament you will be “sick” (your body will not be able to perform at its full potential). The cause of the problem is something that is easy to understand and visible.
- Vitamin or mineral deficiency – If you do not get enough vitamin D your body is not able to metabolize calcium properly and you get a disease known as rickets. People with rickets have weak bones (they break easily) and deformities because the bones do not grow properly. If you do not get enough vitamin C you get scurvy, which causes swollen and bleeding gums, swollen joints and bruising. If you do not get enough iron you get anaemia, and so on.
- Organ degradation– In some cases an organ is damaged or weakened. For example, one form of “heart disease” is caused by obstructions in the blood vessels leading to the heart muscle, so that the heart does not get enough blood. One form of “liver disease”, known as Cirrhosis, is caused by damage to liver cells (drinking too much alcohol is one cause).
- Genetic disease– A genetic disease is caused by a coding error in the DNA. The coding error causes too much or too little of certain proteins to be made, and that causes problems at the cellular level. For example, albinism is caused by a lack of an enzyme called tyrosine. That missing enzyme means that the body cannot manufacture melanin, the natural pigment that causes hair colour, eye colour and tanning. Because of the lack of melanin, people with this genetic problem are extremely sensitive to the UV rays in sunlight.
- Cancer– Occasionally a cell will change in a way that causes it to reproduce uncontrollably. For example, when cells in the skin called melanocytes are damaged by ultraviolet radiation in sunlight they change in a characteristic way into a cancerous form of cell. The visible cancer that appears as a tumour on the skin is called melanoma.
- When you get a cut, all sorts of bacteria and viruses enter your body through the break in the skin. When you get a splinter you also have the sliver of wood as a foreign object inside your body. Your immune system responds and eliminates the invaders while the skin heals itself and seals the puncture. In rare cases the immune system misses something and the cut gets infected. It gets inflamed and will often fill with pus. Inflammation and pus are both side-effects of the immune system doing its job.
- When a mosquito bites you, you get a red, itchy bump. That too is a visible sign of your immune system at work.
- Each day you inhale thousands of germs (bacteria and viruses) that are floating in the air. Your immune system deals with all of them without a problem. Occasionally a germ gets past the immune system and you catch a cold, get the flu or worse. A cold or flu is a visible sign that your immune system failed to stop the germ. The fact that you get over the cold or flu is a visible sign that your immune system was able to eliminate the invader after learning about it. If your immune system did nothing, you would never get over a cold or anything else.
- Each day you also eat hundreds of germs, and again most of these die in the saliva or the acid of the stomach. Occasionally, however, one gets through and causes food poisoning. There is normally a very visible effect of this breach of the immune system: vomiting and diarrhoea are two of the most common symptoms.
A strong, balanced and intelligent immune system keeps you up and running year in and year out. Your immune system is the key to your health and youthfulness. Complete the Immune System form on the right of this page for contact with me.
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