Day and night, the immune system works to keep bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxic chemicals from invading the bodies of each person in your family, and causing disease. It is the primary defender of the health of your children, your partner and yourself. As the colder months approach, when we're all more prone to colds and the flu, let's explore sound ways to keep your family members as healthy as possible! In this column, we'll explain how the immune system functions, and in the next couple of columns, we'll tell you how to build a medicine chest full of powerful tools for warding off disease. Then we'll look at how to lower the odds of an immune system over-reacting, and creating an allergy or an auto-immune condition -- which are increasingly common among children . . . and more likely to develop in women who've had children.
An army of defenders
Understanding how your immune system works enables you to reinforce it most effectively, like a commanding general sending supplies to the troops in the field that can use them the most.
Your body's defenses are organized two basic ways:
- Antibodies -- molecules that tell your defenders which enemies to attack
- B-cells -- white blood cells that produce antibodies
- T-cells -- these white blood cells kill diseased cells, or activate or inhibit other parts of the immune system
- Thymus gland -- transforms immature T-cells into mature ones that can tell the difference between "self" and "non-self," and secretes hormones that help guide the immune system.
Common signs of immune system imbalance
When your immune system goes into action, the results can include inflammation (enabling your defenders to get to the battlefield), mucous production, fever (which helps kill heat-sensitive microbes), and fatigue (so you'll rest and your body can heal). But they could also include misguided assaults on neutral substances (allergies) or the body's own tissues (autoimmune disease).
What can disturb the immune system
The key to a healthy immune system is balance, so that it is vigilant and powerful, yet also discriminating and controlled. Let's see what can wear down and disturb the immune system of a child or an adult, making it like a weary soldier lurching into battle, too depleted to defend herself, and too rattled to distinguish friend from foe.