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The immune system is divided into two major entities based on their function:
The innate immune system, which is the first line of defense that foreign pathogens face when aggressing our bodies.
It is also called the non-specific immune system. It involves the use of mechanical barriers (e.g., skin, acidic environment of the stomach, respiratory cilia) and immune cells (e.g., macrophages, neutrophils, natural killers).
The specific immune system, which uses specialized immune cells and antibodies to fight off germs in a targeted approach. For instance, when you get the stomach flu, the immune system will recruit specific cells and antibodies that target the strain of the virus responsible for your symptoms.
The combination of these two entities has created the perfect (almost) system that’s keeping us alive today.
Without the immune system, a simple viral infection can destroy our organism and kill us.
For instance, patients with AIDS who have low immune cell count often die because of opportunistic infections and not AIDS itself.
Issues caused by a dysfunctional immune system
Usually, humans spend their whole lives without facing any issues with their immune system. Occasionally, we get sick from seasonal influenza and other mild infections; however, we rarely come across a severe immune dysfunction.
For some unfortunate souls, the immune system can go haywire, with some cases involving a diminished activity, while other cases were manifesting as hyperactivity of this system.
Regardless of the type of dysfunction, both ways are bad news!
Immune deficiencies: these diseases involve reduced or absent activity of one or more immune cells.
- Chediak-Higashi syndrome
- Combined immunodeficiency disease
- Complement deficiencies
- DiGeorge syndrome
Autoimmune diseases: involve the immune system attacking a substance, a molecule, or another cell type of the body itself. In other words, the body is literally attacking itself.
- System lupus erythematosus
- Multiple sclerosis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Crohn’s disease
The treatment of both subtypes is quite complicated and involves surgery, chemotherapeutic drugs, and immunomodulators.
What is the difference between boosting and optimizing your immunity?
As we discussed above, the overactivation of the immune system is as bad as its deficiency.
Scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as “boosting” your immune system, as it would imply the arbitrary increase in the activity of immune cells.
Therefore, you shouldn’t opt to boost your immune system, but rather to optimize its effectiveness in fighting microbes and pathogens.
In the next sections, we will cover some vitamins, minerals, and supplements that may help you optimize your immune system.
Vitamins for better immunity
Vitamin B has many derivatives (e.g., B1, B2, B6) that are essential for the normal functioning of the immune system.
These vitamins are used to make new immune cells and maintain their activity.
Typically, we get sufficient amounts of vitamin B through our diet; however, in some cases, you may consider taking dietary supplements to compensate for the deficiency.
Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant, which is a necessary component to neutralize intracellular free radicals and reduce the risk of infections and disease.
There is scarce scientific evidence that supports the effectiveness of vitamin C in optimizing the immune system; however, some studies found that taking vitamin C supplements early can reduce the duration and severity of upper respiratory infections.
In one study published by the Cambridge University, scientists found that a selective group of vitamins can improve the activity of the immune system by optimizing the function of cellular and humoral responses.
One of the studied molecules was vitamin D.
Usually, vitamin D is produced by the body when exposed to the sun; however, many people are vitamin D deficient due to prolonged winter seasons, insufficient exposure to the sun, and other factors.
Minerals for better immunity
Iron is crucial for the proliferation and maturation of many cellular lines, including immune cells.
Additionally, several bactericidal processes depend on the oxidation of iron to produce free radicals.
The physiology of wound healing and immune function is dependent on the availability of zinc in the body.
Although zinc deficiency is rare, you may need to take dietary supplements if your doctor thinks it’s necessary.
Selenium offers many benefits for the body, including the moderation of immune responses to avoid aggressive inflammatory reactions against harmless antigens.
Selenium is found in garlic, broccoli, tuna, and barley.
However, some people prefer to get this necessary mineral from supplements.
Supplements for better immunity
Probiotics are live microorganisms that improve numerous physiological functions when taken in adequate quantities.
Supplementing your body with probiotics promotes the production of T cells, which are important components of the specific immune system.
Echinacea has been studied for years to demonstrate its immune-optimizing properties. This plant is loaded with phytochemicals, such as polyphenols that mediate the regulation of the immune system and other biological processes.
The major effect of echinacea is the potent antioxidant properties that reside within this plant.
In a 2018 paper, scientists analyzed the effects of echinacea on modulating the immune system and found conflicting results.
However, this plant still holds its reputation for being a potent optimizer of the immune system.
Optimizing the immune system is essential to fight off microbes and pathogens; however, you should be aware of the misleading advertisements that spread unrealistic claims about the “magical” effects of the advertised product.
Hopefully, you have a better idea about the type of molecules that genuinely help the immune system.
If you still have any questions about the immune system or the supplements cited above, feel free to ask in the comment section below.
Results may vary. Information and statements made are for general purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Her Own Health does not dispense medical advice, prescribe, or diagnose illness. The views and nutritional advice expressed by Her Own Health are not intended to be a substitute for conventional medical service. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.