Tag Archive for: immune function

honey

honey

Spring’s new growth and beautiful flowers brighten the world after long months of colder, wetter weather. But with that flourishing flora comes something else—pollen and seasonal allergies.

For many people, they can feel the moment the world around them shifts from winter into spring. Their eyes become watery and itchy. Their nose runs or stuffs up. Sneezing becomes just as common as laughing. When these symptoms pop up, it’s time to reach for the allergy medication so you can get through the day in one piece. But have you ever been told to reach for local honey for seasonal allergies instead?

Honey, particularly products harvested locally, is often suggested as a natural way to help you deal with allergies when spring comes around.

But does honey actually help with seasonal allergies? To answer that question and separate myth from fact, let’s look at how allergies work, how honey is made, and where the two might intersect.

What are Seasonal Allergies?

First, you have to understand what happens in your body when spring comes around. You can go in depth about seasonal allergies with this helpful story. But here’s a brief overview:

Imagine your body is a thriving 24/7 office building. All the busy workers inside the building are your cells. Some cells are in the department responsible for moving your muscles. Others are in departments that make sure you have the energy to go about your day.

The work your cells do is very important—it keeps you alive. But there are many threats inside and outside your body that can cause problems.

In a building, someone could break in, or internal issues, like a flood from a burst pipe, can pop up. In your body, you can cut your skin or breathe in foreign particles that can cause a variety of problems.

To protect you from potential threats, you have a natural security system—your immune system. This is like the security and on-site first responders in the office building. These immune cells are always on patrol. They keep an eye out for anything that they think might hurt you. When they find a potential threat, they mobilize quickly to contain and remove it.

However, they occasionally come across particles that are relatively harmless—like pollen from blooming trees and flowers—and your security system overreacts. Your immune cells trigger alarms throughout the entire building of your body, temporarily disrupting everyone’s work with sneezing, watery eyes, and a runny nose.

When the threat is taken care of, security posts pictures of the intruder so your cells can remember what it looks like for next time. And that’s why your seasonal allergies happen at predicable times.

Using Immune Memory to Your Allergy Advantage

When your immune system comes across pollen again, your immune cells recognize the pollen from all the pictures it took and posted up the last time they encountered one another. That memory allows your immune system to respond faster and better every time it encounters the familiar threat, because it learned how to best deal with it last time.

This system works great for threats like viruses or bacteria. These threats don’t usually happen every day, so the immune system doesn’t become desensitized to seeing the same problem repeatedly.

But imagine if the same problem kept happening every day. Most likely, the immune cells would stop responding as aggressively. Eventually, they might even learn to just live with it like a busted ceiling tile in the break room or a tiny leak in the roof whenever it rains.

When this conditioning is done intentionally, it’s called immunotherapy. These techniques can be used to help train your body to grow comfortable with having particles like pollen around, so your immune system learns to live with its presence and ignore it.

This is how allergy shots work. By giving you a concentrated dose of particle pieces that you’re allergic to every few weeks or months, you can train your immune system to desensitize itself to the presence of that allergy-causing substance.

How the Properties of Honey Relate to Seasonal Allergies

Now that you have the gist of seasonal allergies, let’s look at the next piece of this puzzle—honey.

Honeybees produce the sticky substance by gathering a liquid called nectar that is produced by flowering plants. The bees store nectar in an extra stomach in order to carry it back to their hive.

While the nectar is hanging out in the stomach, it mixes with other items the bee has eaten. This changes the chemical makeup of the nectar so it’ll last longer, like preserving fruits to make jam that can last longer on your shelf or in your fridge.

Once the bees return to their hives, they pass the preserved nectar from their stomach to another bee, who stores it in their extra stomach to pass on to another bee. The nectar passes from bee to bee until it reaches its final destination—a honeycomb.

After the last bee in the chain coughs up the nectar into the honeycomb, the bees in the hive use their wings to help any extra liquid in the nectar quickly evaporate so the honeycomb can be sealed up for storage. Now the bees have a sweet food storage to dig into during winter months, and humans have a sugary addition to their diet that may also help with seasonal allergies.

Now it’s time to circle back to the theory of using honey for seasonal allergies works. Basically, it goes like this:

When bees are gathering nectar from flowers they pick up pollen, which may end up mixed into the honey. So in theory, if you eat a lot of this pollen-containing honey, your immune system will start acclimating to seeing the pollen in your body. Once your immune system sees this once-alarming substance so many times, your immune cells stop responding to it.

With no immune cells sounding an alarm, your seasonal allergy symptoms aren’t triggered, and you can breathe easier.

But Does Local Honey Actually Help with Seasonal Allergies?

First, the bad news. There’s no guarantee the honey you eat has any pollen in it. Additionally, there are a lot of plants out there that produce pollen, and not all of them have flowers that are the preferred targets of honeybees.

In fact, honeybees usually prefer plants that aren’t commonly considered the main sources of pollen that commonly triggers seasonal allergies.

Other bad news: if someone has recommended you eat honey for allergies, they probably have told you that it needs to be local honey. That’s because different areas have different plants. If you eat honey with pollen from Alaska and you live in Arizona, the pollen in the honey will be very different from the particles hanging in the air around your house.

In many cases, local honey is also sold relatively unprocessed. That means there might be bee parts, bee venom, or bacteria. If you’re allergic to bees themselves, eating this type of honey might cause its own allergic reaction and make your allergy problem even worse.

There is Some Good News About Honey

Don’t toss your honey out just yet. Eating honey has many other benefits that can help you optimize your experience during the season. For instance, it can help soothe a cough, especially when used to sweeten tea instead of using sugar. Just don’t give it to kids younger than a year old, because it can cause a life-threatening illness called botulism.

There also might be some potential of using honey at high doses alongside normal allergy treatments to help manage the symptoms of seasonal allergies. There are few studies on this topic, and they often provide mixed results. But one small study found that large doses of unprocessed honey seemed to help sufferers of seasonal allergies deal with their symptoms, at least for a little while.

Of course, you’d probably need to eat a lot of honey. In that particular study, participants ate at least 50-60 grams (about two and a half tablespoons) of unprocessed raw honey every day for a couple of months.

What’s the Final Verdict?

With all that said, it’s time to answer the question—does eating honey help with seasonal allergies?

Well, it can certainly help you manage symptoms like a cough. And the theory about pollen in the honey makes sense. But, for now, it’s best to reach for the allergy medications and limit your time outdoors until pollen season has ended for the year.

pandemic vs epidemic

pandemic vs epidemic

COVID-19 has left its mark on all our lives—including our language. Let’s take a moment to think back on life in 2019. Back before the toilet paper shortages and society’s massive shift to working from home, how often did you use words like “epidemic” and “pandemic”?

Unless you work in the medical field or were talking about a movie, you probably didn’t think much about words like that. Now, it’s difficult for most people to go even a few days without hearing someone use one or both of those words on the news or in normal conversation. Everyone has just accepted words like “pandemic” and “epidemic” into daily lingo—but what does it mean? And what’s this new word “endemic” that other people have been using?

To get to the bottom of that question, let’s dive into the world of those who study diseases for a living. And along the way, take a look at the answer to the question on many people’s minds—will the pandemic ever end?

Epidemiology is the Word: The Study of Diseases

First, let’s look at the branch of medicine that sets the rules for what defines a pandemic vs endemic vs epidemic. This responsibility falls on epidemiologists—the scientists you’ve probably heard from the most during COVID-19. That’s because epidemiology is the study of the causes, risk factors, and spread of problems that threaten public health within specific populations.

Epidemiologists identify these potential threats and investigate them just like a detective investigates a crime. Their goal is to study the problem, figure out how it started, who’s most at risk of being affected, and determine the best course of action. They also look at ways to prevent the problem from getting worse.

Like any science, epidemiologists’ work is ongoing as they learn more about the threat, and the threat itself evolves and changes. Whenever you heard about the six-foot rule of social distancing or learned about when you should wear a mask, you were seeing the work of these scientists.

What’s an Epidemic?

When you first heard of COVID-19 in the end of 2019, it was described as an unknown type of pneumonia spreading quickly through millions of people in the city of Wuhan, China. Eventually, that virus spread past the city’s borders and throughout the rest of the country—until finally crossing oceans and borders.

In those first few months, the COVID-19 virus outbreak was an epidemic—a disease that had rapidly and unexpectedly spread through a large number of people within a specific population or region. There have been many other epidemics throughout the history of the world, including the smallpox, measles, and polio.

When an Epidemic Becomes a Pandemic

In some cases, an epidemic disease can move on to become a pandemic—an epidemic that has rapidly spread across borders into other countries and continents. The prefix pan- in pandemic means “all,” just like Pan American means “all the Americas.”

Not all epidemics move on to the next stage to become a pandemic. Some epidemics flare up and die out quickly before they can make the jump and go global. However, once the disease spread picks up and cases start to skyrocket as it spreads out from its country of origin, an epidemic arrives at its next definition and becomes a pandemic.

The COVID-19 epidemic officially became the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 when it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). By then, COVID-19 had spread to more than 100 countries. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the last pandemic was the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009.

When a Pandemic Becomes Endemic

So what’s the next step after a pandemic? In some cases, like polio, the widespread use of the polio vaccine in the United States got rid of the disease to the point that there hasn’t been a polio case in the country since 1979.

In other cases, the disease slows down, and fewer and fewer people get sick until the virus isn’t actively circulating through the population. Occasionally, there will be outbreaks that are quickly identified and monitored to prevent them from spreading. This is the case with measles. An outbreak happens when there are new disease cases in a population or region where the disease normally isn’t.

Then there are the diseases that slow down but don’t ever truly go away. They continue circulating within a specific population or region. Enough people within the population have immunity either from getting the disease or from vaccines, making it more difficult for the disease to spread as fast as it once did.

At some point in this process, the pandemic becomes an endemic—a disease that’s in constant circulation within a specific population or region. To remember the difference between epidemic and endemic, think of the “end-” in endemic. It makes an endemic a potential end to a pandemic.

Malaria is an example of an endemic. It’s mostly found in tropical countries and rarely spreads outside that confined range (and when it does, that’s classified as an outbreak).

Picturing the Pandemic End: The COVID-19 Endemic

Eventually, COVID-19 is expected to become an endemic disease. It won’t ever truly be gone, but as more and more people acquire some form of immunity, the severity and number of cases will decrease. Most scientists think COVID-19 will eventually become like the flu, where cases are worse during some seasons but the disease itself is always present.

So will there ever be an end to the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer to that is—yes. Eventually. But the disease itself won’t go away completely, and only time will tell what the COVID-19 endemic future will look like.

The old adage says, “an apple a day, keeps the doctor away.” But there are other immune supporting foods along the aisles of the grocery store. Immunity nutrition is a popular target of today’s diet trends. And while a variety of wholesome foods are needed to create a balanced diet, some are particularly good sources of immunity nutrients.

Foods that support your body’s immune system are nutrient dense. That means they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other helpful nutrients. Beta-glucans, vitamin C, B vitamins, and zinc are some of the most important immunity nutrients.

They all work to protect your health. These nutrients support the function of immune system cells—like neutrophils, macrophages, and natural killer cells. By supporting your natural defenses, immunity nutrition can help maintain your health.

It is important to get these nutrients in your daily meals. And the good news is each comes in a healthy, delicious package. Whether it’s red pepper, kiwi, chickpeas, or cashews, make sure you get immune supporting foods each time you go to the grocery store.

Fungi, Whole Grains, and Dairy: Beta Glucans

Mushrooms have famously been linked to immune health. But more foods than mushrooms contain beta-glucans—the nutrients responsible for mushrooms’ immune support. Beta-glucans are sugars found in the cell walls of fungi (like mushrooms), bacteria, and other plant material. They are also present in oats, other grains, and dairy products.

When you consume foods rich in beta-glucans, your immune system flourishes. Beta-glucans are immunostimulants, meaning they support the function and responsiveness of immune cells. These micronutrients support the normal activity of neutrophils, which help maintain your health.

Your immune response can be primed by molecules like beta-glucans. They train your innate immunity (your ancient immune system) to react to real threats with harmless stimuli. Now “awake” and alert to foreign triggers, your immune system is in a heightened state of awareness.

Macrophage (a type of white blood cell) activity is also stimulated by the presence of beta-glucans. Together (and with the help of beta-glucans) neutrophils and macrophages play an important role in maintaining your immune health.

And you don’t have to dig too deep to find beta-glucan-rich foods. Beta-glucans are large polysaccharides (large sugar molecules) that are added to foods to increase their fiber content. Many cereals, baking goods, instant oatmeal, and milk products are fortified with beta-glucans. Increase your awareness of dietary sources of beta-glucans so you can practice healthy immune nutrition.

Fruits and Veggies: Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. And it also works with your immune system to maintain your health. Neutrophils (yet another of the five major types of white blood cells) have a high concentration of vitamin C. They use it to reduce free radicals and other toxic oxygen species to protect themselves when they are out protecting your health.

The presence of vitamin C also triggers the activation—or maturation—of leukocytes.  These important immune cells are part of your body’s natural defenses that keep you feeling your best. Working in tandem with antibodies, leukocytes can direct other cells in your immune system. This essential function helps maintain healthy immunity.

They’re bright and vibrant, so foods rich in vitamin C are easy to spot when you are out shopping. Citrus fruits, colorful peppers, spinach, and broccoli are all excellent sources of this essential vitamin and antioxidant. You can make it a snack or a side dish. So, look out for your immune system and add vitamin C to your shopping cart.

Protein: B Vitamins and Zinc

This group of essential vitamins and a mighty mineral partner with your immune system to keep you healthy and feeling your best. B vitamins do this by supporting a healthy metabolism and helping to produce white blood cells. Zinc supports the development of immune cells and acts as an antioxidant—defending your body by destroying free radicals.

B vitamins are a class of their own. These eight immunity nutrients are commonly found in tuna, beef liver, chicken, and turkey meat. As mentioned above, they play an important role in a healthy immune system because they help your body manufacture white blood cells. B vitamins also support the creation of hemoglobin. This protein helps red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body.

Zinc aids in multiple immune system functions. In your body, zinc stimulates the production of immune cells. It also helps these cells initiate a proper immune response. Macrophages also rely on zinc to help them play their normal role in your body’s defenses.

Free radicals are no match for zinc, either. By helping to reduce toxic oxygen species, zinc can minimize free radical damage.

The essential mineral can be tricky to locate, though. Zinc is hiding in foods like oysters, crab, and lobster. But if high-priced seafood doesn’t suit your budget or taste buds, grab a box of healthy, whole-grain breakfast cereal instead. Many fortified and whole grain breakfast cereals contain a significant amount of zinc.

Eating immune supporting foods loaded with B vitamins and zinc help your immune system by supplying red blood cells with hemoglobin and increasing the number of fighter cells like leukocytes and neutrophils. Learn to rotate macronutrient choices so you get some variety while focusing on immunity nutrition.

Immunity Nutrients Shopping List

Immune supporting micronutrients can be acquired through healthy eating. If you have trouble locating the foods below, or avoid them for any reason, you may need some help supporting immunity. Nutritional supplements can also provide these necessary micronutrients for immune support. Supplementation can help your body stay topped off with the immunity nutrients of which you need more.

But start with this shopping list, which provides ample dietary sources of immunity nutrition. You should be able to find foods rich in beta-glucans, vitamin C, B vitamins, and zinc at the grocery store, farmer’s market, or in your own garden.

These nutrients are hiding in plain sight. All you need to do is eat and enjoy. Bon Appetit!

Beta-Glucans

  • Whole wheat bread
  • High-fiber whole wheat cereals
  • Oats
  • Mushrooms
  • Seaweed
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Low-fat meat products

Vitamin C

  • Oranges
  • Kiwifruits
  • Grapefruits
  • Red peppers
  • Green peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Spinach

B Vitamins

  • B vitamin fortified cereals
  • Liver
  • Chicken breasts
  • Salmon
  • Eggs
  • Yogurt

Zinc

  • Oysters
  • Lobster
  • Crab
  • Beef
  • Chickpeas
  • Cashews
  • Kidney Beans

Your immune system is always working to keep you healthy. Understanding how your body protects itself gives you ammunition to fight off germs. There are a lot of immune system myths out there about keeping yourself healthy. Do your research to separate the fact from fiction so you don’t fall for these immunity myths.

Start on the right path by reading this list that busts seven of the most common immune system myths. Learn what does and doesn’t make you sick. And discover the facts about steps you can take to stay healthy year-round.

Immunity Myth 1: Cold weather makes you sick

Sure as the changing of the seasons, you can be certain you’ll wind up catching something in the winter. The question is, why? People often contract common cold viruses in cold months. So, you might believe low temperatures are responsible for making you sick.

Not so.

A link does exist between chilly temperatures and sickness, but it is a correlation, not a cause-and-effect relationship. Most likely the changes in behavior associated with cold weather are what trigger these seasonal surges.

Cold weather keeps people indoors for longer periods of time. This leads to the spread of germs between people who are in close contact. Think family members, co-workers, classmates, or the people with whom you share a bus ride. Proximity to others is the primary way viruses spread, regardless of outdoor temperature.

A similar pattern occurs when children return to school after summer break, or when you start attending a new gym. Physical closeness to lots of people increases the chance you’ll catch a bug (whether it’s warm or cold outside.)

Some research highlights that cooler temperatures provide a better living environment for specific viruses. Rhinovirus (the microbe responsible for the common cold) is usually living dormant in your nasal passages waiting for more suitable temperatures. When cooler weather comes along, it wakes up and reproduces.

If you stay inside due to the weather, an inadvertent cough or sneeze sends the cold virus into the air you share with others. Because colder weather brings people closer, a sneeze might be all it takes to spread a cold. But the temperature change was only part of the equation.

Immunity Myth 2: Seasonal allergies are a sign of a weakened immune system

The opposite is true. Seasonal allergies are the result of an over-reactive immune response mistaking small particles in the air for harmful microorganisms. Consider allergies the hallmark of an over-vigilant immune system, rather than one slacking off.

It can be difficult to distinguish allergies from other upper-respiratory issues. They share many of the same symptoms, but are not contagious. You might experience a headache, congestion, runny nose, watery/itchy eyes, or even a sore throat. All are symptoms of a cold, too.

The difference is allergies aren’t triggered by bacteria or viruses. Harmless particles like dust, pollen, or mold are introduced to your body when you breathe. If you have seasonal allergies, your immune system responds to these particles like it would a potential pathogen.

To minimize your allergy symptoms, try to identify the source of your allergy. If it is pollen, avoid blooming plants. Dust allergies can ramp up when it is windy outside. So, consider protecting your mouth and nose with a mask on windy days.

These allergies are seasonal, as their name implies. That means time will start to bring relief. Allergy symptoms can be controlled well with proper medication prescribed by a physician. Talk to a doctor and see if they can help you find a way to manage your seasonal allergies.

Immunity Myth 3: Handwashing “kills” viruses

You might be surprised to learn that washing your hands doesn’t actually kill viruses. Viruses aren’t alive, which means they can’t replicate on their own, but washing does rid your hands of viruses in another way.

Soap adheres to the membrane, or outer wall of viruses. And soap molecules also compete with the lipids within the virus membrane to help pry it apart and render it harmless. This stickiness means microbes can be rinsed away with water. When you wash your hands, you are literally washing off the viruses that can make you sick.

If you want a refresher on how to properly wash your hands then check out this handy guide. Proper handwashing technique is important, and there’s more to it than you might think.

After you are done washing your hands make sure you dry them thoroughly. It is harder for viruses to transfer from dry hands. Wash and dry often throughout the day. Handwashing won’t kill the germs that can make you sick, but can effectively get rid of them.

Immunity Myth 4: Hand sanitizer is more effective than handwashing

Handwashing with soap and water is the most effective way to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. When handwashing is not available, hand sanitizer is a good backup option.

Unlike handwashing, hand sanitizers do destroy microbes. The alcohol in hand sanitizer deactivates viruses and keeps them from transferring from your hands. Hand sanitizer made of at least 60 percent alcohol effectively kills bacteria and microbes on your hands.

To make the most of your hand sanitizer, try to remove visible dirt and debris first. Wipe your hands off with a napkin or cloth before using sanitizer to clean. Dirt and oils from your skin make hand sanitizer less effective at killing microbes.

Hand sanitizer isn’t as effective at removing microbes as hand washing, but it is practical. Having hand sanitizer with you is a convenient way to clean your hands on the go. When you are out shopping or driving in your car, you can’t always stop to wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer in these situations to keep yourself safe from germs.

Immunity Myth 5: “Feed a cold, starve a fever”

This refrain is one of the more pervasive immune system myths. Your body needs adequate fuel to fight off infections of any kind. Imagine trying to fight a battle on an empty stomach. That’s how your immune system will behave if you restrict what you eat when you’re sick.

There isn’t much evidence to support the notion that fasting reduces a fever. In fact, your body’s calorie demands increase when you fight off an infection. Your immune system needs energy from your diet to increase white-blood-cell production. The rise of your internal body temperature boosts your metabolism, too. This means you need more calories to keep up.

However, if you’re feeling sick you might not have a big appetite. This is completely normal. Don’t force yourself to eat if you don’t want to. You might end up feeling nauseous.

But whether you have a cold or fever, it is important to eat what you can when you’re sick. Stick to whole, nutritious foods if you’re under the weather. Many fruits, cooked vegetables, and protein are easy on the stomach and supply you with the essential nutrients your body needs. Choose those that sit well with you.

Immunity Myth 6: Chicken noodle soup will shorten your cold

As good as this sounds, a bowl of soup is not a cure of any kind. Chicken noodle soup is, however, a time-honored comfort food. Unfortunately, the soup itself boasts no magical healing powers—the plumage of the chicken used to make the soup doesn’t either.

Time, rest, and appropriate medication are the only ways to defeat an infection.

That isn’t to say chicken noodle soup is a bad idea. It’s a great way to deliciously acquire some hearty nutrition. It’s full of quality ingredients that can help fuel your body in its time of need. Antioxidants and vitamins from the veggies help support your immune system. And protein from chicken gives sustainable energy to aid in the fight.

Soups (and other hot meals) will help alleviate some of the symptoms of a cold. The steam from the broth can help clear the sinuses and heat can soothe a sore throat.

Other foods can provide similar relief. Hot tea, honey, rice, bananas, and applesauce are palatable and can settle an upset stomach. Try some of these foods the next time you’re feeling unwell. They won’t cure your cold on their own, but will fill you up with the nutrition you need to support your immunity.

Immunity Myth 7: Exercise weakens the immune system

Taking on an Olympic-style training program might throw your immune system for a loop. But regular, low-impact exercise can do your body good. A habit of exercise is a reliable way to prepare your body for germs that might come along.

White blood cells flourish when you work out. Exercise increases cell turnover in your body and stimulates the production of these important immune cells. After all, they’re the front-line troops fighting against viruses and bacteria.

Make it a goal to exercise for your immune health, and overall wellbeing. Be sure not to overdo it, as too much vigorous exercise can have a detrimental effect. Keep it simple with walking, jogging, or swimming. Just make sure to move your body every day to support your immune system.

Stop the Spread of Immune System Myths and Misinformation

Now that you know the false facts surrounding immunity, do your part to replace the myths with the truth.

Make sure you practice appropriate safety measures during times of increased viral spread. Demonstrate your knowledge about immunity myths by prioritizing exercise and eating nutritious foods to keep you feeling strong. Teach your family and friends about the importance of handwashing.

Bust the myths about your immune system and do what you can to help your body stay healthy.

Your immune system is in a battle every day. That’s its job.

You’re protected by a coordinated defense. Cells, proteins, and chemical signals join forces against bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other pathogens. And your immune system also helps in wound healing, cellular and tissue turnover, and repair.

A healthy, functional immune system is a complex machine. It contains many layers, subsystems, tissues, organs, and processes. But a basic understanding can help you see what you need to maintain healthy immunity.

Barriers to Entry

Imagine your body as a castle to be defended. The first layer of defense are your physical and chemical barriers. They’re the high, thick walls that turn away many intruders.

Your skin is the most obvious physical barrier. And it’s a good one. Your largest organ is a waterproof covering that protects you against pathogens. Skin’s construction, substances on the surface, and other compounds in deeper layers help it provide protection.

Skin does a good job, but there are other paths into the body. That’s why other physical barriers exist.

Your upper respiratory tract has tiny hairs called cilia. They move potentially harmful material away from your lungs. Your gut barrier blocks absorption of possibly harmful substances. And your excretory (bathroom) functions physically expel pathogens.

Mucus blurs the line between the physical and chemical. Whatever category you put it in, mucus is an effective trap for invaders. It’s produced by membranes throughout your body. This thick, gluey substance is your body’s sticky trap, grabbing microbes and not letting go.

Other chemical barriers include: tears, saliva, stomach acid, and protective chemicals produced inside of cells and in your blood.

Immunity in General: Your Innate Immune System

The innate immune system is sometimes called the non-specific immune system. This subsystem of your larger immune defense is loaded into your genetic code. That’s the innate, or inherent, part. And it provides more general protection, destroying any microbes that enter your body. That’s the non-specific part.

Your cellular defenses kick in if a pathogen survives your physical and chemical barriers—which could also be considered part of the innate subsystem. That’s where phagocytes (a specific type of immune cell) come in. These white blood cells act like guards patrolling your body and destroying invaders.

These cells are found throughout the tissues of your body. They kill pathogens through a process called phagocytosis. It’s complicated, but there’s a simple way to understand it.

Phagocytes eat the invading microbes. They were named phagocytes for a reason—phago comes from the Greek for “to eat.” Phagocytes ingest or engulf the invaders. While trapped, several killing mechanisms are deployed to destroy the pathogen.

Some phagocytes have receptors that distinguish between healthy cells and potentially harmful substances. (They also deal with turnover of dead and dying cells.) Other pathogen eaters are chemically signaled to sites where they can be most useful. Phagocytes even help with the cleanup and repair after the invaders are destroyed.

Adaptive Immunity

Your adaptive immune system is like an immunity database. After encountering a specific pathogen, you have immune cells that can recall the best way to destroy it. That’s why it’s also referred to as specific or acquired immunity.

The original pathogen exposure can be intentional or accidental. That doesn’t matter. A normal, healthy response starts with an antigen. Think of an antigen as the bar code of each cell. Just like every item in the grocery store has a unique bar code, each cell type has a unique antigen code to identify it.

These antigens—mostly proteins—can also identify pathogens. Our immune system has learned to read these antigen codes. When they recognize something as being foreign, they initiate an immune response.

Each unique antigen triggers the creation of a unique antibody. The y-shaped antibody binds back to the corresponding antigen and marks the invader for attack by other immune cells. Some antibodies can even take care of business for themselves.

Lymphocytes (another specific type of immune cell) are the main cells involved in your adaptive immune system. Two types of white blood cells—T and B cells—are produced in your bone marrow. They can attack and kill pathogens on their own, or assist other white blood cells in the responses.

T and B cells form the basis for your body’s immunity memory bank. B cells present antigens and create and release antibodies. Memory T cells—those that survive previous attacks—quickly and effectively respond to known pathogens. Together, they help your immune system efficiently and effectively destroy known bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens.

Defend Your Immune System

Above, you’ve read about the way a normal, healthy immune system functions. But your defenses can be impacted by your environment, diet, stress, sleep, travel, and other lifestyle factors.

Healthy immune function is a whole-body effort, and maintaining it takes a holistic approach. Here’s a few things that can help:

  • Get at least seven hours of sleep a night—and avoid pulling any all-nighters.
  • Exercise regularly to promote memory cells, enhance skin immunity, and mobilize immune cells.
  • Minimize stress as much as possible or practice healthy coping strategies, like exercise.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins to provide essential micro- and macronutrients and important phytonutrients. A healthy diet (that includes healthy amounts of fiber) will also provide your microbiome with what it needs to maintain good gut barrier function.
  • Practice good hygiene, including frequent handwashing, so your body doesn’t have to deal with as many pathogens in the first place.