Your body is pretty tough. It fights off invading bacteria and viruses and keeps your body free of dangerous pathogens. But this kind of protection doesn’t happen by accident. Your immune system is an intricate machine with lots of moving parts that keep you safe in different ways.
White blood cells are the defenders we’re most familiar with. They float through your blood stream looking for pathogens that have entered the body. When they find something they don’t recognize, they attack, neutralizing the pathogen and calling for reinforcements. The lymph nodes create and store infection fighting-cells, which rush to the scene. Bone marrow produces more white blood cells. And the spleen cleans out old and damaged cells from the blood stream. Working together, it’s a pretty formidable team.
One of the most impressive features of your immune system is its ability to learn. Special cells called lymphocytes actually catalogue the kinds of bacteria and viruses they find. As a result, the system can fight them more quickly and more efficiently the next time they are encountered.
This is important for a couple of reasons. Primarily, it means that the immune system can be “educated”. By introducing vaccines, we can stimulate the immune system to learn how to produce antibodies for diseases without ever getting infected by them. That way, if we do come in contact with that disease in the future, our body will already know what to do. Similarly, it is important that we expose ourselves to daily pathogens so that our body can learn to fight them. Overdoing it with hand sanitizers or disinfectants can be too much of a good thing. Practice good hygiene, but don’t go overboard.
Secondly, our bodies encounter billions of germs and bacteria every day. Many of them live in our bodies all the time. But they’re not all bad; in fact, some of them are even beneficial. Because our immune system can learn, it can leave be those microbes in our bodies that are helpful, cultivating good bacteria for digestion and other processes.
Of course, our immune system isn’t without its faults. Have you ever had an allergy attack? You can blame that on your immune system. Your body thinks, for instance, that pollen is a threat to your system, so it reacts to get that pathogen out. Basically, a defensive misfire. The immune system can attack your body, too. Autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, cause the immune system to attack healthy tissue.
Your immune system does a lot for you, but there are some things you can give it in return. A healthy lifestyle can help to boost your immunity. Eating right and reducing stress are the biggest aids. And don’t forget to get plenty of sleep: lack of sleep can lower defenses and make it harder for you to fight infections.