We all know what happens when our immune system ‘fails’ us: colds, flus, allergies.
But what exactly is the immune system, how does it work, and what can we do to ensure that it’s operating optimally to both protect us and fight off nasties?
At its simplest, our immune system exists to protect us from pathogens: bacteria, parasites and viruses. It’s called a ‘system’ because it’s made up of a network of cells, tissues and organs that all play different roles in fighting off these invaders. The majority of our immune cells and tissues are found in our bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen and thymus, and there’s a lot of emerging science that links healthy gut function with immunity, too. When these pathogens, or antigens, invade our bodies, it triggers the immune system into action. One of the main ways immune cells ‘fight’ is by producing proteins, called antibodies, that bind to the surface of the ‘bad guy’ cells and attack.
There are lots of different types of immune cells, with different functions, including:
- B-lymphocytes, which produce very specific antibodies to neutralise very specific antigens. For example, there are special B lymphocytes devoted to fighting flu viruses
- T-lymphocytes, which help to clear the system of ‘good’ cells that have been infected
- Natural killer cells, which also help to destroy a wide range of pathogens and tumour cells. They also help other immune cells function better
- Phagocytes, which actually ‘eat’ and destroy foreign invaders by engulfing them
- Helper T-cells, which are sensitised to detecting invasion and instruct T-cells to get to work
- Memory T-cells, which remember antigens that have previously infected the body, and how to deal with them
- Granulocytes, which are the most numerous of all the white blood cells. Neutrophils are a type of granulocyte. They are the first cells to migrate to the site of infection to initiate killing pathogenic microbes. They also release substances, like lactoferrin, to help kill the microbes and to stimulate other immune responses
Medical science looks at two different types of immunity:
- Natural immunity, or the level of immune system function we are either born with, or develop in very early life within the womb and through mother’s milk
- Acquired immunity, or the types of functions we ‘learn’ by being alive and in contact with antigens
In theory at least, our immune systems get more proficient with practice, responding faster and better with each ‘attack’.
But a lot can go awry with immunity, and it’s rarely as straightforward as having steadily improving resistance to illnesses. If we do not take care of our immune system, immune cell function may weaken, failing to respond effectively when needed.
The best place to start for optimal wellbeing is a healthy diet and good exercise and rest. But what else can we do to support the function of our immune system and increase our defences? Strong immunity is something we all want, and the popularity of supplements like vitamin C and echinacea on health food store and supermarket shelves speak to our desires to live strong, active and resilient lives.
Lactoferrin is naturally produced in our bodies as part of healthy immune system functioning, where it helps to both boost the activity of immune cells, including lymphocytes and phagocytes, and directly fight those invaders. Lactoferrin can also be found in dairy. Taken internally as part of a healthy lifestyle strategy, dairy sourced Lactoferrin has been shown to essentially do the same thing as human Lactoferrin: support a healthy immune response.
Armed with good information about our immune systems and how they operate, and knowledge of strategies to boost our defense can be the key to getting our amazing protection and defense systems operating optimally: another critical component of living a healthy, vital life.