YOU and Your Doctor Are Your Medical Team – May 2024

Our body has a great “defense” system against disease. It is called the immune system, which is quite complex and involves many organs. When the immune system is working correctly, it has many functions including: (a) identifying the difference between your own cells versus those that are foreign to your body; (b) activating and mobilizing defenses to kill germs that may harm you, but ends the assault when the “threat” is gone; (c) identifying those germs that you’ve had previous contact with, developing antibodies against them and sending them out to destroy those germs when they try to enter your body again. There are 2 main parts of the immune system: The innate immune system – you are born with this, and the adaptive immune system – which you develop when your body is exposed to microbes/microorganisms/ bacteria or chemicals released by microbes. These two immune systems work together.

Some of the “parts” of the immune system: (a) the tonsils and adenoids – trap “invaders” such as viruses/bacteria as soon as they enter the body; (b) the spleen –stores white blood cells (WBCs) to fight infections and filters your blood, recycles old/damaged cells and makes new WBCs; (c) the skin – a protective barrier that helps stop germs from entering your body, produces oils, and releases other protective immune system cells; (d) the bone marrow – the soft, fatty tissue inside your bones produces your blood cells, including white blood cells/WBCs/ T-cells, which support your immune system; (e) the WBCs – attack and eliminate harmful germs. There are many types of white blood cells, and each has a task, like regulating inflammation, which happens when your immune cells are fighting off “invaders” or healing damage to your tissues; (f) the thymus gland – helps “mature” T-cells that were formed in the bone marrow, so they can tell one antigen from another and learn not to attack your body’s own tissues, and they normally can’t leave until they do. An antigen can be a chemical, a bacteria, viruses, or pollen; and (g) the lymph system – nodes and lymphatic vessels. It is a filtering system removing waste products that drain from your tissues/cells while retaining the good components/nutrients. Seventy percent of the immune system is located in the gut, where varied “good bacteria” are produced.

There are general guidelines on how to support your immune system, including: Don’t smoke, eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, if you drink liquor – limit consumption, get adequate sleep, try to minimize stress (this is a difficult one), stay hydrated, take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently, avoiding contact with people who are ill, etc. One recent study showed that smoking can have lasting effects even for years for lowering the body’s ability to fight off infection, and that it may also raise the risk of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. 

A good healthy diet supports your immune system to function well. There have been studies showing that some seniors experience “micronutrient malnutrition,” which is a diet lacking essential vitamins and minerals. Micronutrient deficiencies can be caused by insufficient intake, personal food choices, swallowing inability, impaired digestion, intestinal malabsorption, medical conditions, infections or chronic inflammation. Your weight is the most noticeable indicator of malnutrition. If you have lost weight, your current weight will be compared to your previous weights. Your body mass index (BMI) will also be determined and be compared to the normal BMI range for a person of your height and age.

Unless you have a medical condition and require a ”special” diet for a particular medical disease, these are general guidelines for a healthy diet to support your immune system: root and green leafy vegetables, orange and red produce, citrus fruits, nuts and seeds, beans, whole grains, fatty fish, low-fat dairy products. If you have questions about whether your diet is not providing you with all your “micronutrient” needs, discuss this with your family doctor. He/she may prescribe takinga daily multivitamin and/or mineral supplement. But keep in mind, taking several “one-a-day” vitamins daily or a mega- dose of a particular vitamin on your own is not the wisest thing to do – more is not necessarily better. FYI: Supplements are prone to mislabeling (and making false promises) because they aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Only purchase supplements that have been independently tested by third-party organizations like the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, and ConsumerLab.

If the immune system malfunctions – goes “haywire,” it mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues and organs. This creates an autoimmune disease, and these attacks can affect any part of the body, weakening bodily function and even causing a life-threatening situation. The onset of at least 50% of autoimmune disorders has been attributed to “unknown trigger factors,” but do tend to run in families, and especially (80%) in women. Currently, there are approximately 80 – 100 autoimmune diseases with no known cures. An autoimmune disorder can affect blood vessels and connective tissues – blood, bone, mucous membranes, nerves, endocrine glands such as the thyroid or pancreas, joints, muscles, red blood cells, skin and even the eyes.

Each autoimmune disease/condition is treated for the body organ/part that is under “attack.” This is a whole topic in and of itself –for other upcoming articles.

Jackie Kellum

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