The immune system is a complex biological system. In fact, after the human brain, it’s even the second most complex system. It constantly protects the body against infections and diseases. That’s why it’s important to understand how it works and why to take good care of it.
The immune system is the primary defense mechanism that constantly protects the body against viruses and bacteria, especially during the cold and flu season. That's why it's essential to give the immune system the care it needs – so that, in return, it can take care of the body. The immune system is incredibly complicated and utterly vital for survival. Several different systems and cell types work in perfect synchrony throughout the body. Immune organs, tissues, cells, and molecules are interconnected to fight off pathogens and clear up dead cells. External threats include germs such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins. If the immune system is doing its job correctly and runs smoothly, we don't even notice it's there. However, if the immune system is compromised due to deficiency or an aggressive form of bacteria or virus, the body reacts with illness.
The immune system is activated immediately once an unknown intruder – also known as antigens – is in the body, and a series of processes are triggered. The so-called B lymphocytes make antibodies, and these proteins lock onto the antigens, to mark them. Other cells, such as the phagocytes, remove or inactivate the unknown intruders. After the immune system successfully has terminated the antigens, the body usually stores information about the intruder/antigen – how to recognize it later again and fight it faster.
The immune system consists of immune organs, tissues, cells, and molecules that are interconnected to fight off external or internal threats. There are two main types of immune responses: innate immunity and adaptive immunity, and both are essential for health and survival:
Humans and animals are born with the innate immune system. Its primary purpose is to prevent the spread of harmful agents by attacking them with cells such as scavenger cells called phagocytes (or macrophages) and releasing numerous molecules (e.g., signaling molecules, antiviral compounds) that further assist and regulate the innate immune response. The innate immune system is the first to respond when it finds an invader. The line of defense includes the skin, the eye's cornea, and the mucous membrane that lines the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and genitourinary tracts. These physical barriers protect the body against harmful germs, parasites, or cells (such as cancer). If the pathogen manages to pass the innate immune system, the adaptive immunity kicks in.
The adaptive immune system develops during its lifetime in response to exposure to infections and toxins. Together with the innate system, it produces unique proteins (called antibodies) to recognize and kill harmful agents with which the body has previously come into contact. These antibodies are made by B lymphocytes cells after the body has been exposed to the intruder. The adaptive immune system is constantly learning and adapting, and therefore, the body can also fight bacteria or viruses that change over time. It builds up a library of antibodies to different pathogens, sometimes called immunological memory.
Both immune responses are interconnected and play a critical role in defense against infections.
The immune system is a highly complex network of organs, cells, and molecules that researchers are still working to understand. However, the reasons for having a strong immune system speak for themselves.
The first and most obvious benefit of having a strong immune system is being less susceptible to viruses and bacteria because the body fights them off effectively. This, in return, means fewer sick days.
Especially during the flu season, most people tend to take synthetic medication to fight off colds. But unlike natural medicine, synthetic medications are often accompanied by various side effects.
A strong immune response in the early stages of a cold or flu-like infection can reduce the illness's length and the severity of its symptoms.
Both the innate and the adaptive immune responses need to be well balanced. An effective immune system relies on a regulated immune response to successfully eliminate viral infections without harming the body.
For the immune system to work correctly, it needs to rely on balance and harmony. Researchers are still exploring the intricacies of the immune response and what exactly may strengthen it. At the moment, there is no scientific evidence that shows what positive effects lifestyle has on the immune function. However, healthy-living strategies such as diet, exercise, meditation, or stress management have proven health benefits, and overall good health has positive effects on the immune response system.
In terms of boosting the immune system, pharmacological treatments are rare and not the common choice. Immunotherapy, for example, is a type of cancer treatment that helps boost the immune system’s response to cancer cells. Other synthetic medications are prescribed when viruses or bacteria weaken the immune system. Most mild viral respiratory illnesses are managed symptomatically with these medications but not to boost the immune system. Some healthcare providers may recommend vitamins and supplements to boost the immune system. Vitamin C, B6, and E are the most common. However, these vitamins are already available in a healthy diet. And some supplements may cause side effects, especially when taking them in combination with other medicines. The effects of many supplements haven’t been tested in children, pregnant women, and other groups.
Several other non-prescription plant-based medications are used for fighting off viral infections and the common cold, not just for treatment but also for prevention. The most common natural ingredient is Echinacea, also known as the coneflower. Several studies have provided some positive results in effectiveness; however, at the same time, other clinical trials reported no effect compared with placebo. Since the data are conflicting in some areas and there is a lack of consistency concerning the Echinacea species, organs, and preparations used in each study, comparisons between trials are complicated.8-10
Other natural ingredients such as Swallowwort and Sulfur, especially in combination, affect the immune system by enhancing and supporting the body’s endogenous defense mechanisms. Studies have shown that certain natural medications with these ingredients stimulate the immune system to produce antiviral compounds, known as interferons which play a significant role in regulating immune responses.11
7. Chaplin D. Overview of the Immune Response. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010;125(2):S3-23. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2009.12.980.
8. Roxas M, Jurenka J. Colds and influenza: A review of diagnosis and conventional, botanical, and nutritional considerations. Altern Med Rev. 2007;12(1):25-48.
9. Barnes J, Anderson LA, Gibbons S, Phillipson JD. Echinacea species (Echinacea angustifolia (DC.) Hell., Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) Nutt., Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench): a review of their chemistry, pharmacology and clinical properties. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2005; 57(8):929-954. doi:10.1211/0022357056127
10. Turner R. Echinacea for the common cold: can alternative medicine be evidence-based medicine? Ann Intern Med. 2002;137(12): 1001-1002. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-137-12-200212170-00015
11. Enbergs H. Effects of the homeopathic preparation Engystol on interferon-gamma production by human T-lymphocytes. Immunol Invest. 2006;35(1):19-27. doi:10.1080/0882013050049675
12. Roeska K, Seilheimer B. Antiviral activity of Engystol(R) and Gripp-Heel(R): an in-vitro assessment. J Immune Based Ther Vaccines. 2010;8(1):6. doi:10.1186/1476-8518-8-6
13. Wronski S, Dannenmaier J, Schild S, et al. Engystol reduces onset of experimental respiratory syncytial virus-induced respiratory inflammation in mice by modulating macrophage phagocytic capacity. PLoS One 2018;13(4):e0195822. doi:10.1371.journal.pone.0195822
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