By Eulalee Thompson
The immune system, the body's defence mechanism against infections, is a health topic worthy of a lot of our attention. Every chance I get I try to read as much as possible about it. It appears that if scientists would focus more on the immune system, we should be able to do much more to prevent and conquer tough diseases such as cancer.
This defence mechanism is quite complex, using the body's network of cells, tissues and organs to keep 'invaders' at bay or to attack them once they enter the body. These 'invaders' include bacteria, fungi, parasites, infected cells and even tumours. The literature on vaccines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, describes just how intelligent the immune system is:
"The first time the body encounters a germ, it can take several days to make and use all the germ-fighting tools needed to get over the infection. After the infection, the immune system remembers what it learned about how to protect the body against that disease. The body keeps a few T-lymphocytes, called memory cells, that go into action quickly if the body encounters the same germ again. When the familiar antigens are detected, B-lymphocytes produce antibodies to attack them."
The immune system also plays a role in fighting cancer, the abnormal growth of cells. However, the immune system doesn't always win the battle and so sometimes we develop disease. Well, let's look at, for example, cervical cancer, which science now says is linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). The CDC states, "Usually, the body's immune system gets rid of the HPV infection naturally within two years. This is true of both high-risk and low-risk types."
The virus, which is also very common in men, will affect four out of every five women by the time they reach age 50, at one point in their lives, according to the CDC. It's interesting the crucial role of the immune system in whether the woman develops cervical cancer. Again quoting from the CDC:
"When the body's immune system can't get rid of a high-risk HPV infection, it can linger over time and turn normal cells into abnormal cells and then cancer. About 10 per cent of women with high-risk HPV on their cervix will develop long-lasting HPV infections that put them at risk for cervical cancer. Similarly, when high-risk HPV lingers and infects the cells of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or the oropharynx (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils), it can cause cell changes called precancers."
Boosting the immune system
Since the immune system plays such a crucial role in whether we develop disease, what can we do to boost its action? Fortunately, from all I have been reading so far, the healthy lifestyle messages which you have become accustomed to reading about in this Health section also apply to strengthening the immune system.
These messages include: washing your hands regularly (use clean running water and soap and rub hands together for at least 20 seconds); exercising regularly (walking, jogging, playing a sport, dancing, etc. most days of the week); getting adequate and restful sleep; eating well (reduce sugar and 'bad' fats, increasing vegetables and fruits, avoiding processed foods, getting more antioxidants); managing stress (build a supportive social network, exercise, relax, engage in deep breathing techniques); not smoking; and restricting alcoholic drinks to no more than one or two per day, for women and men, respectively.
And oh, by the way, get a pet. Yes, studies have shown that having a pet dog boosts health and immune system.
Eulalee Thompson is freelance health editor and a therapist & counsellor in private practice; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.