Find out what you can do every day to make your Immune System as strong as it can be!
Boosting the Immune System
As a biology teacher at Hoffman Estates High School I asked my junior and senior students to fashion a question for the Ask A Scientist board. We are presently studying the immune system and my students want to know if there is any artificial or natural way in which to boost their immune systems? Can you help us with this concept? Thanks from 6th hour biology.
Response #: 1 of 2
Author: Lou Harnisch
Text: Antioxidants like vitamin C & E would offer protection. Vitamin A strengthens mucus membranes to thwart invaders and enhance total resistance (not necessarily immunity). Being generally physically fit is a huge factor, but studies with professional athletes suggest a faster spread of viruses and other agents through their system. Ginseng, mineral springs (hormesis – low ionizing radiation stimulation), and other agents have not been proven beneficial scientifically. In general, if you minimize damage via UV and other radiation to the immune system, minimize the aging process, you will maximize your immune response. Since Louis Pasteur, we should not forget targeting specific immunity via vaccines. Also, bone marrow transplants will help those that are immunodeficient. It is hoped that biotechnology will produce antibodies and other agents to order, that will be the magic bullets against any immunoinvader.
Response #: 2 of 2
Text: I was looking at the response to boosting one’s immune system and I wonder if you would consider a couple of other options. The first is that there are some new biotechnology medicines coming out on market which are called Colony Stimulating Factors. These compounds will cause the bone marrow to produce more of certain kinds of white cells. White Blood Cells of course are the specific component of blood which fights infection. The second is perhaps irrelevant. When one takes antibiotics one is in effect boosting one’s immune system, this applies whether the antibiotic is prophylactic or if the med is for an existing infection. Remember, an antibiotic cannot eliminate and infection without the aid of the bodies own immune system.
Protecting ourselves from disease is a three-step process:
- Individuals must be vaccinated;
- A high percentage of our population must be immunized, to establish community immunity; and
- We must take additional steps to prevent outbreaks of disease.
Step 1: Vaccination of individuals
- Aside from surviving a bout with a disease, Nature provides us with very few certain methods of avoiding disease.Living a healthy lifestyle and providing our bodies with good nutrition keeps us strong, but many people who do both of these are still susceptible and fall ill with colds, flu, or other contagious diseases when outbreaks occur.
- A mother who breast-feeds shares some antibodies and other protective substances, and therefore her immunity, with her baby, but this protection is short-term. Mothers also pass antibodies to the fetus before birth via the placenta.
- Some people are immune to certain diseases from birth via their genetic lineage (the genes passed to them from their ancestors); for example, some from the Mediterranean inherit a genetic trait that enhances resistance to malaria. However, this kind of genetic advantage sometimes has a high biological price tag. For a fraction of people with the malaria-resistance trait, for example, the price is sickle cell anemia, a condition in which red blood cells take on a crescent shape and clog tiny blood vessels, slowing or blocking circulation to the rest of the body and causing fever and severe pain. About 1 in 10 American children of African heritage carry the trait for sickle cell, and about 1 in 500 develop sickle cell disease.(1)
The remaining choice for an individual to avoid disease is to avoid everyone and everything at all times. Even a dedicated hermit can’t do this. So, we are very fortunate to have another choice. We can live healthy, longer lives by being immunized. In 1996, almost 82 million immunizations were given safely to American infants, children, and adults.(2)
Step 2: Establishing community immunity
Community immunity is a vital second step in protecting against many diseases that are spread from one person to another, such as diphtheria, measles, and mumps. The greater the proportion of people who are immunized, the greater are the effects of community immunity. With community immunity, people in whom an immunization has failed or worn off, and the people who cannot or have not had the opportunity to be immunized, will still be protected. Community immunity is not helpful in preventing a disease like tetanus, which is caught not from people but from injuries such as cuts or punctures, allowing the microorganism Clostridium tetani (which is found in soil) and its toxins to invade the body.
Step 3: Practical measures to prevent disease
Immunization is our very best defense against disease. Other practical measures, such as quarantine, sanitation, hygiene, proper food handling, and changes in lifestyle vary in their prevention potential, depending on the disease. A vaccine against malaria would result in more effective and sustained prevention, but none has been developed yet.
Quarantine means isolation of an individual with a highly contagious disease from the rest of the community. Quarantine is a two-part responsibility. It means that others should protect you by isolating themselves when they are ill, and that you should protect others by isolating yourself when you are ill. Unfortunately, for many diseases, transmission (spread) of organisms that cause the disease occurs very early in the course, often before the illness has declared its presence clearly enough to stay home from work or school. Meanwhile, the infected individual may have already spread the disease to many others. Another problem with quarantine is that our society is not always supportive of staying home from work or school when we are not feeling well. So, while we recognize self-quarantine as a helpful and responsible thing to do, it is not a reliable way to prevent the spread of disease.
Eliminating sources of contamination, such as unsafe water supplies or improperly handled meat, spares much human suffering from certain types of diseases, but would have little or no impact on diseases like measles, pertussis, polio, or mumps. In countries where the rate of malaria is high, control or elimination of the mosquitoes that transmit the disease is an important measure. However, a vaccine against malaria would result in more effective and sustained prevention (none has been developed yet).
A change in lifestyle can be a small but significant change. For instance, washing hands more frequently will prevent hand-to-mouth transfer of some disease-causing agents.
1. Campbell NA. Biology. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings Publishing, 1987:275.
2. National Immunization Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine doses distributed in the United States by funding source: calendar year 1996.
Four Habits that Weaken the Immune System
Certain foods and environmental influences can keep the immune system army from doing a good job. Watch out for these threats to your body’s defenses.
1. Overdosing on sugar
Eating or drinking 100 grams (8 tbsp.) of sugar, the equivalent of one 12-ounce can of soda, can reduce the ability of white blood cells to kill germs by forty percent. The immune-suppressing effect of sugar starts less than thirty minutes after ingestion and may last for five hours. In contrast, the ingestion of complex carbohydrates, or starches, has no effect on the immune system.
2. Excess alcohol
Excessive alcohol intake can harm the body’s immune system in two ways. First, it produces an overall nutritional deficiency, depriving the body of valuable immune- boosting nutrients. Second, alcohol, like sugar, consumed in excess can reduce the ability of white cells to kill germs. High doses of alcohol suppress the ability of the white blood cells to multiply, inhibit the action of killer white cells on cancer cells, and lessen the ability of macrophages to produce tumor necrosis factors. One drink (the equivalent of 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 ounces of hard liquor) does not appear to bother the immune system, but three or more drinks do. Damage to the immune system increases in proportion to the quantity of alcohol consumed. Amounts of alcohol that are enough to cause intoxication are also enough to suppress immunity.
3. Food Allergens
Due to a genetic quirk, some divisions of the immune army recognize an otherwise harmless substance (such as milk) as a foreign invader and attack it, causing an allergic reaction. Before the battle, the intestinal lining was like a wall impenetrable to foreign invaders. After many encounters with food allergens, the wall is damaged, enabling invaders and other potentially toxic substances in the food to get into the bloodstream and make the body feel miserable. This condition is known as the leaky gut syndrome.
4. Too much fat
Obesity can lead to a depressed immune system. It can affect the ability of white blood cells to multiply, produce antibodies, and rush to the site of an infection.
Weak Immune Systems and Food Sickness
The Food and Drug Administration is advising consumers to be aware of safe handling and preparation practices for fresh fruits and vegetables. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the occurrence of foodborne disease increases during the summer months for all foods, including fresh produce.
Foodborne illness can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons with foodborne illness can experience fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
Following are some steps that consumers can take to reduce the risk of foodborne illness from fresh produce:
- At the store, purchase produce that is not bruised or damaged. If buying fresh cut produce, be sure it is refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
- At home, chill and refrigerate foods. After purchase, put produce that needs refrigeration away promptly. (Fresh whole produce such as bananas and potatoes do not need refrigeration.) Fresh produce should be refrigerated within two hours of peeling or cutting. Leftover cut produce should be discarded if left at room temperature for more than two hours.
- Wash hands often. Hands should be washed with hot soapy water before and after handling fresh produce, or raw meat, poultry, or seafood, as well as after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.
- Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables with cool tap water immediately before eating. Don’t use soap or detergents. Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush. Cut away any bruised or damaged areas before eating.
- Wash surfaces often. Cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops should be washed with hot soapy water and sanitized after coming in contact with fresh produce, or raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Sanitize after use with a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water.
- Don’t cross contaminate. Use clean cutting boards and utensils when handling fresh produce. If possible, use one clean cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood. During food preparation, wash cutting boards, utensils or dishes that have come into contact with fresh produce, raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Do not consume ice that has come in contact with fresh produce or other raw products.
- Use a cooler with ice or use ice gel packs when transporting or storing perishable food outdoors, including cut fresh fruits and vegetables.
Following these steps will help reduce the risk of foodborne illness from fresh produce.