The immune system is critical to your health if you are tired and suffer from fatigue. This post will teach you how this system works. Give your immune system some love. It will love you back with years of protection and health.
When you strengthen and balance your immune system, you leave your fatigue behind. You also lessen the risk for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, autoimmunity and cancer. Feel good, and lower risk. It’s a win-win situation.
What is an immune system, and why is it important?
The immune system is part of a complex interplay of activities that basically protect us from the environment. This all makes perfect sense. Everything on this planet needs to defend itself. It doesn’t matter if you are a tree, a snail, a bacterium, or a human.
Humans are basically a slurry of warm salt water, sugar, proteins and fats wrapped up into a skin. We are also gently marinated at a pleasant 98.6 degrees.
If you were to take a little fat, sugar, meat and water, heat it up to 98.6 degrees, and leave it out for a day or two, what would happen? The mix would rapidly turn into a bacterial sludge.
We have all had the experience of peering into the ancient sour cream container, pulled from the back of the refrigerator…
Imagine that you could magically arrive on a beach in Hawaii, stretch out on a mat, and sip on a daiquiri. Sounds pretty nice. That is exactly how a bacterium feels when it finally lands under our skin, stretches out on a muscle, and sips at our fluids.
In fact, we are a walking petri dish! We have great stuff inside of us: fat, sugar, proteins, minerals, nutrients. Every bacteria on the planet would give anything to take a restful holiday under our skin.
They would also love to invite along a few billion of their relatives.
Our immune system protects us from the environment
Its job is to hang up the “no visitors” sign.
The following paragraphs will help you to understand the fundamentals of immunology. These fundamentals provide a rationale for what your body does, and why it does it. When we understand the fundamentals of a system, we can begin to influence it. Influence leads to change.
A balanced and healthy immune system protects us from environmental challenges. These could be bacterial, parasitic, viral or toxic. It protects the castle of our body.
On the other hand, an unbalanced and intolerant immune system fails to recognize even our own cells. An attack on our own cells is the basis of autoimmune disease.
The Sacred Three Rules of Immunology are listed below. Consider these three rules, and vast opportunities will arise to modify and improve your health.
Rule #1: The immune system guards our borders
It is said that some 70 percent of the immune cells lie just below the lining of our gut. Another large percentage of the immune system’s cells lie just beneath our skin. It makes sense that we post our defense cells at the place of interface with the environment.
If you were a King who wanted to defend his castle, you wouldn’t station your guards in the dungeons. You would want them at the walls of the castle, standing guard at the turrets, or walking along the moat.
The body uses similar strategies. It posts cellular “guards” at the places where we are most likely to be “attacked” by something in the environment.
Simply put, our skins protects us from the outside world.
The skin we are the most familiar with is waxy, seven layers thick, and fairly difficult to disrupt. Remember the schoolyard taunt of “your epidermis is showing?” This is typically what we think about when we hear the word “skin.”
The second, far larger skin is the one that lines our gut. It essential to our physiology, nutrition, and immunology. Unlike the epidermis, this one is thin and delicate. It is only one layer thick, and if spread out flat, would cover an area equivalent to a doubles’ tennis court. That’s a lot of of space for our microscopic castle guards to cover.
A virus is measured in billionths of a meter. It should be no wonder that our immune system dedicates so many of its resources to protecting our skins.
If our body is a castle, the immune system cells are the guards at the gates. They are protecting the interface where the outside world stands a chance to get in, and to get a piece of us.
Rule #2: The immune system responds to molecular signals
The immune system doesn’t respond to sounds, pressure, colors or thoughts. It responds to molecular shapes.
This is not to say that sounds, colors and thoughts don’t influence our health. I can assure you that they do.
However the immune system cells respond only to molecular, three-dimensional shapes. Like a key in a lock, only defined patterns elicit a response. A certain key turns the lock; a certain shape found in the environment unlocks the attention of the immune system.
Molecular shapes come in different shapes, sizes, electrical and chemical configurations.
Think of how a power cord magnetically snaps into place on an Apple computer. This is a bit like how an environmental shape fits into the surveillance portion of the immune cell. This connection transmits environmental information to our immune system.
Like a key in a lock, the degree of “fit” determines the function. Different shapes elicit different responses.
This is important because the immune system doesn’t really qualify the source of the shapes. It doesn’t pass judgement. Not all bacteria are “bad” shapes. The bacterial species lactobacillus and bifidobacter calm, and modulate our immune system.
Other environmental shapes, like digested fiber, or the molecule or the plant alkaloid berberine, promote a calming tolerance within our immune cells.
Along these lines, not all foods are “good” shapes. We know that the protein gluten, acting through the immune cells, causes celiac disease in some people. A peanut could cause another’s throat to close. To the immune system, these are all just signals. Molecular shapes.
Genetics, prior exposure and a degree of cellular learning all contribute to the immune response. But its most basic function is in shape recognition.
I mentioned that there is a component of early recognition that is built into the system. Our immune system, through some DNA sleight-of-hand, is born pre-programmed to identify random molecular signals. It’s almost as if we have chemically tried to give ourselves a “heads up” for potential invaders, without knowing what those invaders might be.
We start life making proteins that work like 6 million random locks, hoping someday to get a running start on an environmental “key.” This is pretty cool.
A lock and key combination allows us to rev up the remainder of the immune response more quickly in the case of a real attack.
It’s like lighting a flare instead of waiting for the horseman to gallop back to the castle.
Rule #3: The immune system has only one response: Inflammation
Over the course of these discussions, we will frequently encounter the word inflammation. Controlling inflammation is critical to maintaining the body in a state of health.
What is inflammation? It is a cellular process that clicks into place when the castle walls have been breached. The specifics are extensive. It’s what takes 6 years for a PhD in Immunology.
For now it is easier to think of inflammation as something basic.
Like a pimple.
We’ve all had one. But this little isolated infection illustrates everything that is involved in the inflammatory process. The skin gets warm, red and painful as our blood vessels dilate. There is swelling, and pus is made as our own white cells die in battle. The pus and dead bacteria leave the pimple as the pus collection drains. (Although sometimes we give it a little help at the bathroom mirror.)
The important point here is that the choice of weapons is limited. Our body’s immune system can:
- Gobble down the invaders. This is known as phagocytosis, and occurs when a cell physically engulfs a bacteria or another cell (like a cancer cell)
- Poke holes in them. A collection of immune-directed proteins known as complement can create cellular wedges to wound, puncture and destroy invaders
- Douse them with bleach and hydrogen peroxide. This is the original chemical warfare. It’s a bit like pouring boiling oil from the turrets of the castle
Bleach. Peroxide. Gobbling down other cells. Punctures. These are basically the tools of the trade. But when the attack is finished, and the enemy is cleared, the immune system should retreat. Ideally it returns to a non-activated, but still-ready state.
Autoimmunity: When the immune system goes rogue
In autoimmunity, the system stays revved-up and active. It doesn’t shut down. And it does this with an unlikely, unfortunate twist. Here our own tissues become targeted as the “invaders.” Our immune cells mistakenly go to battle against the home team. Our own tissues are destroyed by the bleach, the peroxide, etc.
An immune response is a reaction to an environmental challenge. Redness, pain, pus, and swelling, whether a pimple or a pancreatitis, result from an activated immune response.
In summary, the immune system:
- Guards our borders
- Responds to molecular signals
- Uses inflammation to kill, damage, or remove attackers
Commit these three rules to memory! As we work our way through different “diagnosis” or “symptoms,” these rules will allow us to look at immune function through a different light.
With a different light we can ask new questions, obtain insightful testing, and implement different interventions.
Is your fatigue immune related? Ask these three simple questions:
First, has a border been breached? Can we identify and repair that border? For sure we can fix the epidermis. I have had stitches more than once. Every one of us has broken, and repaired our skin. Our cuts all slowly heal over time. Each scar is a memory of a past immune battle.
We can repair the skin that lines the gut, too. We need balanced nutrients, balanced cellular energy, and a well functioning digestive system. And we need to decrease the gut’s exposure to environmental toxins.
Second, is there a molecular signal that is keeping the immune system in a vigilant state? If so, can we remove it? If the signal is an infectious microbe, consider the herbs and medicines that can eradicate it, or at least allow the “healthy” microbes to dominate the gut.
Is the signal a food? A patient with celiac disease who fully avoids gluten is fully cured. Could an autoimmune state, or a state of fatigue, be precipitated by food allergies or sensitivities? What about other toxins that might be found in our diet, like preservatives, dyes, gums, herbicides or pesticides?
Remember that the immune system doesn’t discriminate. It is just responding to molecular shapes. It doesn’t care about a molecule’s pedigree. The response could be the same to an organic almond as to a disease-causing bacteria.
Third, is there an ongoing inflammatory state? If this is so, are there ways that we can suppress it? Can we identify the factor that is driving the immune system towards a state of inflammation? Can we measure it, and manage it?
The answer to all of these questions is “yes.”
Now picture the King in his safe castle. His guards are at the gates. There are no enemies in the forest. His stonework is strong. The vats of boiling oil have cooled.
It is in this place of peace, of balance, that the immune system works for, and not against our health.