Your Immune System: Agents and Infiltrators

Your Immune System: Agents and Infiltrators

Enhancing Your Immune System Series

Written By: Laura Tetrault

Reading Time: 6 mins

As a lay person, and not a medical professional at Leamington Wellness Pharmacy I thought I had a general idea of how it all worked, but in light of the current pandemic I thought I would look into ‘how not to get sick’. I knew it had something to do with an immune system and white (or was it red?) blood cells attacking invading bacteria and viruses. But in order for it to be an “elegant defence” as Matt Richtel calls it, our immune system had to be more than that. So I started at the beginning, asking,


"What is our immune system and how does it work?”


There are 3 different ways that our immune system mounts its elegant defence:

First as a barrier that prevents bacteria and viruses from getting into our bodies. Beyond the obvious functions of skin, did you know it secretes antibacterial substances? According to Marshall Brian in his article for HowStuff those secretions are why “we don’t wake up with a layer of mold growing on our skin - most bacteria and spores that land on the skin die quickly”. That’s a relief!

Second - our immune system tries to detect and eliminate foreign particles, bacteria and viruses before they can move into our bodies and start reproducing. You might be wondering, “how does my body know what’s me and what to attack?” Your body has a system built into all your cells called the Major Histocompatibility Complex. It marks your cells. Think of it like giving a network of spies an identifying password. These markers tell your immune system “this cell is one of us”. Any cell, bacteria or particle (we’ll call these “foreign agents”) without the mark identifies it as “not one of us” and your immune system sounds the alarm.

Third - if a virus or bacteria does get in and starts reproducing, the immune system is tasked with a “search and destroy” mission and launches an attack on the foreign cells. Let’s move on to introducing some of the players within this spy versus spy contest in your body.

Immune System Agents: The Good Guys

Division: Homeland Security
Agents: Skin, tears, mucus and saliva
Mission: All of these agents are tasked with keeping out foreign operatives - anything from splinters to viruses. Skin has an antibacterial arsenal and is also tasked with being an early warning system for the entire immune system. Saliva is antibacterial. Tears and mucus contain an enzyme that breaks down the cell walls of many bacteria. Additionally, mucus is sticky and stops foreign agents in their tracks until they can be destroyed by other body systems.

Division: Recruitment and Conscription
Agents: Thymus, Bone Marrow
Mission: Make the blood cells, populate your body’s standing army.

Division: MI6 - Screening and Interrogation
Agents: Spleen, Lymphatic System
Mission: (Both) Screen for foreign agents and eliminate them. (Lymphatic System) Supply chain. Make sure the cells have what they need, carry away what they don’t.
Notes from the Screening and Interrogation Dossier:
Lymph is a clear-ish liquid that moves passively through the body, as opposed to blood which is pumped through the heart. (Think: Water systems and blood systems are pressurized. Sewer systems and lymphatic systems are passive)


Division: Infantry
Agents: White Blood Cells
Subdivisions: Lymphocytes - The Navy SEALS
Mission: Seek and destroy bacteria and viral invasions.
T Lymphocyte Cells (white blood cells) detect cells that are harbouring viruses and eliminate them. “T” stands for “thymus” -- the organ in which these cells mature whereas “B” Cells mature in the bone marrow.
B Lymphocyte Cells are trained specifically to seek a specific enemy agent, attach to it and eliminate it. They are the bodies’ sleeper agents, only activated when they come in contact with their specific target.

Monocytes - The Bodyguards
Mission: The giants of the White Blood Cell world assigned to patrol the lymphatic system and also to protect specific areas of the body, like the lungs, by ingesting foreign material.
Granulocytes - The Grunts
Mission: Engulf the particle, kill the bacteria. They’ve got a short lifespan (1 day) and they love trouble (foreign material, inflammation and bacteria).

Notes from the Infantry Dossier:
White blood cells act like independent, single cell organisms. They can move and capture things on their own.

Immune System Infiltrators: The Bad Guys

Agent: Virus
Modus Operandi: Think: “Alien” the movie meets zombies from “The Walking Dead” Viruses aren’t really alive. A virus is a fragment of deoxyribonucleic acid also known as DNA in a protective coat. When it comes in contact with a cell, it attaches itself and injects its DNA. The DNA inside the host cell uses the living cell to replicate new virus particles. Sometimes the cell dies and bursts releasing the new virus particles, other times the living cell remains a factory for the virus.
How do they get in?
• Touch
• Exchanges of saliva, coughing, or sneezing
• Sexual contact
• Contaminated food or water
• Insects may carry them from one person to another


Agent: Bacteria
Modus Operandi: Divide and Conquer. Think: Agent Smith in The Matrix Living and active, bacteria eat and reproduce and can do so very quickly. They also tend to focus on specific areas of the body.
How do they get in?
• Through contact with other people
• Through the environment
• Contaminated food or water

Here’s what we know in general:

To enhance our immunity to disease we need to “Live Healthy Lifestyles”. That means:
  • Getting enough sleep and exercise
  • Avoiding what’s bad for our health, like too much alcohol and smoking
  • Feeding your standing army with vitamins and nutrients through food, herbs and supplements
  • Learning how to take care of our gut health
  • Laughing and taking time to connect to each other
  • Learning how to reduce stress

Now that we know the combatants in this contest, how can we tip the scales in our own favour?

That is the question we are going to explore in depth in this article series that we’re calling, “Enhancing Your Immune System”.

Now more than ever, keeping our systems strong and well equipped is essential. The goal for this series is to do that in an informative, clear and fun way. Stick with us. Next, we’ll explore the benefits of laughter in the contest against disease, talk about the science and maybe even get some staff “prescriptions” for movies to get you laughing.


How Your Immune System Works | HowStuff Works

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