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Your Immune System: Agents and Infiltrators

Enhancing Your Immune System Series

Published by: Leamington Wellness Pharmacy
April 3rd, 2020

Reading Time: 6 mins

The security guard spritzing you with hand sanitizer when you go to the bank is a good indicator that avoiding disease is on everyone’s minds. As we self-quarantine, wash our hands and practice social distancing we are doing what we can to prevent the spread of germs and lower the risk of contagion. But avoidance is only a part of what we can do to defend ourselves. There are also things we can do proactively to boost our resistance to bacteria and viruses before we even come in contact with them.  

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 defense” 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 defense:
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 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.

The Good Guys:
Division:Homeland Security
Agents: Skin, tears, mucus and saliva

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 clearish 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 infections.
T-Cells detect cells that are harbouring viruses and eliminate them
B-Cells 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.

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 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
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”.

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, and avoiding what’s bad for our health, like too much alcohol and smoking. It also means feeding your standing army with vitamins and nutrients through food, herbs and supplements. We also need to learn how to take care of our gut health, and how to reduce stress. Other ways to boost our immunity will have us looking at the benefits of laughter and human connection.

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 | HowStuffWorks