The Immune System

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Your Immune System

It is a complex network of white blood cells, immune factors, and antibodies that heal us when we are hurt, and protect our bodies from cancers, and infection by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other foreign agents.

In the healthy person there is a delicately balanced system. Just the right amount of immune response is triggered to repel an infection or heal a wound, and just enough of the system is involved to stop a response. A properly balanced immune response, does not "over respond" or "under respond". When properly functioning the right number and types of white blood cells and immune factors are involved to meet and resolve the challenge.

Imbalances of our white blood cells and immune factors result in immune disorders such as autoimmunity and allergies (overactivity) or susceptibility to infection and cancer (underactivity).

Immunity

As long ago as the fifth century B. C., Greek doctors knew that people who recovered from the plague would never get the disease again. This is because they had acquired immunity against the plague (NIH Publication 88-529). The white blood cells of the body have "memory"; they "remember" having been exposed previously to a specific organism. When becoming re-infected they are ready ("immune") to releasing the right sorts of immune products to destroy the pathogen thereby preventing re-infection of the body.

Self vs. Non-Self

The key to a well-functioning system is its ability to tell the difference between self- and non-self. Virtually every living organism and cell has a unique set of surface molecules called antigens ("barcodes") that identify them. The "barcodes" are recognized by our immune cells and helps them identify a cell as self, or as non-self. Normally the body will not attack its own cells ("self") , but is programed to attack those with "non-self" or foreign "barcodes" (antigens).

When the white cells of our system recognize these non-self, foreign, "barcodes" they may trigger other types of white blood cells to produce large proteins (antibodies) that lock onto these antigens, to mark them for destruction. Other cells will produce small bioactive molecules (immune cofactors) that trigger other types of immune responses that will help heal or defend the body.

Proper Function

When balanced and stable, the immune system will destroy non-self cells such as mutated cells that multiply causing cancer, or foreign invaders (such as fungi, bacteria, and parasites) that may lead to infection if left to grow to large numbers. When it's working "right", the immune system heals the body (wound healing), fights off infections, and kills cancer cells.

Underactive Immune Responses

An underactive immune system may be caused by one's heredity, chemo- or radiation therapy, excessive exercise, aging, stress, etc. and may lead to being vulnerable to many illnesses.

An underactive immune system, often leads to opportunistic infections. These sorts of infections are caused by organisms that do not bother us when we are healthy, but when our "guard is down" (or if the immune system is not at its appropriate level) cause severe infections.

Individuals with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) are at risk for getting opportunistic infections. Their disease is characterized by an immune disorder or a breakdown of their immune system that leaves them susceptible to parasitic, bacterial, viral, and fungal diseases. In a person with a properly functioning immune system, these organisms would be unlikely to cause disease.

People with cancers and other severe diseases may also experience lowered immune responses as a result of anticancer therapies. Also emotional stress, malnutrition, surgery, and blood transfusions may result in depressed or altered immune responses.

Overactive Immune Responses

Overactive systems may lead to conditions such as allergies or autoimmune conditions. Allergies are the result of an "over reaction" of the system to non-threatening substances such as pollen or animal dander.

Autoimmune responses are the result of overactivity of immune components and occur when the body confuses self with non-self and attacks its own tissues and cells. Autoimmune conditions, such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, insulin-dependent diabetes, psoriasis fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel diseases, etc., are typically treated with drugs that suppress one's immune response.

The Body's Defenses

The natural defenses of the system consist of an extremely elaborate and complex network of a trillions of lymphocytes (white blood cells). Using small bioactive molecules, these cells pass information back and forth to each other like bees going out in search for pollen. Just as bees in their colonies have different jobs, the white blood cells in the body have their specific tasks and abilities. "The result is a sensitive system of checks and balances that produces an immune response that is prompt, appropriate, effective, and [in a properly functioning immune system] self-limiting" (NIH Publication 88-529).

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