What do the common cold, asthma, and cancer have in common? They are the result of a breakdown in the body’s defense system. Let’s take a closer look at the immune system, the army within our body. The immune system is equipped with legions of mobile soldiers, with an arsenal of deadly weapons, and a sophisticated chemical communication network. These defenders must be on duty every minute of every day in order to detect and destroy the enemy. Even one surviving germ or cancer cell can be potentially life threatening. One out of every 100 cells belongs to the body’s armed forces—an army totaling nearly one trillion white blood cells! Here are some of the many functions of these Special Forces.
- Phagocytes are the army’s foot soldiers—the first ones to arrive on the battlefield. They engulf invading germs and dissolve the enemy with powerful enzymes.
- Lymphocytes perform other important tasks. Some carry weapons that destroy cells infected with invading other lymphocytes target cancer cells, while others produce highly specialized weapons called antibodies.
While the immune system is designed to protect the body from disease, if it malfunctions it’s also capable of causing disease. Allergic disorders such as asthma and hay fever occur when the immune system mistakenly battles against normally harmless substances such as house dust, pollen, and certain foods.
Histamine, one of the chemicals released in the process, is responsible for some of the typical symptoms of allergy—itching, runny nose, and watery eyes. In diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and childhood onset diabetes (Type I) the immune system attacks and destroys the body’s own tissues. That is why these are called autoimmune diseases. A strong, healthy immune system has mechanisms that prevent disorders like these before they begin. AIDS is probably one of the most devastating diseases of the immune system. An enemy virus invades and debilitates the body’s immune system, so that its forces are weakened and overcome by infections and cancer.
How can we strengthen our immune system?
Fortunately, there are numerous ways we can build up our immune system. For example: Clean, fresh outdoor air can actually inhibit cancer growth and help correct allergic disorders such as asthma and hay fever. Fresh air also aids in protecting the immune forces from the devastating effects of stress.
Polluted air is a major health concern worldwide, and asthmatics are very sensitive to pollutants. With diminishing air quality, it is not surprising that asthma is increasing at an alarming rate. Pure water is another vital ingredient for healthy immune function. Water is a potent detoxifying agent, flushing germs and other pollutants out of the body. The blood stream, which is the highway to transport the immune system’s troops, is kept flowing freely by adequate amounts of water. In addition, the mucus membranes of the nose and mouth also need plenty of water to maintain a protective barrier against invading germs. Water also washes away germs on the outside when we wash our hands or bathe.
Did you know that the sun’s ultraviolet rays kill germs? Sunshine increases the production and activity of the white blood cells, strengthening our internal forces. Moderate exposure to sunshine also strengthens the skin, which is a powerful barrier to invading organisms.
Exercise makes the circulatory system stronger—this includes the lungs, heart, and blood vessels. With regular physical activity, the blood stream can transport troops to the front lines with greater efficiency. Exercise also neutralizes the harmful effects of stress by stimulating the release of natural “feel good” chemicals like endorphins. Stress is especially counteracted when exercise is combined with the immune system’s allies—fresh air and sunlight.
Rest plays an important role in immune function. The hours of deep sleep before midnight are prime time for the repair and replacement of worn out cells and tissues. During this period, the body’s housekeepers and mechanics work best to restore its guardians to top fighting shape. Under ideal sleep conditions, the casualties that occur are more rapidly replaced by new white blood cells.
When regular sleep hours are disturbed, there is a price to pay. In the industrialized world irregular work schedules disrupt sleeping and eating patterns, and compromise the immune system’s performance. It is not surprising that irregular working hours are associated with a greater risk of colds and flu, serious illness and even a shortened life expectancy.
By eating natural foods that contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals, you can help keep your immune system operating smoothly. Vitamins A, C, and E—along with the minerals zinc and magnesium—are in special demand. Fortunately, an abundance of these nutrients are available by eating a variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.
For a healthy immune system, the body needs certain essential fats. The body cannot manufacture these, so they must be obtained from nutritious food.
One class of friendly fats is the omega-3 fatty acids, which empower the cancer-killing forces and inhibit cancer cell growth. Flaxseed, walnuts, green soybeans and spinach are all good sources of omega-3 fats. On the other hand, diets including the regular use of processed or refined fats and oils disable the cancer-fighting forces and promote the growth and spread of cancer cells. These should be avoided.
What about sugar?
Refined sugar, like refined fats, is an archenemy of the immune system. Sugar quickly inactivates the germ-killing foot soldiers— the phagocytes. For example, just one soft drink, containing 12 tsp. of sugar, is enough to weaken the protective ability of our body’s white blood cells by 60%, for 5 hours.
Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are all detrimental to the body’s defenses. Alcohol cripples the body’s internal army. This suppression of the immune system is seen even with moderate amounts of alcohol. Its use increases the risk of diseases such as tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, cancer, and AIDS3.
Tobacco also contains harmful chemicals that immobilize the immune forces and stimulate the development of cancer. The large airways contain cilia, which are special hair-like cells that keep sweeping germs and injurious particles away from the delicate lung tissues. Tobacco smoke paralyses these protective cilia, so that germs and particles can easily enter the lungs and cause serious damage. Smoke blown from smokers and their burning cigarettes also injure non-smokers. These passive smokers (especially young children) are at greater risk for cancer, asthma, and increased ear and throat infections.
Caffeine, one of the world’s most popular drugs, is found in coffee, tea, and soft drinks, as well as chocolate. Caffeine contributes to mental stress, irritability, anxiety, and depression, which stimulate chemicals that further weaken the immune system.
Illicit drugs should be avoided at all times. They have many harmful effects on the body’s soldiers, and also lower the defenses through their impact upon the mind. People under the influence of mind-altering substances are not very careful in preventing serious infections like hepatitis and AIDS. Many prescription medications may also be injurious to the immune system. Be aware of the dangers and don’t use them unnecessarily.
In recent years science has demonstrated a close connection between mental and physical health. We now know that when people feel helpless and hopeless, their bodies produce stress hormones and chemicals, which can damage the immune response.
Grief, anxiety, discontent, and guilt all tend to break down the life forces and to invite decay and death. On the other hand, positive emotions such as gratitude, rejoicing, goodwill, and trust in God’s love and care—these are health’s greatest safeguards.
In summary remember that our habits of living today, will largely determine the strength of our defenses tomorrow. Prevention is always better than cure—let’s do everything we can to support our immune system today.