Your immune system is designed to be your personal bodyguard. It’s there to protect you from germs and to help you recover from injury and illness. It loves the challenge the colder months bring, when our chances of catching a virus are increased. It works hard, day in and day out, to give your body the personalized protection it needs.
Without the immune system’s protection, daily life would look very different.
How the immune system works
The immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to identify and eliminate foreign or harmful substances (like germs). The main components of the immune system include white blood cells, antibodies, the spleen, the thymus, and the lymph nodes.
In addition to protecting us from infection and disease, the immune system performs several other important functions for the body:
Recognizes and remembers pathogens (such as viruses and bacteria) the body has encountered in the past so it can mount a more effective response if the pathogen is encountered again.
Helps to maintain the integrity of the body’s tissues by identifying and eliminating damaged or abnormal cells.
Plays a role in the body’s inflammation response, which helps to protect against injury and infection.
The immune system is complex but effective. A well-functioning immune system is an essential component to living a healthy life.
Fun facts about the immune system you may not know
The immune system does a lot of work behind the scenes, work we may never notice on our own. Here are a few fun facts to illustrate just how involved the immune system is in keeping our day-to-day normal.
1. The immune system has an amazing memory
A good body guard knows its enemies, including those it has already vanquished. One way our immune system protects us is by remembering every harmful invader that crosses our path so it knows how to fight it the second time around—preventing you from getting sick again.
2. The spleen helps with upkeep
Ever wondered what your spleen actually does? Here’s your answer: it helps to filter out damaged or abnormal blood cells. This type of upkeep is one of the immune system’s most important jobs.
3. Lymph nodes help filter out bacteria and other foreign substances
“Lymph nodes” is another term we hear often but may not know much beyond that. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands found throughout the body. While their main function is to filter out harmful substances, they also contain white blood cells that help to fight infection.
4. There are several types of white blood cells, each with its own specific function
White blood cells are like the soldiers who charge into battle at the first sign of trouble. Most white blood cells fall into one of two categories—phagocytes or lymphocytes—with their main role being to protect you from infection and disease. Phagocytes help by destroying bacteria and other foreign particles, while lymphocytes focus on the immune response.
5. The immune system is constantly adapting in order to protect your body against new threats
It knows how to protect you more than just about anything else because of its ability to personalize your immune protection. It does this by constantly learning from the environment all around, identifying anything that might pose a threat to your health.
6. Not all immune systems are created equal
Some people have naturally stronger immune systems, which is part of why they don’t get sick as often. This also explains why some individuals experience seasonal allergies while others are left unscathed. Allergies happen when your immune system is being overzealous at protecting you—it mistakes something harmless, such as pollen, as a pathogen, and then launches an immune response against it (aka, sneezing, itchy eyes and nose, etc.).
7. A fever means your body is doing its job and is a natural part of the body’s immune response
While it can be uncomfortable and cause some unpleasant symptoms, a fever means your body’s immune system is working to kill off the invading pathogens that are causing the illness, which causes a temporary increase in body temperature. The fever helps to create an environment that is inhospitable to these pathogens, making it more difficult for them to survive and reproduce.
How to support the system that supports you
The immune system does a lot for us—and we can do a lot for it in return. Just like having the proper setup and tools helps us succeed at a project, giving our immune system what it needs to thrive allows it to do its best work.
If you need some inspiration, here are some things you can do to support your immune system.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Yogurt and other fermented foods, as well as foods high in omega-3s (like fatty fish) are good to keep in rotation as well. The immune system requires good nutritional support to function correctly, including the important A, C, E, and B vitamins, and minerals such as zinc and magnesium. This is why we can feel so run down when we eat poorly.
Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help boost your immune system by increasing blood flow and reducing occasional stress.
Get enough sleep (7–9 hours each night). The immune system needs this “down time” to repair and regenerate.
Drink plenty of water.
Practice good hygiene, including washing your hands regularly and keeping commonly used surfaces (like your phone) clean.
Avoid tobacco and limit your consumption of alcohol.
Laugh! Laughter and fun are important contributors to overall health, and they’re one of the best ways to manage stress—something the immune system certainly appreciates, since occasional stress can be a major detrimental influence on the immune system.
We may hear about immune health more in the winter, but it’s something that affects us year round. Keep these fun facts and tips in mind throughout the year to help keep your immune system in tip-top shape.