Immunity basics: How the immune system works

A strong immune system is more important now than ever before. Picture: Supplied

A strong immune system is more important now than ever before. Picture: Supplied

Published Nov 18, 2020


As the world is slowly moving towards reopening industries, shops and restaurants, under certain conditions, we have to keep in mind one thing: the pandemic is not over yet and we still need to be mindful of health and hygiene measures.

Dr David Heber, chairman of the Herbalife Nutrition Institute (HNI), says we have to maintain practical prevention measures, such as keeping proper hygiene, wearing a mask, and maintaining social distancing.

That said, Heber explains that a strong immune system is more important now than ever before, as it is critical to the defence against viral infections.

Heber adds that maintaining a strong immune system, through a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle, is the best way towards naturally protecting yourself from the risk of infection.

What Is immunity?

Heber says, simply put, immunity is protection from disease.

The immune system does not exist in one single part of the body, it is actually made up of a network of cells, molecules, tissues and organs, working together to protect the body. Each of these components plays a significant role in how the immune system works and functions, which is crucial to preventing infection.

There are two categories of immune functions in everyone’s body:

Innate immunity, which prevents diseases from entering the body.

Adaptive immunity, which eliminates or prevents the growth of pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, in our body.

How does the immune system work?

According to Heber, the immune system works to limit the access of microbes to the body, and prevent them from growing and causing illness.

“If the immune system encounters a virus, it mounts a so-called immune response –how your body recognises and defends itself against bacteria, viruses and substances, that appear foreign and harmful.

“Increasing the body’s immunity is not as straightforward as it sounds. There remains much about the immune system that researchers are still working to understand, but what we do know is the tangible connection between the immune system and nutrition,’’ says Heber.

Why nutrition is critical to immunity

To understand how nutrition and diet affect an individual’s immune system, we need to delve deeper into the role of epigenetics: the study of biological mechanisms that switch our genes on and off.

While all humans are 99.9% genetically identical, epigenetics makes us unique by the different combinations of genes that turn on and off – which explains why some of us have red hair and others black, or why some of us have darker or lighter skin, for instance.

What we eat, where we live, how much we sleep, how we exercise, and even who we live with, all causes chemical reactions that can alter our health status. Added to the mix is our microbiome, which are the microorganisms we depend on to protect us against germs, break down food for energy, produce vital vitamins, and bolster our immune system.

The largest part of the immune system – about 70% of it – is located near the intestines, which monitors the intake of food and how the body uses it. This makes it critical for us to consume a balanced diet, with the right vitamins, minerals and nutrients, while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This requires more than just changing the intake of one or two nutrients but involves balancing the entire diet to ensure that there is optimal nutrition intake at a cellular level.

There are four essential groups of nutrients to help individuals strengthen their immune system:

  • Protein.
  • Vitamins and phytonutrients.
  • Probiotics and prebiotics.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids.

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