Mythological tales, from Achilles to Dracula, are rooted in immunity. And since medicine’s earliest days, physicians have relied on metaphors—using images like armies, orchestras, communities, weather, and gardens—to try to explain what is, in fact, an extremely complicated system that controls the health and well-being of virtually every aspect of the human body. New York Times journalist Matt Richtel, author of An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System, describes it as the “Festival of Life.” Our immunological system exists both inside and around our bodies, he says, with organisms and agents swarming everywhere, from our gut to our car’s steering wheel— some beneficial, some more dangerous. Microorganisms like fungi and bacteria, and infectious invaders such as viruses, are the party crashers. Our immune system operates like a workforce of janitors and labourers, kicking out the rowdy, unwelcome guests and cleaning up after their messes.
“Festival of Life” could just as easily describe our lives before this pandemic—before the novel coronavirus, with its lethal spiked crown, crashed our festive existence as we knew it. Some experts predict the virus will return in waves this fall and beyond, so it’s best to shore up the bouncers while we can.
And by that, I don’t mean “strengthen” or “boost” your immune system. Instead, it needs to be balanced and optimized, so it functions as it’s designed to. “Boosting your immune system is a dangerous, ill-conceived concept and probably not even possible,” says Richtel, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a prime example. When most people are seriously ill from the disease, the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fill with fluid, making it difficult for oxygen to pass through. It’s the body’s overzealous immune response, which sends in artillery—proteins called cytokines, immune cells such as T-cells and B-cells (aka lymphocytes), macrophages, and others—to attack the virus. The result is called a “cytokine storm,” a cascade of inflammatory responses that wreak havoc on our body’s equilibrium. An overactive, confused immune system also manifests itself in autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease, asthma, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. Stronger is not always better.
Some immune system factors are beyond our control, like ageing (since immunity decreases as we get older), genetics, and gender. Though women are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases and are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s (which some researchers believe may also be caused by an overactive immune system), women also tend to fend off viruses and bacteria more effectively, which is supported by their lower death rate from COVID-19.
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