Our immune system is one of the key reasons why we’re still standing. It is the mother of all bodily systems and has the ability to protect us from invading pathogens such as viruses, parasites and bacteria.
The immune system has the power to locate and kill off potential malignant cells and destroy any cells that might have been infected with virus DNA and bacterium. It has the intelligence to instantly recognise bacteria and flush it out of our system before it has the ability to create any kind of illness.
The incredible power of the immune system is a complex and fascinating system that provides great intelligence and strength to keep the body healthy and thriving at all times. Let’s dive in and discover its innate powers.
Our immune system is built into our organs such as our skin – which has a slightly acidic pH as well as sebum – a protective layer of oil that prevents invaders from getting across its membranes.
We have thousands of immune cells located all throughout our gastrointestinal tract, from our oesophagus down to our large intestine which has dendritic cells able to detect foreign invaders and notify our body to trigger an immune response.
90% of our immune system is located just outside our gut in a membrane that surrounds the intestines. It’s within this cosmos of bacteria and immune cells that protect us from potentially harmful bacteria that can cross through the membrane and into our bloodstream.
The respiratory tract is a key player in our immune system, with our nasal membranes and lungs all equipped with sticky mucus that traps a particle, such as pollen and dust. This protects us from their infiltration inside and allows us the ability to sneeze or cough them out.
The stomach contains a strong acid that can kill parasites and bacteria upon arrival.
We have our spleen and thymus, often forgotten organs that are part of our immune system. These organs store and produce immune cells – also coined white blood cells or leukocytes.
And then we have our lymph nodes; which create and store lymphocytes, our tonsils are a collection of lymphocytes located in the throat and the appendix also houses immune cells.
As you can see, our immune system is a complex and vast array of systems that all communicate with each other to keep us safe and healthy. The way they’re able to communicate and mount an immune response effectively is through cytokines.
Cytokines are a family of glycoprotein’s that can be produced by all cells in the body except red blood cells, with common ones including TNF- α (tumour necrosis factor alpha), IL-6 (interleukin 6) and IFN-γ.
Cytokines are signalling proteins that are released into the bloodstream and bind to receptor sites on the cells that they’re targeted for. Their binding triggers biological activities within the cell, whether it’s activation, replication or transformation into a different cell, for example, the maturation of a B-cell into an immunoglobulin (this is explained further down).
We start to build our immune system when we’re in the womb. Studies show immune cells are present in the blood at 12 weeks gestation. (1)
When we’re growing foetuses, our mother’s immune system and what she ingests is imprinted upon us. Newborn plasma (which is what a majority of our blood is made up) contains adult levels of IgG (immunoglobulin G, a type of antibody).
Our immune system is further supported through vaginal delivery and breastfeeding, inoculating us with our mother’s antibodies and beneficial bacteria. So although we’re born with our immune system intact, our early life, exposures and development additionally build upon our immune system, giving us the immunity we now obtain.
Our immune system is split into 2 key sides; Innate and Adaptive.
It’s within these two branches of immunity that exist the many different and amazing types of immune cells that do the endless dirty work of locating and destroying invading pathogens.
Our innate immune system deals with non-specific threats, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and inflammation, and doesn’t create a memory of how to kill such threats.
Within our innate immune system, we have many key immune cells;
Macrophages engulf the pathogen and emit toxic compounds directly to it to kill it. Macrophages also produce cytokines, the key chemical messengers required for an appropriate immune response (6).
Neutrophils: these guys are usually first on site, and contribute to the creation of pus. They too, like macrophages ingest and kill bacteria and fungi, through engulfing and emitting toxic chemicals to it.
Basophils contain and release histamine; a compound that is involved in flushing reactions, such as a runny nose, as well as releasing cytokines which signal additional immune support.
Eosinophils; similar to Basophils, Eosinophils are crucial for protection against parasitic infections and release an array of inflammatory mediators.
Natural Killer (NK) cells are able to kill virally infected cells and secrete cytokines, activating Macrophages and Dendritic cells, thus enhancing the immune response. NK cells also have the ability to identify cancer cells early in their development. (18)
Mast cells are involved in allergic reactions, as well as parasite defence and also release various inflammatory mediators when they’re activated by invading allergens and pathogens.
Dendritic cells play a role in detecting antigens and presenting them to the immune system cells; like “hey guys, look what I caught”. They’re present in our mucous membranes and GI tract.
The innate immune response occurs rapidly and relies upon the skin, mucous membranes, body temperature, pH and chemicals to fight off invaders.
Our adaptive immune system is specific and includes the creation of antibodies and memory cells that attack and kill the invading pathogens as well as our cells that have been infected.
The adaptive immune system focuses on 2 key immune cells;
B-cells originate from our bone marrow, and their primary action is to create antibodies or immunoglobulins (IgG’s) – proteins that can form into plasma cells or memory cells.
Their formation or maturation into plasma cells occurs upon exposure to a foreign invader.
Antibodies are highly specific and specialised immune cells that create a kind of “lock and key” model as they will only attach to that specific antigen in which it is coded. Think of antibodies as special ops, they have their target and will only fire upon that specific invading enemy.
Each of the immunoglobulins that our bodies create has specific and unique characteristics with differing functions, for example, IgE antibodies are responsible for allergic reactions, and IgA station themselves in our mucous membranes protecting the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract (5).
Essentially, plasma cells (mature B-cells) are exclusive with whom they do and do not recognise. But when they do recognise their tagged antigen (pathogen) they set off a chain of reaction that calls into action additional players of an immune response.
B-cells are defined as being part of our humoral immune response. This means that they secrete antibodies that defend against extracellular pathogens – meaning they are not yet inside our cells.
T-cells also originate in our bone marrow but mature in our thymus gland which is located just under our sternum, between our lungs. T-cells live in all our major immune organs – spleen, lymph nodes, blood, and bone marrow (5).
T-cells directly attack virus-infected human cells and similar to B-cells and their antibodies, each T-cell attacks a specific antigen.
B-cells mature into antibodies when exposed to an invader occurs whereas T-cells are ready to go with their specific targets locked in. T-cells are further split into Natural Killer T cells (NKT’s), T-Helper cells and Regulatory T-cells.
NKT’s as their name suggests, do the actual killing of the infected cells. These NKT’s migrate to the site of infection, and inject toxic chemicals to the infected cell, causing it to die. It’s these immune cells that hunt down and destroy the cells infected with viral DNA or bacteria that are assimilated into our own cells, such as HIV, EBV and chickenpox (5).
Helper T-cells (Th cells) also do as their name suggests – they assist their cousins, the B-cells to produce antibodies and assist NKT’s in their attack.
And then regulatory T-cells (Tregs) have the crucial role of letting the T-cells know that the invasion and enemy have been killed, it’s time to pack up and go home. The threat has been taken care of.
Without regulatory cells, our body would keep employing and searching for infected cells which can turn into autoimmune conditions as well as an overactive immune system that would drain us of our energy.
T-cell’s are defined as being part of our cell-mediated immunity, who defend against infected cells, cancers and transplant tissues (5).
The innate immune response is first on the scene and ramps up the symptoms we experience when we come down with a cold or flu; the aching bones, runny nose, congestion, coughing, sore throat, fever and fatigue. That’s the symptoms of our immune system, not the acts of the invading pathogen.
The innate immune system then triggers the adaptive immune system to come over and create long-standing, memorised immunity to the invader so next time they know how to respond effectively.
It’s like, the innate immune system captures the infiltrator, takes its mug shot, and shows it to the adaptive immune system, who then creates an investigation and plan on how to identify and properly get the infiltrator out of the body.
Each exposure to an infection helps train and builds our adaptive immune system which is why parent typically wants their child to be exposed to chicken pox and the outdoors; it builds their arsenal of defence and can decrease the time frame of any potential infections.
Although the human body is built in with an incredible and intelligence defence system, there are numerous herbs and spices we can consume that help to support and upgrade our immune system.
This is key as in today’s society stress and poor sleep are two major factors that suppress our immune system:
Chronic stress drains our bodies’ energy and nutrients shift towards survival mode, and thus, depletes our immunity.
Sleep is crucial for rejuvenation and creation of immune cells, lowering inflammation and cleaning up toxic wastes that trigger an inflammatory and thus, immune response.
There are many incredible natural herbs to support and bolster immunity. The best immune tonic herbs are Astragalus root, Chaga mushroom, Turkey Tail mushroom, Maitake mushrooms and Reishi Mushroom.
Each of these powerful tonics has a long history of use for benefiting health and wellbeing for thousands of years. They have proven to be potent and powerful adaptogens to support and boost your overall immune system.
Amongst the adaptogens and medicinal mushrooms, B-glucans are originally described as being “biological response modifiers.” These compounds are recognised within the body and trigger an innate immune response and the release of cytokines (11,13).
If you think about it, adaptogens modulate an effective immune response and work to create superior immunity.
Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus) contains immune-stimulating polysaccharides; astragalans 1, 2 and 3 as well as glucoronic acid, with its properties supporting both innate and specific immunity.
Studies show Astragalus polysaccharides have the ability to increase T-cell proliferation (creation), along with an increase in cytokine activity within the T-cells (10).
Astragalus activates toll-like receptor pathways (TLR’s); proteins that are located on the membranes of macrophage and dendritic cells that detect invading pathogens. This activation of TLR’s upgrades the body’s ability to detect and launch an immune response, better protecting us.
Astragalus is also a lung tonic. It supports the lung qi which helps assist and maintain the respiratory tract and mucous membranes integrity, fighting off invading airborne pathogens.
Astragalus also helps to prevent immunosuppression that occurs during stages of chemotherapy or prescription medications (7).
Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) contains betulinic acid, a triterpenoid that has been shown in studies to induce mitochondrial apoptosis – which means cell death; and may assist the T-cells in their extermination of infected cells. Additionally, betulinic acid is anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and a potent anti-oxidant, having anti-cancer and anti-tumour effects. It’s like the secret sauce for immunity. (8, 9)
Chaga’s beta-glucans are able to boost the production of lymphocytes – a type of white blood cell that lives in our tonsils and lymph nodes, as well as boosting the immune system through stages of suppression, as experienced during chemotherapy. (9, 12)
Studies also demonstrate Chaga’s ability to enhance immune activity through its increase in immune cell creation, the release of toxic molecules to assist cell-mediated and humoral immunity. Chaga enhances phagocytic uptake – the activity of macrophages, and the release of cytokines signalling pathways, calling more immune cells into action to defeat the invader. (11)
Chaga is also a potent anti-oxidant, rich in superoxide dismutase – which scavenges free radicals and upgrades our bodies own antioxidant – glutathione. This reduces the damage of oxidative stress, further supporting the immune system.
Turkey Tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) contains polysaccharides components; PSK (polysaccharide krestin) & PSP (polysaccharide peptide) regenerate white blood cells and stimulate the activity of T-cells, macrophages and NK cells (8, 9).
PSP & PSK have shown to trigger cell death within cancer cells but not normal cells, conveying the precision and cellular knowledge of medicinal mushrooms (8, 9).
These compounds elicit Turkey Tail’s potency in supporting and stimulating both the innate and adaptive immune system.
Turkey Tail also acts as a prebiotic to modulate microbiome composition and with 90% of our immune system located within the gut, Turkey Tail’s ability to ensure favourable bacteria balances adds another level of its ability to support the immune system.
Maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa) has beta-glucans that can upgrade the production of macrophages and their phagocytic activity.
Additionally, Maitake increases the production and release of NK cells and neutrophils; supporting the innate immune system and the defence against bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. (17)
Maitake also regulates the release of cytokines such as IL-6 and IFN-γ further supporting and enhancing the immune response, modulating inflammation and the communication between innate and adaptive immunity. (17)
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is a revered tonic able to strengthen the immune system as well as reduce stress and improve sleep.
Reishi’s immune-stimulating polysaccharides, B-glucans, as well as bitter triterpenes (Ganoderic acids), support the immune system through enhancing monocyte/macrophage and T-cell activity (7).
Reishi has also shown the ability to either down-regulate excessive immune and inflammation activity which may be beneficial for individuals with autoimmune conditions or stimulate the expression of inflammatory cytokines, upgrading and enhancing the immune response. (8)
The ability to modulate the immune system is what makes not just Reishi mushroom, but all medicinal mushrooms superior immune and wellbeing adaptogens.
Reishi induces B-cell activation, and the activation of varying antibodies, such as IgA, IgG and IgM expression, supporting humoral immunity. Reishi’s polysaccharides stimulate spleen cell proliferation, cytokine expression and macrophage activity, with Toll-like receptors (TLRs) being locating on macrophage membranes identifying harmful bacteria within the bloodstream. (15)
When it comes to cancer cells, Reishi’s triterpenes; Ganoderic acids may be toxic to cancer cells which may inhibit their replication and induce antibodies to assist in their death. (8, 15)
Additionally, Reishi is effective in downgrading the bodies stress response, decreasing the release of stress hormones. This means that Reishi can help to support the immune system further through its ability to support and protect the adrenals and HPA axis.
Reishi is also a calming adaptogen and is effective in calming the nervous system, helping to improve sleep quality and anxiety.
Our immune system is integral to our wellbeing, longevity, quality of life and ability to pursue and live our true purpose. And the balance between the cell-mediated and humoral immunity is extremely important for the effectiveness and success of our immune system.
The ability for adaptogens to modulate innate, adaptive, cell-mediated and humoral immunity is fascinating, to say the least.
Researching this article and the complexity and precision of our immune system blew my mind. It truly is a cosmos of intuitive communication and perfect balance, one that deserves to be supported and nourished to ensure the prevention and even treatment of disease and illness.
Eliza is the millennial nutritionist– a health, mindset and abundance enthusiast obsessed with helping millennial's experience living at a higher level. Her relaxed new age approach and understanding of nutrition and wellness sees her empowering and coaching individuals to understand that their health is the ultimate asset. Upon experiencing first hand the power and place of tonic herbalism and medicinal mushrooms in everyday life, Eliza’s become an adaptogen fangirl and feels their utilisation in today’s world is essential for abundance and wellbeing.