Diary of a Student Nutritionist - Week 18 - Immune System

The immune system is one system of the body that I really struggle to fully get my head around. It is so complicated with lots of Greek and Latin words, some of which look quite similar to each other but do very different things.

One thing that we learnt that was really interesting is that a large proportion of our immune cells are in our lymphatic system. Unlike the blood where the heart acts as a pump to move it around the body, the lymphatics system requires body movement. Therefore, to have a well functioning immune systems that can protect us against viruses and cancer cells, etc, we need to get moving!

Our first line of defence against the outside world comes in a few different forms, such as our skin, hair, bodily secretions such as sweat, tears and saliva and stomach acid. If these are all acting as they should be then this can stop pathogens from getting into the body quickly and effectively. However, these can become out of balance, for example, poor skin quality causing cracks and bleeding can allow pathogens into the bloodstream or low stomach acid can allow pathogens to get further down into the digestive tract. As a nutritionist it is important to make sure all of these key first lines of defence are in tip-top shape.

However, if a pathogen does get into the body, the body can do a range of highly sophisticated processes to help it from doing too much harm. However, for some, this system does not work so well, for example, the immune systems of those with type 2 diabetes may be so busy dealing with the inflammation already present within the body that it might take longer to recognise a potential pathogen. This might mean that the pathogen is able to spread further before the body mounts an attack and may experience stronger symptoms as it requires more of a response to get it back under control. Alternatively, someone might have an immune system that overreacts as it struggles to identify what is self and what is not self (i.e. autoimmunity) or struggles to clearly differentiate between what is safe and what is not (i.e. pollen, dust).

One final thing that I found really interesting to learn about is that babies are born with more of a predisposition to allergies. It is through contact with lots of things, such as new foods, mud, dust, other children's saliva, etc that a baby's immune system can develop. In those babies lucky enough to be breastfed they get a helping hand as each time a baby comes into contact with something their immune system does not recognise the mothers milk is able to provide antibodies. This is why breastfeeding can really support a baby in the first two years as their immune system develops and can help to reduce the likelihood of allergies. I need to do more research around this to understand it fully, but what I did get from the lecture is that while breastfeeding is ideal it is also important for a baby/child to play in the soil, be in contact with a range of dirt (not using antibacterial spray all over the whole house) and play/spend times with a range of people. This can all have a huge benefit to a child's developing immune system.

It is amazing to learn about all the ways you can support the immune system, it is just going to take me a little longer to fully get my head around all of the big words and complex systems.

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