Your immune system is built to protect the body from possible foreign harmful substances including bacteria, parasites and viruses. It does so by continuously developing the means to recognise and respond to antigens. Antigens are protein elements on the surface of cells that differentiate one cell from another. Non-living things can also have antigens. The trick for the immune system is to recognise, classify every cell it comes across and react accordingly, let the body’s cells go on with their work, allow foreign but useful cells to remain, think food, but catch and destroy any foreign cell like a virus that has bad intentions.
When co-conspirators are planning something they do not want others to know about, one of the first things they discuss is a method to signal danger. In real life when you plan bad things you are either shot dead or if you succeed are paid handsomely for life. In the movies, the scene will be one that has the co-conspirators moving about worried with tension building in the background. The signal will be a slight cough. A similar thing occurs with your immune system, where a cough is often the first line of defence. Clearing your throat happens when mucus has trapped bacteria and other small particles. Similar to our recce squad the evil bacteria are dead before they ever got into the body proper. This first line of the immune response is part of the innate or non-specific immunity that uses various barriers including the skin, and stomach acid to prevent all and sundry from gaining access. But this innate immunity is not enough and depending on the period in one’s lifecycle can even be dangerous.
Pregnancy takes about 40 weeks and medically is divided into trimesters of approximately three months each. During the first trimester is when the woman discovers that she is pregnant often due to symptoms of nausea, tiredness and a general feeling of a body that is fighting something. These symptoms reflect what is going on in the uterus. After the egg and sperm meet, the resulting zygote has to be implanted into the uterus, where eventually a placenta and a foetus develop. Ordinarily the mother’s immune system would regard the zygote as a foreign body but it does not, recognising that this is the moment when the species renews itself. So what happens is that as the zygote moves into the uterus it is surrounded by a large presence of the mother’s immune system, an elite immune response group that protects the zygote against anything that could harm it. As the placenta evolves these elite immune response group retain a heavy response there, monitoring all that passes from the mother to the growing foetus. In the first trimester there is a lot of turmoil going on with tearing down and building of walls to construct a home where the foetus will grow. Hence the mother to be has symptoms that reflect the battle going on. Once the first trimester ends the foetus is enclosed in a new home and the major function is growth and the pregnant mother has peace since the immune system is no longer on a high alert mode.
The next major point when the immune system is at play is during birth, except that now there is major contact with the outside world for both the mother and the foetus. In the third trimester the composition of the elite immune response group changes, with more trainers becoming incorporated. The idea is to train the foetus’ immune system which must now begin to wake up and be ready to face the outside world. The baby’s immune system cannot be triggered before the foetus is born otherwise a fight with the mother would break out and so education continues until birth occurs. During birth, the mother’s immune system is again on high alert until the baby together with the entire placenta are expelled. At this point the mother is relatively safe but the danger is now with the baby. The key to completing the development of the baby’s immune system is breastfeeding.
Numerous studies show that breastfeeding exclusively for at least six months protects against many diseases including diarrhoea, pneumonia, ear infections, bacterial meningitis and urinary tract infections. This protection remains even years after stopping breastfeeding. Breast milk not only has live immune cells, advisers is what the US military would call them, but also contains antibodies, the knowledge of what the mother’s immune system has faced previously passed on to stimulate the baby’s immune response. This is how exclusively breastfed babies are healthier and stronger than those who are not.
After this nine-month basic and six month post-basic education, the baby’s immune system is ready to face life. We do provide boosters by immunising the child against specific diseases like polio, diphtheria, tetanus, TB and measles but it is important that these vaccines work where the immune system has already been educated on what to do. We can undo much of this good education by how we behave to reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. Two key strategies to maintaining a functional immune system are to sleep adequate hours and exercise regularly.