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How does the immune system work?

Created: November 24, 2010; Last Update: July 7, 2011.

In a short series we present detailed yet easy-to-understand information on the workings of the immune system. This highly efficient line of defense protects the body from harmful influences from both outside and inside of the body, and is vitally important for the organism.

What is the immune system?

The immune system (from the Latin word immunis, meaning: free, untouched) protects the body like a guardian from harmful influences from the environment. It is made up of different organs, cells and proteins and aside from the nervous system, it is the most complex system that the human body has.

As long as our body’s system of defense is running smoothly, we do not notice how complexly groups of different cells work together and form alliances against just about any pathogen (germ). But illness can occur if the performance of the immune system is compromised, if the pathogen is especially aggressive, or sometimes also if the body is confronted with a pathogen it has not come into contact before.

The tasks of the immune system

Without an immune system, a human being would be just as exposed to the harmful influences of pathogens or other substances from the outside environment as to changes harmful to health happening inside of the body. The main tasks of the body’s immune system are:

  • Neutralizing pathogens like bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi that have entered the body, and removing them from the body
  • Recognizing and neutralizing harmful substances from the environment
  • Fighting against the body’s own cells that have changed due to an illness, for example cancerous cells

Differentiation between self and non-self substances

For protection to be effective it is important, however, that the immune system can differentiate between “self” and “non-self” cells, organisms and substances. Usually, the body should not work against its own healthy cells.

The immune system can be activated by many “non-self” substances. These are called antigens. The proteins on the surfaces of bacteria, fungi and viruses, for example, are all antigens. When the antigens bind to, for example, special receptors on the defense cells, a series of cell processes is started. Then the immune system can recall stored “memories” in order to more quickly be ready to defend against known pathogens.

The body’s own cells have surface proteins, too. But the immune system does not work against them, because it has already learned at an earlier stage to identify specifically these cell proteins as “self”. If the immune system identifies the cells of its own body as “non-self”, it is also called an autoimmune reaction. You can find more information about these types of chronic inflammatory diseases here.

Innate immune system

There are two main parts of the immune system: the innate and the adaptive immune system.

The evolutionary older innate immune system provides a general defense against pathogens, so it is also called the nonspecific immune system. It works mostly at the level of immune cells like “scavenger cells” or “killer cells”. These cells mostly fight against bacterial infections.

Adaptive immune system

In the adaptive immune system, particular agents like the so-called antibodies target very specific pathogens that the body has already had contact with. That is why this is also called a learned defense or a specific immune response. By constantly adapting and learning the body can also fight against bacteria or viruses that change over time.

Yet these two immune systems do not work independently of each other. They complement each other in any reaction to a pathogen or harmful substance, and are closely connected with each other.

You can find more information about which organs and cells are part of the immune system here.

Author: German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG)

References

  • Thews G, Mutschler E, Vaupel P. Anatomie, Physiologie, Pathophysiologie des Menschen. Stuttgart: Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft. 1999.
  • Schäffler A, Schmidt S. Biologie, Anatomie, Physiologie. Stuttgart: Gustav Fischer Verlag. 1998.

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0010386/ (November 2, 2013)


What is Lauric acid?

Lauric acid is a saturated fat. It is found in many vegetable fats, particularly in coconut and palm kernel oils. People use it as medicine.

Lauric acid is used for treating viral infections including influenza (the flu); swine flu; avian flu; the common cold; fever blisters, cold sores, and genital herpes caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV); genital warts caused by human papillomavirus (HPV); and HIV/AIDS. It is also used for preventing the transmission of HIV from mothers to children.

Other uses for lauric acid include treatment of bronchitis, gonorrhea, yeast infections, chlamydia, intestinal infections caused by a parasite called Giardia lamblia, and ringworm.

In foods, lauric acid is used as a vegetable shortening.

In manufacturing, lauric acid is used to make soap and shampoo.

How does it work?

It is not known how lauric acid might work as a medicine. Some research suggests lauric acid might be a safer fat than trans-fats in food preparations.

Credit: WebMD

Black Seed Effects on the Immune System

Black Seed could play an important role in the treatment of cancer, AIDS, and other immune deficiency states.

Several studies point to the effect of black seed and thymoquinone on the immune system by modulating the levels of pro- and anti-inflammatory mediators. Thymoquinone has also been shown to inhibit inflammation and oxidative stress in cells. The seeds have been shown to produce an increase in the ratio of helper to suppressor T cells and enhance natural killer cell activity in healthy volunteers. Because thymoquinone has dual anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, it may be an instrument which not only prevents the direct harmful effects of oxidants, but it may essentially alter the underlying inflammatory processes that play an important role in the pathogenesis of inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer.

In the field of AIDS research, human clinical trials conducted at the Department of Biological and Medical Research Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia showed that black seed enhanced the ratio between helper T-cell by 55% with a 30% enhancement of NK cell activity. These findings suggest that black seed could play an important role in the treatment of cancer, AIDS, and other immune deficiency states.


REFERENCES


Badary OA, Taha RA, Gamal el-Din AM, et al. Thymoquinone is a potent superoxide anion scavenger. Drug Chem Toxicol. 2003 May;26(2):87-98.

El-Kadi A, Kandil O, Tabuni AM, Nigella Sativa and cell mediated immunity. Arch AIDS Res. 1989; 1: 232–233.

Gali-Muhtasib H, Roessner A, Schneider-Stock R. Thymoquinone: a promising anti-cancer drug from natural sources. Int J Biochem Cell Biol. 2006;38(8):1249-53.

Hajhashemi V, Ghannadi A, Jafarabadi H. Black Cumin seed essential oil, as a potent analgesic and antiinflammatory drug. Phytother Res. 2004 Mar;18(3):195-9.

Haq A, Lobo PI, Al-Tufail M, et al. Immunomodulatory effect of Nigella Sativa proteins fractionated by ion exchange chromatography. Int J Immunopharmacol. 1999 Apr;21(4):283-95.

Haq A, Abdullatif M, Lobo PI, et al. Nigella sativa: effect on human lymphocytes and polymorphonuclear leukocyte phagocytic activity. Immunopharmacology. 1995 Aug;30(2):147-55.

Houghton PJ, Zarka R, de las Heras B, et al. Fixed oil of Nigella sativa and derived thymoquinone inhibit eicosanoid generation in leukocytes and membrane lipid peroxidation. Planta Med. 1995 Feb;61(1):33-6.

Mansour MA, Nagi MN, El-Khatib AS, et al. Effects of thymoquinone on antioxidant enzyme activities, lipid peroxidation and DT-diaphorase in different tissues of mice: a possible mechanism of action. Cell Biochem Funct. 2002 Jun;20(2):143-51.

 

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