What is immunity?
Immunity is the body’s defence system which protects us against infection. When the body is infected by viruses, bacteria or other infectious organisms (e.g. a fungus or parasite), it undergoes a process of fighting the infection and then healing itself.
When the body is presented with the same organism for a second time, the body will in theory be ‘immune’ to the infection. This means that you are less likely to be infected by the same disease or if you encounter the same infection again the symptoms will be less severe. This is the principle behind vaccination.
How does immunity work?
When your body encounters bacteria or a virus your body responds by using two sets of defence mechanisms, one called the ‘innate immunity’ and another called ‘adaptive immunity’.
Innate immunity describes your body’s barriers to infection that are in-built (or innate). This includes:
· Your skin
· The acid in your stomach
· Mucus in your mouth and nose
· Cells in your blood stream that can destroy bacteria.
All these systems are extremely important as the first line of defence stopping the body from becoming infected and for getting rid of the infection. These innate systems do not change with multiple exposures to the same infection; there is no ‘learned’ response no matter how many times your body is exposed to the same organism.
Adaptive immunity is the second line of defence your body has for protecting it from the foreign agent (bacteria or virus). This is by the body adapting to fight infections from the bacteria or viruses, it is exposed to. Your body can become immune to infections caused by the same organism in the future. This adaptation by the body is to prevent infection and is the basis of immunisation. This means that the next time the cells in the body encounter that infection, they can remember it and mount a faster and stronger response.
Why do we get sick in the winter months?
Cold weather can bring about unwanted viruses and germs, which lead to bugs such as colds and flu. Although the change in weather itself has not been proven to cause these common ailments, it can increase other causing factors. The cold tends to drive people indoors more, therefore increasing person to person contact in closer proximity, which readily spreads nasty viruses.
Chilly weather also encourages people to be less active and fewer outdoor activities are performed which may weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to illnesses. However, practising preventative care can build up resistance against winter illnesses.
One of the leading factors that can weaken immunity is high stress levels. The body during stress releases a hormone called Cortisol. Cortisol is known to lower the white blood cells’ (the immune cells) ability to fight infections.
Poor diet and exercise are also contributing factors to weakened immunity. During the holiday season these issues are prevalent due to the increase in temptation causing an overindulgence of sweets, chocolates and other unhealthy snacks.
During winter the sun does not shine as much so we tend to get less vitamin D than we do in the summer. A recent study found that adequate vitamin D seems to be protective against infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, mental illnesses and other diseases. The body produces fewer antibodies to fight against viruses without adequate levels of vitamin D.
Diet, exercise and self-care are important in building immunity so when the temperatures drop your body is more prepared and is more likely to prevent you from getting ill.
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In part 2 (coming soon) we will discuss HOW to build your immunity for the winter.