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Using Your Immune System to Stay Well

Experts explain how you can tap the power of your immune system to avoid getting sick.
WebMD Feature

You and a friend step into a crowded elevator and immediately notice two people coughing and sneezing up a storm.

Within a couple of days you come down with a bad cold -- and blame it on that elevator ride. Yet your friend -- exposed to the same germs at the same time -- remains perfectly healthy.

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What made the difference? The power of the immune system. It's a network that can help us avoid illness -- or sometimes become the underlying reason we get sick.

"The strength of our immune system is what makes the difference between who gets sick and who doesn't. The one with the immune system functioning below base-line normal has an increased risk of getting sick," says Woodson Merrell, MD, director of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

But is there anything you can do to keep your immune system from dropping below par -- or increase its activity if it does?

Doctors say yes. And the secrets lie in understanding a bit about how the immune system works -- and how your everyday life can stoke the fires of protection.

In simplest terms, the immune system is a balanced network of cells and organs that work together to defend you against disease. It blocks foreign proteins from getting into your body. If a few happen to sneak by your biological sentry, not to worry. With a powerful "search and destroy" task force, your body deploys a host of additional immune cell forces designed to hunt down these unwanted invaders and ultimately works to destroy them.

Fending Off Illnesses

"This entire system is known as the 'humoral' response. It's your body's innate ability to manufacture antibodies that counter the infectious particle -- allowing your body to eradicate it," says Phillip Tierno Jr., PhD. He's director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at Tisch Hospital, New York University Medical Center, and author of The Secret Life of Germs.

Antibodies are proteins which can identify normal "self" cells verses foreign invading cells. They work as part of the immune system to destroy abnormal or foreign cells.

This, he says, not only affects your ability to fend off common illnesses like colds, the flu, or a stomach virus, but it can also play a role in protecting you against catastrophic diseases like cancer or even heart disease.

Additionally, we also have a second protective response known as the "cell-mediated immune system." This immunity involves immune system cells, rather than proteins, which are "helper" or "killer" cells. The cells help our body create memory of past defense against disease protection.

"Your body recognizes that pathogen again, and immediately calls up the memory of the previous infection and sets out to destroy the invader before the disease develops," says neurophysiologist Carl J. Charnetski, PhD. Charnetski is a professor of psychology at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and co-author of Feeling Good Is Good For You: How Pleasure Can Boost Your Immune System and Lengthen Your Life."

This mechanism is also the biologic behind vaccines for illnesses such as measles, chicken pox, or hepatitis.

"The concept of inoculating us against diseases is based on deliberately introducing a harmless amount of a pathogen so that our [immune] cells can react, learn, and remember how to produce antibodies enough to fight it," says Charnetski.

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