The immune system: what is it?

How the immune system works

I am not a scientist! I’m trying to make this understandable for non-scientists like me. If I can get these basics down, so can anyone!

The first thing to know is that it’s not like other systems in the body in that it doesn’t consist of specific organs, like the digestive system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, etc. It’s bigger than that.

The immune system spreads throughout the body through the blood, bone marrow, lymph nodes, and mucosa (both mucous membranes and that surrounding organs), and more specifically, it is a key function of the thymus gland and the spleen.

The immune system works to prevent pathogens such as viruses from causing harm. There are two branches of the immune system, innate and adaptive.

The innate immune system responds first to invading pathogens. The innate response is rapid but not specialized. The adaptive immune system responds to pathogens that slip past the innate immune system, and it remembers them if exposed again.

The main cell types of the adaptive immune system are T cells and B cells, which are produced in the bone marrow from stem cells. They are also called lymphocytes.

T cells recognize invaders and coordinate immune responses. They consist of killers, helpers, and messengers. They kill infected damaged cells. They produce cytokines that fight pathogenic viruses, bacteria, and fungi. When they find pathogens, they send messages to activate the rest of the immune system.

B cells produce antibodies, called Immunoglobulins (Ig) of various types. These are specific proteins in our blood that respond to and counteract specific antigens (substances in pathogens that provoke an immune response).

Both T cells and B cells can become memory cells, which persist and can recognize when an antigen appears again and create a rapid, antigen-specific immune response. For instance, having had the measles once confers immunity — If exposed again, you don’t get the measles again because your immune system recognizes and defends against it successfully. You can prove it with a blood test for measles antibodies.

This is also how vaccines work. Introduce just enough of an antigen for the body to produce antibodies, and the body becomes immune to that antigen.

We don’t have any specific immune cells for SARS-CoV-2 (the actual name of the virus; COVID-19 is the name of the illness) yet, because it is novel — new. It’s one of many coronaviruses (which can cause the common cold). Immunity to one coronavirus does not confer immunity to others…and the nature of viruses is that they mutate.

So, it seems to me, developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 is like trying to hit a moving target. There are labs around the world working on a vaccine — but testing one to see if it works well and is safe enough to offer everywhere takes time, about a year from what I’ve heard…so next spring…if the virus doesn’t mutate, possibly becoming even more contagious and severe.

Medical people in the trenches are currently trying to find out whether people who have recovered from COVID-19 have produced enough antibodies to it in their blood plasma to inject in critically ill people and turn it around.

The role of lifestyle

Your lifestyle is a major factor in supporting your immune system, making you healthier, possibly even conferring the ability to have that symptomless version of COVID-19 that I’m sure we all wish we had (but knowing we have it and self-quarantining so as not to spread it to people with weaker immune systems)…and having complete immunity afterwards. Maybe even being able to donate blood to save lives!

A healthy immune system might make the difference between a mild case and a serious case.

But since it’s new, we’re still learning.

Hygiene, diet, sleep, fresh air, exercise, the parasympathetic nervous system, and supplements all play roles in keeping your immune system working well. I intend to explore these in the coming days.

Defend yourself with impeccable hygiene

Humans got way healthier when we started washing our hands and utilizing public sewage systems and drinking clean water. Before these practices became common, a lot of people suffered and died miserably from cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, hepatitis, typhus, and other diseases spread from poor sanitation.

In the time of the coronavirus, the actions you can take to improve hygiene and reduce transmission of the virus include hand washing, coughing or sneezing into your elbow, not touching your face with unwashed hands, wearing gloves, wearing a mask, self-quarantining if exposed or ill (whether you test positive or not, given the shortage of tests), social distancing, sheltering in place, lockdowns.

This virus is very contagious! Please take care not to get exposed and not to spread it. Wash.Your.Hands.

Current coronavirus stats from Austin

This is day 4 of sheltering in place. As of last night, we had 160 cases here and one death, a woman in her 70s with significant underlying health conditions. Blessings to her family. 💚🙏🏽

It’s still affecting more people in the 20-40 age group than older people in this city with a young-skewing population.

One person at a homeless shelter has tested positive. That person is being isolated at a hotel and the 19 others exposed are also isolated and being monitored.

I’m hearing reports of customers being abusive to employees at to-go restaurants and grocery store cashiers. I hope management protects their employees and bans these people for a few days so they will be more appreciative.

I’m learning about the immune system

I have a dear friend who is my age (60+) who sn’t worried about getting sick from the coronavirus. She is a naturopath and a homeopath and is trained in a lot of other alternative health care modalities.

She has absolute faith that her immune system is so robust that she will not get sick.

I don’t quite have that much faith, even though I’m doing a lot to stay healthy, but it made me curious about immunity.

One question I have is this: how many people are positive for the virus but have no symptoms? Is this because their immune systems are so robust that the virus keeps trying to make headway, but it just can’t?

Or, possibly, could it be because they were exposed to very little of the virus, just enough to test positive, but not as much as people who get sick?

I believe the tests are binary: either you test positive or negative. (I wish everyone could be tested frequently.) The threshold for testing positive may be low if people are carrying it but symptomless.

I’m also assuming that people in close or frequent contact with those carrying or sick with the virus would have more virus in their body and be more likely to get sick. So, nursing homes. Prisons. Cruise ships. Mardi Gras. Spring breakers packing the beaches.

Packed churches at Easter?

I want to learn more about the immune system. We’re all interested now!

I’m going to investigate that and report what I find here in plain language.

Today is Day 3 of shelter in place in Austin, Texas, USA. As of last night, we have 137 known cases and no deaths.

Interestingly, the majority of cases are in people under 40. Only 19 cases are in people 60+.

Checking in

Love in the time of coronavirus

Today is Day 2 of sheltering in place in Austin, Texas. We had 119 known cases as of last night (but no deaths so far), and we know the virus is being transmitted in the community. No one I know has it so far, that I’ve heard, but friends and relatives of friends do. The number of cases will almost certainly go up over the next two or three weeks. The hope is that then the number of cases will start declining because of first, social distancing, and now, sheltering in place.

For me, this means staying home, which I have been since Saturday, and for the week before, my outings were rare. I’ve ordered groceries online and picked them up. I have a wonderful daughter who can pick items up and bring them to me. I have groceries enough to last for at least a week, and I’m keeping a list on the fridge door of the items I run out of that I can get next time I shop (which will probably be online to be delivered or picked up curbside, but I do have a mask and gloves in case I need to venture inside a store). My fridge, freezer, and nonperishable shelves are full.

I feel pretty good about my chances of getting through this without getting sick, or of being mildly ill if I do get it. I had a cold in October that was mild and lasted two days, and I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I’d previously had a cold. My immune system is robust.

However, it’s unpredictable. I’m in the 60+ population and therefore considered at risk. I do yoga and dance regularly (now doing these online), I eat healthy (organic unprocessed food mostly), and I meditate, which helps keep my nervous system more balanced rather than going into stress, which is hard on the immune system. I’m working on improving my sleep, getting more deep and REM sleep according to my Fitbit.

I take really high quality supplements from Premier Research Labs and Wellevate. (I have practitioner accounts with both that you can order through if you wish.) I have homeopathic remedies on hand too. I have health insurance should I need it, and I hope that if I do, the health care system isn’t overwhelmed and can tend to me. I’m very very fortunate and grateful.

Y’all, no one is immune. This virus targets humankind. It’s a great equalizer. It doesn’t respect fame, power, talent, or riches. Movie stars, professional athletes, famous artists, royalty, and politicians have come down with it. Because it’s novel, no one has immunity, except those who have completely recovered from it.

I’m hearing people say things like “What a year this past week has been” and “there are many days in a day.” We’re in a time of rapid change.

I believe when this pandemic is over, some aspects of our lives will not go back to the way they were. This will influence people living through it for the rest of our lives. We will not take our health for granted. We will better understand the relationship between lifestyle and health. We will require that our governments take actions that support our health over corporate profits.

Dead people don’t buy stuff.

I hope the biggest takeaway is that we humans are ALL connected through our humanity. We are all dependent on this planet for our lives. Maybe we will treat each other, and our home planet, much better.

Blessings for health, immunity, resiliency, resourcefulness, and connection. 💚🙏🏽

Beet kvass: an easy fermented drink you can make at home to build vitality and resilience

Once upon a time, people didn’t know about viruses, bacteria, or hand-washing. They tended to live shorter lives than we do now. They got sick more often, and a whole lot more infants and children died than do nowadays. It was rare for people to live past 60.

But they were observant, and they developed practices like yoga and Qi gong to strengthen and balance their bodies, to keep their energies vital and strong. They created medicines from herbs that we now know have anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties, without knowing about these things. They walked everywhere and grew their own food and got plenty of fresh air, sunshine, and exercise.

Think about it: all their food was organic because there was no alternative! They enriched the soil with manure and dead plants. The soil produced healthy food. The water was clean for the most part, the air unpolluted. They saved seeds from the best plants. They stored what food they could, and they fermented foods to strengthen and lengthen the nourishment.

In Russian and Eastern Europe, they made a fermented drink called kvass, from bread and other things. In Ukraine, they made kvass from beets, which are easy to grow, produce leafy greens you can also eat, and keep well. Kvass was common in every kitchen during those long cold winters and kept people healthier than they would otherwise have been.

Kvass may have even kept viruses at bay, or at least minimized the severity. We’re all very interested in that now!

You can make your own beet kvass at home, and here’s what you’ll need:

  • A jar — quart size or larger.
  • Filtered water (tap water has chlorine in it, which will slow fermentation).
  • Good non-iodized salt.
  • A medium to large beet.
  • A little bit of sauerkraut juice or whey from the top of plain yogurt (not whey powder).

This recipe below makes half a gallon. Put equal amounts of each ingredient into two quart jars if that’s what you have. If you want just one quart, halve the recipe. If you want to make a gallon, double the recipe.

I like to use an organic red beet, medium to large in size. Rinse any dirt off and cut it into half-inch cubes. Do not peel or scrub. You want 1 to 2 cups of cubed beets. Place them in the half gallon jar.

Fill the jar to an inch below the top with filtered water.

Add 1/2 teaspoon good salt.

Add 1 tablespoon of sauerkraut juice or whey.

Stir and put the lid on.

Every day, open the lid to let any fermentation gases off so pressure doesn’t build. If any scum forms on top, scoop off as much as you can.

Knowing when it’s done: The water will have turned a beautiful deep red color that is opaque — you can’t see through it any more. The water has thickened a bit to have more viscosity.

Beet kvass, day 1.
Day 4. Notice the brine has gotten more opaque. Could be ready on Day 5 or 6.

You can start tasting it on day 3. Beet kvass tastes earthy, salty, and tangy. This is hard to imagine because there’s nothing else quite like it. The flavor strengthens each day.

When I tasted my first batch, I didn’t know if I’d like it, and I just tasted a tablespoon of it. Wow! It’s a unique flavor, and my body wanted more so I drank more. I’ve been making it ever since.

Taste it every day for 7-10 days, and when you feel it’s done, put it in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation. Then drink some with every meal.

You can strain and refrigerate it, keeping 1/2 to 1 cup of the kvass and the beets and starting over to make another batch. Add filtered water and salt as above. Remnants from the first batch serve as a starter for the second batch. What’s not to like about that??

I recommend making this plain version the first time. You could add slices of ginger root or whole cloves to the next batch.

In my experience, it’s not worth it to try making a third batch. Too much of the goodness has left the beets by then. Start over with fresh beets and compost the old ones or add them to broth or soup. (They still have some flavor and all the fiber.)

And while you are making it or drinking it, you can imagine old Ukrainian ladies in their babushkas making this for their children and grandchildren to increase their vitality and resilience.

And you can imagine this kvass delivering all kinds of health-giving properties to your digestive system and immune system. (Seventy percent of your immune system is in your gut.) The probiotics from fermenting, plus the nutrients from beets (Vitamin C, folate, magnesium, potassium, iron, and more) make this a nutrient-dense food.