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The Body's Natural defences

Our internal defence force, the immune system, is designed to protect us from illness. So how does it work and why does it sometimes fail ?

Our immune system protects us from infection and invasion by all sorts of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. There are two basic defence forces against these micro-organisms: white blood cells and the specially-tailored proteins they release called antibodies.

HOW ANTIBODIES WORK
White blood cells patrol the body in the bloodstream, passing into the body tissues through tiny blood vessels called capillaries. The cells drain back into the lymph vessels, a network-like blood system connecting the lymph glands. The lymph glands are the power houses of the immune system, and include the tonsils, the spleen and the small lumps situated in the neck, under the arm and in the groin which swell during an infection.

When the immune system recognizes an alien substance (called an antigen because it provokes the production of antibodies), it usually takes from two to three days to begin to respond. Then, the immune cells race to duplicate the speed of the micro-organisms as they swiftly begin to multiply and spread in their millions throughout the system. Given time, the body usually wins. But if we're exposed again to the same antigen, the response is much faster and the invader is swiftly overwhelmed. This is why we rarely suffer twice from the same disease.

ROLE OF WHITE BLOOD CELLS
There are three main types of white blood cells playing a part in the body's defence - the lymphocytes, the leucocytes and the monocytes. Lymphocytes are the most important cells of the immune system and there are two main types: B and T cells - so called because they are produced and mature in the bone marrow and in the thymus.

B-cells come in an infinite range, each kind making just one type of antibody. During an infection, the B-cell that forms the appropriate antibody multiplies, making copies of itself to fight the invader. Some of these B-cells live for many years, ready to respond again to the same micro-organism.

ANTI-VIRUS DEFENCE
they are the prime defence against viruses, which are not so easily attacked by antibodies. T-cells also attack foreign tissue and are responsible for the rejection of transplanted organs.

The circulating protein antibodies made by B-cells are called immunoglobulins. There are five main types of immunoglobulins - IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG and IgM - which all have different functions in the battle against foreign bodies.

IgA is the most important defence against bacteria and viruses in the blood and other secretions. It deals with cold viruses, influenza and the bacteria causing pneumonia. It also kills the viruses which get into the intestine, such as the polio virus. IgD is thought to control the activity of other cells, while IgE protects mucous surfaces and is involved in the allergic response in conditions such as asthma, eczema and hay fever. IgG is the major immunoglobulin in blood and is quickly manufactured to fight invaders. IgM appears slowly after an infection, but it remains in the bloodstream for a very long time.

A strong immune system means you're less likely to become ill and will recover more quickly if you do.

WHEN IT GOES WRONG
An underactive immune system makes you prone to infection. This is called immunodeficiency - when there are too few lymphocytes or too few antibodies produced. A weakened immune system can be caused by malnutrition and infections such as measles and glandular fever, or viruses such as HIV.

Sometimes the immune system goes wrong and starts attacking itself. This results in auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus and insulin-dependent diabetes.

     
     

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