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Featured image for "How Does Inflammation Help the Immune System to Fight Pathogens?" blog post. Inflammation is part of the immune system's defense mechanism!

How Does Inflammation Help the Immune System to Fight Pathogens?

You probably interact with the concept of inflammation every day so much you are almost tired of hearing about it. You’ve probably seen numerous advertisements for anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals on TV, as well as read articles on antioxidants and how they might help with managing our body’s response to inflammation and toxins.

However, inflammation is very misunderstood, considering it helps the immune system to fight pathogens. The pain we experience as a result of inflammation is an essential way for our bodies to communicate with us. Inflammation is biology’s signal for both transmitting information caused by pathogen or injury alike and while also neutralizing potential problems.

Considering the importance of our immune systems, and the often-complicated jargon associated with physiological descriptions, we want to share with you what we have learned about this often misunderstood topic, to examine the nitty-gritty of inflammation, and look at how inflammation helps the immune system fight pathogens.

* Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliate links, which means that we receive a small commission if you purchase through these links. However, this commission comes at no additional cost to you.

How Does Inflammation Help the Immune System to Fight Pathogens?

Let us quickly get some background on inflammation and how does it help the immune system to fight pathogens. Inflammation helps the immune system protect the body as a result of an immune-system based cellular response—these immune system cells flood the bloodstream of traumatic injuries and/or pathogens with blood, white blood cells, and essential hormones, all to fight off any potential issue and fast track the healing process.

Inflammation is both the alarm system and first responders, setting up and communicating that a specific part of the body needs to be taken care of. This could be any germs, pathogens, or foreign bodies that patrolling immune system cells catch or any potential injury. Pathogens and injuries possess a high potential to cause great damage, a quick-response alarm system and functioning first response team make sure everything is on alert and working to take care of it.

 

Understanding our bodies’ inflammatory response is helpful in our perceptions of pain and our immune system’s responses to different forms of pathogens. However, there are many steps in this process that involves inflammation and taking care of the body. Many cells have different, specialized roles in making everything work. Understanding what these cells do is pretty foundational to understanding a lot of other important immune system care.

The Immune System

Different Types of Immune System Cells:

When inflammation takes place in your body, many distinctive immune system cells are involved. Some immune system cells signal the small blood vessels in the tissue to swell, which sends more blood to the affected area. Signs of this response include redness, external swelling, and painful tenderness of the affected area.

Although many associate this part of inflammation as painful, it helps immerse the area with cells to remove pathogens and/or repair an injury. Inflammation is so important that without its function and coordination of hormones and blood cells, wounds would not able to heal. Without this, all these disease-causing germs and pathogens would have a greater chance of multiplying in our bodies and causing cellular damage on greater levels.

Our immune systems function like our bodies’ great defenders, cells fighting toxins and infections while also being able to repair injuries. However, to make this process more understandable, it is important to note and look at the many different types of cells.

The first one is maybe the more well-known cellular group. These solder-like cells are produced in our bone marrow and are otherwise known as “white blood cells” or “leukocytes.” Many different cells fall under the umbrella definition of leukocyte and all are important for an immune system function. Those cells are:

Monocyte: Bigger white blood cells that encompass and remove cellular debris and pathogens. You might like to think of these cells as street sweepers, going through, and collecting the built-up bad stuff, and disposing of them later.

Granulocytes: a type of white blood cell that can break down and digest bacteria, using phagocytes (neutrophil), fight infection and cause inflammation (eosinophil), and release histamines, which are hormones associated with inflammation that usually occur during an allergic reaction (basophil). These cells function as a team and are part of the flooding response that happens when a potential problem has been detected by the immune system.

 

Another type of immune system cell that is important in creating inflammation and fighting off disease is produced in our lymph tissue and can be found in lymph nodes as well as our blood, called lymphocytes. These fall under the category of adaptive immunity because their main function comes from recognizing specific pathogens and inheriting coding to fight them. These two general kinds of lymphocytes are:

B lymphocytes: are produced by the bone marrow and helps the body make antibodies. Antibodies develop over time and are crucial to protecting us as we get older. Antibodies are one of the reasons parents and guardians like to tell their kids to go outside and play in the mud, they are developed over time and help our immune system get stronger.

T lymphocytes (aka T cells): another type of white blood cell that is involved in the immune system. These cells are produced by the thymus, an organ in the lymph system.

While the cells in our immune system help create inflammation and find, destroying, thusly removing pathogens, the cells that trigger this cascade of events are important as well! Although they can be framed as the antagonist in the inflammation saga, an antigen is anything that our bodies do not recognize, and they produce antibodies to fight them off.

Remember what we said earlier about playing in the mud? And adaptive immunity? Both of those function as a way for the body to create antibodies that recognize antigens, and in turn, producing antibodies. All of these parts function and strengthen our immune systems.

Considering we have looked at things on the teeny, tiny molecular level, it is now time to examine things as part of a big picture!

Microbiology diagram.
Our immune system has many cells, and they all have an important part to play in protecting us!

Different Components of the Immune System:

Many different parts of our bodies are important to help our functioning immune system. This network of organs and tissues create the cells that protect and fight off infections, remove cellular waste from our systems, and also adapt the T cells so that they will be able to find and destroy future germs, parasites, viruses, and bacteria.

An easy way to understand how our organs work in the creation and management of our immune system is to think of it as a train system, all contained within the body. The first stop on this ride includes the bone marrow and the thymus, both essential in the production of white blood cells and adaptive immune system cells, the lymphocytes. The bone marrow produces blood cells, that is where our leukocytes are created.

As for the lymphocytes, the part of our immune system that “learns,” those cells are developed in this organ called the thymus. The thymus is only active through puberty and then disintegrates into components of the body. This produces both necessary hormones and also matures those ever-important T cells.

 

The second stop on our ride comprises the lymph nodes and spleen. Lymphocytes, a reoccurring theme in our immune system talk here, essentially go to lymph nodes to mature and learn more about what antigens to look out for and how to defend our bodies, making lymph nodes the boarding school for lymphocytes. These lymph nodes are located all over the body, from our heads to our toes. Our spleen, however, is in one spot and also serves as a housing station for important immune system cells, but also clears away damaged red and white blood cells.

Alright, so the final stop on our immune system train ride are those important spots found more in the periphery, containing leukocytes in reserve. These spots are wherever you find mucous, found in the nose and face as well as bowels and the intestinal tract. Lymphocytes “patrol” these areas for pathogens.

If you have ever wondered why you have a runny nose during a cold or bug, we believe that to be because more lymphocytes and immune system cells are produced in the mucous, thus creating runny noses. That leads us into talking about inflammation—the reason your nose may get red and inflamed during a cold is because your body is working to flush out these germs and pathogens, another way inflammation helps the immune system to fight pathogens.

Inflammation as an Immune System Response

How Inflammation Occurs

If antibodies or lymphocytes find any foreign bodies while on patrol, or an injury takes place, inflammation occurs as part of the body’s immune response. The primary purpose of inflammation is to increase blood circulation and send any white blood cells to an infected spot the moment an injury or infection from pathogens occurs.

How does inflammation help the immune system to fight pathogens? As we talked about before, when inflammation starts, blood vessels around the injured area will dilate to make way for the increased blood flow, and more white blood cells will find their way to the affected spot.

After blood vessels dilate, gaps will start to appear in the walls of the cells that surround the injured part of the body so that the larger cells of the blood will be able to pass. All of those immune system cells we talked about before making their way to the hurt spot. In other words, when blood flow increases, the immune presence also strengthens.

The different types of cells that are a part of the immune system will quickly rush into the injured area. This occurrence will result in an amplified supply of proteins that will fuel the immune response. While all these things are taking place in the body, especially the damaged area will also experience increased temperature (recall what we talked about with the hormones and histamines heating things), which supports the antibiotic effect.

 

Inflammation from Injuries

With an injury, more blood flows into the damaged spot, increasing the protective cells in the bloodstream and increasing nutrients. The inflammation is the initial alarm, saying “Hey! This muscle is overworked right now, how about some time and space before using it again,” while also sending all those vital nutrients and blood vessels so little muscle fibers can rebuild.

Inflammatory responses for injuries are pretty visible, when muscles or other parts of the body have been damaged or overworked, they may swell, redden, and send pain twinges to the brain every time someone uses them. While this inflammatory response is highly visible and pretty straightforward, pathogens, bacteria, and viruses are a little more complicated because they are on the inside and depend on specialized cells locating and destroying potential problems.

X ray of injury.
Inflammation is a natural way your body responds to injuries.

Inflammation from Pathogens

While inflammation can be the result of overusing a muscle, inflammation helping the immune system fight pathogens can be seen in more complex physiological reactions. Fevers are a form of inflammation the immune system uses to fight pathogens. The fever itself heats any virus, bacteria, or parasite and increases its potential to break down.

Fevers, while being a coordinated affront against pathogens, also speed up cellular movement and increases the speed of the white blood cells that are fighting against these harmful microbes. Quickly stopping further damage from infectious invaders is important because these pathogens are capable of making things pretty bad internally.

A major example of damage caused by pathogens, such as a viral or bacterial infection, would be cancer, as viruses and bacteria can alter cellular DNA and result in continuous cell production. This damage is caused by pathogens, along with oxidative stress, and the impact of free radicals, which is a big issue if it affects cells in the organs and makes it so they are continuously producing more cells, which can result in tumors.

As you may have already figured, cancer also stimulates an immune system response. Our immune system uses cells to constantly patrol our body, diagnosing and attacking any foreign body and issue that may come up whenever there is an issue. For cancer, this would happen if protective immune system cells detected tumors.

 

When Inflammation Ends

Inflammation in the affected area continues until the presence of infection is eliminated.  When inflammation is still present, phagocytes will continue the task of destroying bacteria. The acquired immunity (i.e. a kind of immunity that the body develops over time as it learns how to target and kill specific pathogens) will then bind these destroyed bacteria and dispose of them as toxins.

This disposal of cells is when we start to see some pus coming out of the infected area. This thing we call “pus” is the remains of the war that took place between the infectious bacteria and the immune cells. Pus may vary in color depending on the type of bacteria that causes the infection. An easy example of this difference is when your physician asks you whether or not the mucous from your nose is “clear” or not. This question is a test as to what kind of infection your body was fighting.

Inflammation and the Immune System, Continued

The Intelligent Immune System

Before, we discussed the “adaptive” elements of our immune systems. Here we have a continued explanation of that system, and why it is so important to protect and strengthen our immune systems.

The immune system is built in a way that makes it capable of identifying what is original to the body and what are potential antigens. The “self” refers to anything that the human body has since birth. On the other hand, the “non-self” is anything that is not original to a body. A well-functioning immune system recognizes those things that are “foreign” and will not attack parts that are either part of/or essential to the body. These cells will immediately do everything to get rid of any invaders.

A healthy immune system is intelligent enough to be able to detect an imminent threat. After getting the bat-signal, the immune system sends out its defenders right away when pathogens, viral infections, or parasites invade.

People have learned to “hack” our intelligent immune systems, looking to protect ourselves from diseases our bodies might not have the right equipment to manage. Vaccines function per the intelligence of the immune system, using a small introduction of a pathogen or virus to create an immune response to that particular illness. Oftentimes our body does not know a lot of foreign “code,” so the small sampling that a vaccine provides to our system ends up being beneficial in fighting off this disease in the future.

We can compare the function of vaccines to lighting a small fire in the woods as a means of removing underbrush to prevent an even larger fire in the future. Vaccines provide the body with a manageable amount of inflammation, which is later used if another form of the pathogen (often undiluted and dangerous) is encountered later on.

There are many examples of vaccines we can choose from, but one would be the chickenpox vaccine, which if administrated by a doctor, would result in a mild form chickenpox, instead of a dangerous version that would happen without a vaccine. Another connection would be that chickenpox and shingles, although not the same illness, come from the same virus. Children oftentimes are the ones to receive chickenpox, while older adults get shingles vaccines.

In summary, these are the symptoms that people experience when an inflammatory response is reacting in the body:

  • The tissues in the affected area become warm and red, due to the increased amount of blood that floods the site.
  • The tissues in the affected area will also become swollen as a result of a higher percentage of immune cells in the bloodstream and more proteins reaching the site of infection.
  • The affected area will become painful as tissues expand. This swelling of tissues, coupled with an increased number of pain mediators present in the site, puts pressure on the nerve cells.

Potential Immune System Problems

As previously mentioned, sometimes the immune system does not function correctly. This dysfunction can come from toxins interacting, changing our DNA, and altering the process in which the immune system cells are reproduced and receive information. The distinctions between a “healthy” and “unhealthy” immune system often have to do with what the immune system is attacking and what cells are being produced.

A well-functioning immune system can understand that it is encountering a pathogen instead of an essential element to the body. If cells end up attacking other parts of the body that are essential and not pathogens, this is a problem known as an autoimmune disorder.

 

Other instances of immune system dysfunction can occur when a body has cancer, all of the immune systems are off attempting to neutralize cancer cells and leave a lot of the body exposed and susceptible to infection. Oftentimes testing for these illnesses involves looking at the patient’s immune system and asking questions about the patient’s pain.

Examples of Immune System Problems:

  • Allergic Reactions
  • Lymphoma and lymph-based cancer.
  • Chronic Inflammation/Auto-immune diseases, such as Arthritis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and Ulcerative Colitis, Celiac disease, and many more.

Considering the brilliance of our immune system and its adaptive qualities, it may be a bit stunning to discover that occasionally it misunderstands what is in our bodies. This reason might be because of free radicals and their presence in our bodies.

Free radicals can cause constant irritation of our immune system and therefore distract our immune system cells from doing their jobs. Even though inflammation helps the immune system to fight pathogens, constantly battling inflammation makes it hard for a body to take care of itself. What can we do to make this easier and lower unnecessary inflammation?

Over time, there has been considerable research about the relationship between antioxidants, anti-inflammation, and immune system health. Not only do they help fight aging, another side effect of our cells being oxidized, but they might be able to offer protection for our cells through vital nutrients.

Oftentimes antioxidants can be found in foods known as “superfoods.” Examples of some superfoods are:

  • Dark leafy greens
  • Green tea
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Acai Berries
  • Garlic
  • Maqui Berry, and other berries
  • Borojo
  • Hawaiian Noni
  • Olive Oil
  • Aronia
  • Turmeric
  • Camu Camu
  • Pomegranate
  • Sweet Potato

This list covers only the tip of the iceberg. Even though inflammation is a necessary function for our body in fighting pathogens and injuries, sometimes it can come up and make our lives a little bit harder. Antioxidants and antioxidant-rich nutrient sources are potentially helpful in both strengthening our immune systems and also easing any painful and unnecessary inflammation.

Bowl of leafy greens.
Leafy greens contain many antioxidants.

To Review, The Roles of the Immune System Are:

 

  • Immune systems use cells to neutralize any pathogens such as parasites, viruses, and bacteria that have invaded the body. After neutralizing, these pathogens will be removed and shuttled out of the body.
  • To identify and neutralize those potential threats from substances in the environment
  • To fight against its cells that have been changed (mutated) by an illness e.g. cancer cells

Immune systems are beautiful and complicated. They learn to adapt similar to our own brains, possessing memory and offering us strength to experience the world. The fact that pain and inflammation can help the immune system fight pathogens and heal ourselves is a nice way to be reminded we are constantly communicating and learning from our bodies, and that even though something is uncomfortable, it might in fact be essential.

*Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your health care provider. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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