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The immune system

The immune system is divided into two major entities based on their function:

The innate immune system which the first line of defense that foreign objects face when aggressing our bodies. It is also called the non-specific immune system and recruits some mechanical structures (e.g. the skin, acid secretion of the stomach, cilia that propel germs outside of our respiratory tract) and some immune cells (e.g. macrophages, neutrophils, natural killers).

The specific immune system which uses specialized immune cells and antibodies to fight off germs in a specific way, for example when you get the stomach flu, there will be some cells and antibodies specifically and uniquely designed to fight off that particular strain of the stomach flu virus.

The combination of these two systems has created the perfect (almost) system that’s keeping us alive today.

Without our immune system, a simple viral infection can destroy our organism and kill us. For instance, patients with AIDS who have very low immune cell count often die because of opportunistic infections and not the AIDS itself.

Issues caused by a dysfunctional immune system

Usually, humans spend their whole lives without facing any issues with their immune system; sure, there is the common cold every year and some mild infections here and there, but still, nothing serious or deadly.

However, for some unfortunate souls, the immune system can go haywire, with some cases involving a diminished function, while other cases involve the hyperactivity of this system.

Regardless of the type of dysfunction, both ways are bad news!

Immune deficiencies: these diseases involve a decrease or absent activity of one or more immune cells. Examples include:

  • Chediak-Higashi syndrome
  • Combined immunodeficiency disease
  • Complement deficiencies
  • DiGeorge syndrome

 

Autoimmune diseases: which involve the immune system attacking a substance, a molecule, or another cell type of the body itself. In other words, the body is literally attacking itself. Examples include:

  • System lupus erythematosus
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Crohn’s disease

The treatment of both subtypes of diseases is quite complicated; it includes using surgery, steroids, chemotherapeutic drugs, immunomodulators, etc.

In recent years, and due to the discovered immunomodulatory effects of polyphenols, interest increased around using these substances as a treatment for some immune system dysfunction.

Polyphenols influence on the immune system

 

Polyphenols can boost your immune system

 

Decades of research on polyphenols unveiled numerous effects of these plant substances on the immune system; each type of polyphenols is believed to exert a specific effect on a certain receptor/cell type.

The exact mechanisms entail complicated metabolic pathways and intracellular signaling cascades.

These are the three major areas where polyphenols exert their action:

Intestinal mucosal immune response

The innate immune system of the gut involves three layers:

1-Mucosal Layer

2-Epithelium

3-Lamina Propria

Because the mucosal layer is the first line of defense every pathogen has to go through, it is much more susceptible to structural abnormalities which can in some cases become malignant (cancer).

However, the nutritional protection of polyphenols regulates the mucosal innate immune system and inflammation, which is believed to be a key point in the prevention of gastrointestinal tumors.

Allergic diseases

Polyphenols with their anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties seem to exert their action on allergic diseases by reducing the production and/or halting the release of inflammatory mediators and antibodies.

For instance, polyphenols have been shown to decrease the release of histamine (a potent pro-inflammatory mediator), as well as inflammatory cytokines.

Moreover, polyphenols regulate the action of T helper cells (major cell type of the immune response) to reduce the production of IgE antibodies.

The combination of these mechanisms, all lead to milder immune responses to allergens, thus mild or no allergy symptoms.

Antitumor effects

Exciting new data has found that polyphenols induce apoptosis (cellular death) of cancerous cells at the early stages.

The mechanism of action involves enhancing the intercellular signaling through Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF), which is an inflammatory mediator that activates immune cells against foreign cells (transplants and cancer).

Unfortunately, and due to the insufficient number of studies and clinical trials, it is not clear which type of cancer is sensitive to which type of polyphenol.

Also, the degree of the effectiveness of these substances on cancer prevention and treatment is not clearly elucidated.

Conclusion

Polyphenols have numerous beneficial effects on the human body due to their anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, anti-allergic, and immunomodulatory properties.

One of the fields worth exploring is the influence of polyphenols on the immune system, which can be the gateway to finding the cure to many debilitating diseases.

Sadly, the data available so far isn’t good enough to take any practical decisions; however, it is very promising.

Further studies and clinical trials will be the key point in determining the true value of polyphenols on the immune system.

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