by Scott Saunders, M.D.
Thousands of people fill the stands to watch the game. This is the one game that decides the best football team in the world: the Super Bowl.
It’s near the end of the game and the score is close. The center hikes the ball to the quarterback…who hands it off to a half-back…who then throws it to a tight end across the field. Inexplicably, the tight end starts running the wrong way! His own teammate tries to turn him around, but he is faster and gets away…scoring a safety for the other team! It should never happen, but it does. This can happen with the immune system, as well. We call it “autoimmune disease.”
What we call “immunity” makes us think of a system that prevents illness. A better way to consider this is to look at the immune system as the offensive line of all living things. It keeps the other side from getting past them and attacking their quarterback.
All living things have boundaries, as well. Bacteria are not always the ogres that we think they are. We hear of people with a phobia of germs, washing their hands every ten minutes to keep the bugs away. Why? Because they don’t want to get sick. However, the reality is that we always have bacteria of all sorts with us. In fact, there are more bacteria with us than there are of our own cells; and, we carry around more DNA from microbes than we do our own!
The immune system is the body’s way of keeping microbes on their own side of the line. When everything works well, the system is beautiful!  Bacteria help us to interact with our environment, including digesting and absorbing food, making nutrients for us, and repairing tissue.  However, when bacteria are out-of-place, they bring inflammation and tissue damage that causes disease.
Teaching in the Intestines
Training the immune cells is remarkably simple. The whole team of cells and proteins only need to learn what is “me” and what is “not me,” like a football player needing to know which way the ball is supposed to go. This training is done primarily in the intestines.
In the intestines, the immune cells are exposed to all sorts of bacteria, yeast, parasites, molds, foods, and environmental antigens that help it know what to expect. Since all of the proteins we make in our body are unique to us, nothing else in the world has the exact same molecules. Our immune system can use this to determine which cells and proteins belong to us, and which are foreign.
Two Different Systems
There are two primary systems of immunity.
The first does not specifically recognize foreign proteins; your innate immune system looks for abnormal cells. These abnormal cells have names like Natural Killer (NK) cells, and macrophages (big eaters). Essentially, they kill and eat other cells. They completely envelop them, release toxins such as chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide to kill them, and then digest them.
These are the cells that clean up the messes when there is trauma or infections. They may form pockets of “pus” when they go in to clean up an infection because the bacteria is making toxins to kill them, such as a staph infection.
They also get rid of all the cancer cells in the large majority of cases. Everyone makes cancer stem cells; only very few actually become cancer because of this part of the immune system. The real question of the existence of cancer is, “Why did that person develop cancer? Why didn’t the NK cells clean it up?” This is one reason it is so important to have an intact, functional immune system.
The second, acquired immunity, is the defense against invaders such as bacterial infections. Acquired immunity is made up of B-cells and T-cells. The T-cells are matured in the thymus gland and have specific receptors for foreign invaders. If the T-cells find a foreign protein and bind to it, they release hormones that cause inflammation, brining other immune cells to the area to clean up the infection.
The B-cells also have specific binding to foreign invaders, but they make antibodies, which are proteins that circulate in the blood to seek-out and bind to antigens on the infectious agents, inactivating them, and marking them for disposal.
The system is quite amazing and is hundreds of times more complex than what we have discussed. It is an intelligent system: active, and not passive. These cells don’t sit around waiting for an infection to show up. They are constantly monitoring and communicating like a good team. They listen to the coach, take signals from the quarterback, and help each other out on the field. They know the other team. They’ve been trained on the front lines in the thymus gland and in the intestinal system. They know which side they are on!
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
Though all immune cells are trained which team they are on, sometimes they run the wrong way, and score for the other team! This generally begins in