Understanding the immune system

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say that taking additional precaution to stay healthy is paramount.

Among the guidelines offered by the government, frequent washing of hands and practicing social distances are key in preventing the spread of the virus.


However, health practitioners urge that it’s important for one to have a strong immune system that can fight back against the germs one may encounter.


What do you know about the immune system?


Private Kamanzi, a dietician and nutritionist at Amazon Nutrition Cabinet, Kigali, says the immune system has a vital role to play in our bodies as it protects it from harmful substances, germs and cell changes that could make one ill.

The immune system, he says, is made up of various organs, cells, and proteins.

He notes that as long as one’s immune system is running smoothly, it’s hard to notice it is there in the first place.

But if it stops working properly because it’s weak or can’t fight particularly aggressive germs, he says, this is where you find that one is sick.

“Without an immune system, we would have no way to fight harmful things that enter our body from the outside, or harmful changes that occur inside our body,” he observes.

Kamanzi goes on to add that the main tasks of the body’s immune system include fighting diseases causing pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and to also remove them from our bodies.

Dr Janvier Rusizana, a general practitioner at La Nouvelle Clinic, Kigali, says another role played by the body’s immune system is recognising and neutralising harmful substances from the environment, and to fight disease-causing changes in the body, such as cancer cells.

How to tell if you have a weak immune system

Dr Rusizana says the immune system protects the body from infection, therefore, a person with a low immune system may be more prone to frequent infections.

He says that many disorders can weaken the immune system and cause a person to become ‘immunocompromised’.

“These disorders can range from mild to severe. Some are present from birth, while others result from environmental factors,” he says.

Some of the disorders include; HIV, certain types of cancer, malnutrition, viral hepatitis as well as some medical treatments.

Studies have shown that people with a weak immune system have a higher risk of experiencing frequent infections and severe symptoms.

These groups of people may be more prone to pneumonia and other conditions.

Bacteria and viruses, including the virus that causes the infection COVID-19, can have a devastating effect on a person with a compromised immune system.

Joseph Uwiragiye, the head of the nutrition department at University Teaching Hospital of Kigali (CHUK), says the primary symptom of a weakened immune system is susceptibility to infection.

He explains that a person with a weakened immune system is likely to get infections more frequently than most people, and these illnesses might be more severe or harder to treat.

These individuals, he says, may also find themselves dealing with an infection that a person with a stronger immune system would not get.

How to boost the immune system

Experts say the immune system does a remarkable job of defending one against disease-causing microorganisms, but sometimes it fails.

Uwiragiye says people who have a weak immune system can take several steps to maximise their chances of staying healthy and avoiding infections.

This, he says, is not limited to people with low immune systems, but everyone can adopt a lifestyle that helps make their immune system strong.

One of the ways, Uwiragiye says, is by practicing good hygiene, which includes washing the hands frequently.

Another important step to take, the nutritionist says, is improving the diet as well as making other healthy lifestyle changes.

“Your first line of defence is to choose a healthy lifestyle and follow general good-health guidelines, it is the best step towards naturally keeping the immune system strong and healthy,” Uwiragiye says.

He adds when it comes to lifestyle, avoiding smoking is essential.

Uwiragiye says eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly and also maintaining a healthy weight, is essential as far as boosting the immune system is concerned.

According to Dr Rusizana, if one drinks alcohol, taking it in moderation is key.

Additionally, he says, one should be able to get adequate sleep and minimise stress.

Kamanzi says a healthy immune system needs good, regular nourishment.

He notes that scientists have for long recognised that people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

“Regular exercise is one of the pillars of healthy living. It improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and protects against a variety of diseases,” Kamanzi says.

Just like a healthy diet, Kamanzi says exercise can contribute to general good health, and, therefore, a healthy immune system.

Besides, he explains, this may contribute even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently.


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