I am about three-quarters of the way through a very fascinating read on our immune system by Matt Richtel called, An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System.
Richtel follows the lives four people with very different immune system reactions to various ailments from cancer to AIDS to a hyperactive autoimmune response and the ever changing science in the field of immunology. It is a very fascinating study as a layman in the field. One of my main takeaways thus far is the very delicate balance of our immune systems and how it is given the task of deciphering what is self and what is alien as it detects and reacts to bacterial infection, viruses, and other threats to our health that we face all the time.
Another interesting tidbit I learned is that it is our immune system, not the infection per se that causes you to start feeling crappy when you are fighting a formidable virus or bacterial infection. It is the immune system that gives you a fever. It is your immune system that causes inflammation. It is your immune system that makes you feel fatigued and rundown. These signals from your immune system tell your body: “Stop what you are doing; go home from work; don’t go for a run today; we are in the middle of a battle and you need to rest. This threat is dangerous!”
Your immune system is telling you that you need to focus all your energy on this threat and nothing else.
Under acute stress, a situation like you are under attack from a bear, your body is programmed to become alert, fully-functional and even slightly super-powered.
Adrenaline triggers a biochemical reaction from your brain. Proceeded by the release of norepinephrine and epinephrine – a sympathetic response connected to the nervous system, the steroid cortisol is released from the brain to the pituitary and adrenal glands, which binds to receptors on every cell in your body.
Under stress steroids help maintain the integrity of blood vessels when constricting. They also help maintain blood circulation and blood pressure so you don’t faint or die.
Steroids are also an immune system dampener that represses the immune response. That virus you fighting can wait because this threat is imminent. Don’t slow me down with a fever or inflammation or fatigue, I need all my senses hyper-charged.
Now, the most interesting part of all this is that the release of adrenaline that starts this response is actually highly regulated by how you sleep.
Stay tuned. More on that in another post soon.