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Antibodies and the Immune System: How it All Works

"An antibody is a particular protein that our immune systems use as a scout to go look for invaders in our bodies."

A few weeks ago, we talked about different ways tosupport your health during the current pandemic in which we find ourselves. In today’s post, Dr. Keller Wortham, MD, will discuss what immunity means, what antibodies are, and how the immune system works, and how it affects our health and our resistance to viruses, bacteria, and other infections. 

Video Highlights

  • 00:54: What is an Antibody?
  • 03:22: The Immune System’s Memory
  • 06:13: How to Test for Antibodies
  • 07:12: Antibodies and Infections
  • 08:44: Recap on Antibodies
  • 09:29: Supporting the Immune System

What is an Antibody?

An antibody is a particular protein that our immune systems use as a scout to go look for invaders in our bodies. These invaders are basically foreign entities such as a pathogen, a virus, a bacteria, or something else that presents a risk of attacking the body. Our antibodies are here to first find and then attack the invaders. The technical term for antibody isimmunoglobulin. That’s a fancy way of describing a protein of your immune system.

So, how do these antibodies or immunoglobulin work? Well, as we just mentioned, immunoglobulin is a little protein that circulates throughout your system looking for invaders. They have a unique shape that resembles a Y. At the edge of each of the Y’s arms is a little configuration of protein, a bit like a receptor. These little configurations are very varied, so there are different versions of them. 

Essentially, this little protein is floating around your body looking to attach to something. And when it attaches to something that it recognizes as an invader, it sends a signal out to the body to neutralize that foreign pathogen. It can do this in various ways: first, if the little protein receptor at the end of the arms latches on to a bacteria or virus, it can block that pathogen so that it’s not able to infect cells in the body. The second thing it can do is send out signals to the immune system from the bottom part of the Y,  to recruit other immune system cells to come help finish the job.

So the little immunoglobulin protein circulates throughout your body, looking for something to latch on to, and when it finds something, it can either neutralize it right then, or send out a radio signal to mobilize the troops so the rest of the immune system responds by attacking the virus, or bacteria, or fungus, or whatever it is.

The Immune System’s Memory

Antibodies are made in a specific cell called a B cell, which is a part of your white blood cells. Even more specifically, antibodies are made in mature B cells, often calledplasma cells. Once these antibodies are made, they can circulate out, but some of them remain attached to B cells. As they circulate around the body, if they're free floating, they can do what we just talked about — attach to and neutralize invading pathogens. However if they are still attached to a B cell and they find a pathogen, they send a signal right to that B cell which then becomes an antibody-producing factory. 

In other words, the one antibody that was attached to the B cell sounds the alarm and the B cell produces more and more antibodies just like that one to come help neutralize the danger. Those B cells can often evolve to become what we call a "memory cell" which means that after they're done with their initial production of all these antibodies to neutralize the disease or pathogen, they remain primed and ready to start manufacturing a bunch of antibodies again at the drop of a hat if that same type of pathogen returns. Basically, if they sense the smallest amount of that same infection coming back into the future, they are ready to respond. That's why we call them memory cells: they're kind of like the memory of your immune system.

When you get sick, if the sickness or infection is something that your body hasn't recognized before — such as COVID-19, which is called a novel coronavirus because it’s a new class which our bodies have never recognized before — then you don’t have natural antibodies already circulating and prepared to block the virus right away. That's why COVID-19 is having such a devastating effect, because it's kind of catching our immune system unawares. 

However, after your body gets a specific infection and learns to recognize it, it can start to make antibodies which can hopefully help protect you from having a repeat infection in the future. That’s why everyone is talking about antibodies right now. This is not always completely reliable, however, so keep reading.

How to Test for Antibodies

To determine whether you have existing antibodies due to having previously experienced a certain type of infection, doctors first test for antibodies in the blood. And they can test specifically for antibodies to this new COVID infection, so if you think you may have had an infection in the past, you can go to your doctor, you can ask for a blood test, and they can look to see whether you have formed antibodies against this novel coronavirus. If you do, they’ll know you've had the infection in the past. 

Now, there are two versions of antibodies: IGM and IGG. Immunoglobulin M (IGM) is the kind your body makes right away, and IGG is what makes it later down the line. These generally confer an immediate immunity and more of a long-term immunity, respectively. So, looking at both of those will help determine how recently you had the infection. However, there are still a lot of questions about what that actually means, especially in terms of the novel coronavirus. 

Antibodies and Infections

So, antibodies are supposed to be there to help neutralize the pathogen or infection. And you've got these memory cells so that if your body sees that infection again, it can send out a bunch of those antibodies to try to neutralize it again.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work which is why medical experts are cautioning people. Even if you've had the infection before, and a test demonstrates that you have antibodies, we don't know that having the antibodies is going to necessarily protect you from getting the virus again, or from potentially having and spreading it to other people. 

As we learn more about this virus, we will know whether just having the antibodies in your system is going to prevent you from getting sick again, but we don’t know that yet. 

Recently, the scientific community has experimented with taking antibodies from one person who was sick and giving them to someone wasn’t sick, or who currently has a bad infection to see if those extra antibodies can help shut down the infection faster. And there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that this may actually help reduce the infection severity. So, there is some indication that our antibodies to this new virus may be protective for us. Keep an eye out for more news to come out on that.

Recap on Antibodies

Antibodies are a protein that are made in our blood by B cells (or plasma cells), which go and neutralize a target in the body by latching onto it with the little receptors at one end of the Y, and then sending a signal to the rest of the body with the other end to call in reinforcements. Ideally, that takes care of the infection. Once we've had an infection, these cells often become memory cells which can help launch a faster attack the next time the same infection appears. This is one of the main aspects of how our immune systems work. However, you can't just rely on your immune system being there and being ready to do all this work for you unassisted. You have to take care of it.

Supporting the Immune System

We’ve already discussed inother articles some of the most important things you can do to help protect your immune system and keep it strong. These things include:good, quality sleep, a diet full ofvitamins and minerals and all the important things you get from things like fruits and vegetables,stress reduction, and stayingphysically active.

We also recommend taking a few supplements to support a healthy immune system, includingSmarter Vitamin D3 (a plant-based D3 supplement with vitamin K2 included) and theSmarter Multivitamin ( natural food-sourced vitamin and mineral supplement). Make sure you are notvitamin D deficient and you are getting all the nutrients you need will be beneficial for your immune system. Also, if you're having trouble with sleep, try a natural, gentle sleep supplement likeSmarter Sleep

Immunity is not something that happens over night. You will need to foster a strong immune system that is ready to respond to various threats, so we recommend getting exercise and eating healthy every day, getting adequate sleep every night, and taking supplements to ensure you have no nutrient deficiencies.

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