Why Your Immune System Needs Some Back Up

I’ve always marveled at the way the human body works like a series of machines in a factory. The major organs that we often think about are fuelled by small interactions on the cellular level to keep us functional. They know where to take the various vitamins, minerals, and nutrients we consume, create appropriate responses to regulate blood levels, and discard what we don’t need.

These cells can also sense when there are foreign intruders breaking in to cause harm, and quickly send a defense team to get them out of there. These cells are sent from the central intelligence agency of your body, your immune system.

But even though the human body has these amazing capabilities, it’s not perfect. Researchers recently found that immune support, at times, can actually make us more vulnerable to certain infections.

MORE: How to Prevent Foodborne Illnesses

A new study showed a particular protein mobilized by the immune system actually enhances the growth of certain harmful bacteria, like salmonella, while stalling the production of healthy bacteria.

The study noted that a key immune protein, interleukin-22 (IL-22), actually assists salmonella growth that can lead to food poisoning. It seems to suppress other immune proteins that produce healthy bacteria, ultimately having the opposite desired impact on the infected cells.

The immune system works by cutting off access to nutrients like iron, manganese, and zinc that allow bacteria to grow. Salmonella, however, appears to be able to bypass this usually successful defense mechanism. It seems IL-22 would take these and sequester these nutrients from the common gut bacteria E-coli, while handing them over to the cells infected with salmonella. It’s almost like the IL-22 is stealing from Peter to pay Paul and Paul was laughing all the way to the bank!

Even though they seem to struggle with salmonella infections, IL-22’s are still a strong defense mechanism against other pathogens. The results of this study should help find alternative treatments for salmonella poisoning.

Certain bacteria, like salmonella, can make you very sick but can also be avoided by taking preventative measures.  If you do get salmonella poisoning, the body can usually fight off the symptoms—which include nausea, diarrhea, and fever—within four to seven days on its own.

You can get salmonella poisoning from animals (mainly reptiles) and animal food products. It’s typically associated with handling raw meat and poultry, consuming eggs and other dairy products that are unpasteurized, or handling reptiles.

MORE: Food Safety Tips—Don’t Wash Your Chicken!

To prevent the spread of salmonella, remember to thoroughly clean all surfaces that have come into contact with the aforementioned items and wash your hands immediately following contact. Also, be sure to cook all meats to safe levels of consumption. As you’re likely aware, this varies depending on what you’re cooking.

Do your body a favor and take some preventative measures to save your immune system the trouble. A healthy body is a great thing to have, but remember: it’s not perfect!

“Salmonella,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 6, 2014; http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/, last accessed February 18, 2014.
“How Our Immune System Backfires and Allows Bacteria Like Salmonella to Grow,” Science Daily web site, February 6, 2014; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140206133638.htm