You can think of the immune system as having two personalities — a bar bouncer and a ballet dancer. According to Matt Richtel, New York Times reporter and the author of An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System, our immune systems can “bounce” the more dangerous pathogens out of the body but prefers to “dance” around weaker pathogens. It saves its best for the foreign materials that can cause the most harm.

Otherwise, Richtel says, our immune system works under the “old friends mechanism.” It actually welcomes these recognized pathogens back into the body, opting not to eradicate all outside bacteria, but instead, using it to build up its resistance. 

Richtel outlines the importance of training our immune systems. Immunity cells need practice determining the force at which to go after an invader based on its potential harm to our bodies. The occasional head cold is actually good for your body — it teaches the immune system how to fight off certain bacteria. Going through life constantly squeezing bottles of hand sanitizer can actually be doing more harm than good.

Richtel advocates for a deeper understanding of autoimmune diseases and, most importantly, what causes the immune system to malfunction in such a devastating way. 

Richtel’s book, An Elegant Defense, also discusses insights learned from diving into the stories of four individuals with different autoimmune diseases. In the most basic sense, these are diseases in which the immune system ends up fighting itself due to the misidentification of what is most harmful. Richtel advocates for a deeper understanding of autoimmune diseases and, most importantly, what causes the immune system to malfunction in such a devastating way. 

Check out this New York Times article by Ritchel about maintaining your immune system. Ritchel has been on staff at the newspaper since 2000 and won a Pulitzer in 2010 for a series focusing on the tremendous risk of using electronics while driving.

Guest:

  • Matt Richtel, author, An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System

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MTC is the producer of Viewpoints and Radio Health Journal - celebrating 25 years of award-winning public affairs radio reaching 6 million listeners each week.

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