Discovering My Immune System
By Liz Houghtling
AEHA Quarterly Fall 1990

“It’s all in your head!” How often did I hear that statement? So often it became synonymous with the screeching of fingernails on a blackboard.  I knew I had no power over what was happening.  Things just happened.  Neither I nor anyone else could explain why the pain came and went, let alone any reason for the bouts of depressions.  No one seemed to understand, so maybe, just maybe, it might be true.

Finally, three years ago my world began to fall apart.  I developed stranger and stranger symptoms, some bordering on the bizarre.  The pressure and pain never left my head, or anywhere else for that matter, getting a breath seemed impossible, my legs felt like rubber; a rash developed on my face and neck; the skin on my feet hardened and cracked open.  These were only a few of the things that plagued me.  Then there was the confusion, oh that confusion.  It, added to a loss of thinking power and an increase in memory loss, made learning new things nearly impossible.  However, the most terrifying of all were the lightning flashes in my head and the sense that the two halves of my brain were no longer communicating.  What was going wrong? Was this how I was to spend my remaining days? The future looked most uninviting! Death seemed more welcome; but instinct said it was not my time.  Then, like a miracle, came help!!

I will never forget that day! How beautiful it was to meet people who believed in what you were saying, who didn’t laugh, who understood.  Tests were ordered.  This was new for me.  Doctors never sent me for tests.  They just pronounced there was nothing wrong.  Following nine grueling days of testing, each more difficult than the last, came a diagnosis, “Chronic, multiple hypersensitivities, involving most of the major organ systems of the body”.  Great, I was elated! At last my problem had a name.

The new treatments such as, serums, avoidance of the most offensive agents, and a rotation diet, began to take effect.  The terror was easing and I was regaining my ability to think.

What did the name I now had for my problem mean? I understood chronic.  Heaven knows 40 years of problems was surely chronic.  Multiple also held no questions.  I had enough symptoms.  “Hypersensitivities”? I learned this stood for a broad spectrum of symptoms other than the usual sneezes, wheezes and itches, conventionally known as allergies.  But, “involving nearly all the major organ systems of the body”? I surely had symptoms in every corner of my being, and I knew what an organ was.  Wasn’t the heart an organ? But, “organ systems”? What were they? How many were there? Understanding them seemed to be a key to getting better.

I was as familiar as most allergic people with my respiratory system.  At the center are those lungs, that at times, never seem to get enough air.  Then there are the bronchi (small tubes deep within the lungs), which, when swollen, trap foreign matter causing that never ending cough.  My nose, the ever dripping faucet that had ceased to detect smells, along with the pharynx, larynx and trachea (organs in the throat) apparently make up the rest of this system designed to supply me with life-giving oxygen and cleanse my body of carbon dioxide.  

My digestive and excretory systems make up much of the remaining area within my body.  Their job is to turn those scrumptious goodies I love into vitamins, minerals and proteins; nutrients that my body can utilize.  In turn, they eliminate the waste products.  There are many organs here including the stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, bladder and gall bladder.  I can also add my salivary glands, parts of my respiratory system and even my skin.

Also within my body, ceaselessly beating unaided, is my heart, although mine had become rather erratic as I had mysteriously developed a heart murmur.  My hearth is the main organ of my circulatory system and, by means of my blood and blood vessels, pumps those nutrients produced by the digestive system to every nook and cranny of my body.  Here, I found a very important subsystem, the lymphatic system, which turned out to play a major role later on.

My musculo-skeletal system surrounds and protects these vital organs.  It is made up of my bones and their connective tissue.  My muscles, tendons and ligaments give mobility to this framework which also supports my flesh and skin.  

The nervous system was another system very familiar to me.  However, I was surprised to find that this is not an elusive abstract thing I am supposed to have mental control over, but a real physical system with its own organs including the brain, spinal cord and the nerves themselves.  (Oh, that pain inside my skull really could be a swollen physical organ!) Apparently, the centers for sensation, emotion and thinking are found deep within this very sensitive system.  Those mysterious cerebal symptoms like confusion, memory loss, negative thinking and depression emerge from here.

I have many other systems like my endocrine and reproductive systems, and somehow they all seem to work together in harmony, each one knowing exactly what it should do.  What keeps them in order and controls them? The human body seems far too complex for only one organ, like the brain or heart, to do that.  So there must be another force, or some type of network; perhaps yet another system.  

When we were little our mothers took us to the doctor to have our “shots”.  We were “immunized” against childhood afflictions, like smallpox and whooping cough.  According to Peter Jaret in his 1985 National Geographic article entitled, “The War Within”, the process of immunization was accidentally discovered by an 18th century English physician named Edward Jenner.  He discovered that the body could be tricked into defending itself against a disease, in this case smallpox.  It involves creating a false attack forcing the body to set up defenses against a disease, despite the fact there is no actual disease.

Nearly one hundred years later, Louis Pasteur uncovered the mechanism of immunization and developed serums which are still in use today.  For the most part, study in this area remained in the background of medical science until approximately 20 years ago, when scientists once again took up the concept.  Sophisticated microscopes as well as new laboratory techniques are now helping them to successfully unravel the intricate workings of this defense mechanism.  

Jaret goes on to say, “Every minute of every day wars rage within our bodies with combatants too tiny to see.”  To fight these battles, I have developed a highly complex system of defenses, called my immune system.  It staves off the hosts of viruses, bacteria, and fungi that swarm unseen around me constantly.

Like all living organisms, I am made up of cells, an estimated 100 trillion.  Each type of cell is specially adapted to perform a particular function.  My blood is made up of two types of these cells, red blood cells and white blood cells.  The red blood cells transport oxygen from my lungs throughout my body tissues and my white blood cells, developed in my bone marrow, are an integral part of my immune system.  They are my defender cells.

On the front line of my defense system is the largest organ of all, a system in its own right, my skin.  The skin, also referred to as the innate immune system, acts like an osmosis membrane, preventing infiltration of the tiniest of micro-organisms, while at the same time releasing waste products.  It performs its job well but viruses can infiltrate through openings like the nose and mouth, and when it is broken with a cut, bacteria rushes in.  It is then my major defenses, my adaptive immune system, come into play.  

Inside my body, my white blood cells are broken into three distinct groups called phagocytes and lymphocytes.  Jaret refers to these phagocytes as “cell eaters”.  They are constantly moving throughout my body seeking out and destroying infiltrators.  My lymphocytes are divided into two types: B cells and three types of T cells (named after the thymus gland where they are derived).  He refers to these three types of T cells as “helper”, “killer” and “suppressor” T cells.  

Normally my phagocytes are capable of fending off the invaders, but occasionally they are overwhelmed and then a special phagocyte, called a macrophage, is called into play.  These macrophages approach the invader seeking out a special identification area on it, called an antigen.  Each invader has his own unique antigen, very different from any other.  Selection of the antigen enables the immune system to identify the invader and alerts the “helper T” cells.  

These cells summon the major defense forces: the “killer T” cells.  Evidently, I am capable of producing millions of them.  Each of these cells is designed to match a specific offending antigen.  These “killer T” cells, then, go to work selecting out their specific antigens for attack.

While this battle rages, the “B” cells in my lymphatic system (remember, it is part of the circulatory system) are alerted.  They manufacture chemicals known as antibodies, which latch onto the invaders.  With the addition of a substance called complement (a blood protein) these antibodies destroy the invading cells.

When all the invaders have been destroyed, then the last of my defense forces, my “suppressor T” cells, come into play.  They turn off my defense mechanisms following which the phagocytes begin removing the debris and making repairs.

I won’t forget this battle.  Although most of my B and T cells die, many, familiar with this particular invader, will remain.  This regiment of cells, trained to identify this particular antigen, will not allow me to succumb to it again.  I am now immune!

Usually this process of defense functions extremely well and is the reason why a transplant patient’s immune system must be suppressed so as not reject the new organ.  However, there are times when things go awry.  At times, normal body cells can turn against us.  Antigens can mutate slightly making them unidentifiable to the T cells.  These mutated cells begin to run out of control and cancer develops.  Other times, the immune system seems incapable of recognizing normal cells and begins attacking them.  The result is autoimmune disease, like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and lupus erythematosis.  

Yet again, there are times when the immune system cannot seem to distinguish between friend or foe.  It seems unable to identify normally harmless substances, ordinary substances like pollen or ods, as such.  This misidentification is known as allergy, or sensitivity.  Most allergic reactions are mild.  However, for some sensitive people, the ingestion of peanuts or an insect bite, can cause anaphylactic shock which can kill.  

Many people do not respond to these allergens, but the sensitive have developed antibodies to them causing them to react.  To combat the allergen, ragweed, the immune system manufactures chemicals like histamine and the results are those well known hay fever symptoms.  The B cells continue to make more and more of these chemicals, although they are really unnecessary.  Thus, the immune system just keeps on reacting and reacting.

Here was my problem! What a relief! All of a sudden my problems were something tangible.  Something physical.  Something to grasp.  My immune system was malfunctioning.  Referred to as dysregulation, by Dr. Alan Levin and others, this maladaption causes my immune system to attack things that it needn’t.  Here was something I could understand, and possible do something about.

I decided to fight back and began a multi-faceted attack.   Now, thanks to medical treatment, dietary control, behavioural modification therapy, stress management and physical exercise, my symptoms are no longer permanent residents.  My old enemies do still return to haunt me, at times, but they no longer overwhelm me.  I know now when the pain in my head arrives, or my legs don’t want to do their job, it is due to exposure to offending agents or I have been living life to overflowing again.  I can attack with a variety of prescriptions using serums, rest, and/or exercise, and my foes will leave me once again.  I am in control now.  They no longer control me!!

And now to the future.  Mr. Jaret goes on to say that scientists suspect that, besides defense, the immune system may have another job, “…keeping each part of the body in touch with every other part”.  He further states, “…allergies appear to be inherited” (clinical ecologists have known this for years), and, also, “…immunologists suspect certain genes control how we respond to allergens.”  If scientific research eventually discovers the full role the immune system plays and confirms these other suspicions then I see a wonderful future.  Generations without the frustrations of allergy.  What a glorious prospect!


Dadd, Debra Lynn & Alan S. Levin, MD, “Immune System Dysregulation & Chemical Sensitivity”, H.E.F.   Canada Quarterly, Vol.VII, No.2, June 1985.

Jaret, Peter, “Our Immune System, The Wars Within”, National Geographic, Vol.169, No.6, Washington,   DC, June 1986.

Siegel, Bernie S., MD, Love Medicine & Miricles, New York, NY :Harper & Row, 1988.

Simonton, D. Carl, MD, Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, James L. Creighton, Getting Well Again, New   York, NY:Bantam Books, 1988.

Private Conversations with Dr. J.G. Maclennan, MD, and Donna Powell, BScN.