Does your Place of Residence influence your Immune System?

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In a recent issue of Trends in Immunology researchers concluded where and with whom we live account for 60 to 80 per cent of the differences between individual immune systems, while genetics account for the rest. Like fingerprints, immune systems vary from person to person and despite our unique set of genes that help us respond to infections our diet, quality of air, food, stress levels, sleep patterns and lifestyle choices have a stronger effect on our immune system. The researchers said “Just like it took a while to crack the genetic code, we’re finally starting to crack the immune code, and we’re shifting away from the simplistic idea that there is only one type of immune system. diversity isn’t just programmed into our genes–it emerges from how our genes respond to their environment.”

They say that long-term infections are responsible for most of the differences between individual immune systems and use the example of herpes or shingles. In these processes the virus has more opportunity to interact with the immune system and these interactions slowly change the cellular makeup of the immune system and make it more sensitive to that specific virus but also easier for other infections to move past its defenses. People who do not have these infections don’t experience cellular changes, and even with the occasional cold or fever, their immune system stays relatively stable over time.

The exception is an elderly person when our immune system reacts differently to threats. This is related partially to the thymus organ that gradually stops producing T cells, which are made to fight infections. Without these cells, older people are more likely to get sick and less likely to respond to vaccines. In addition, to the lack of T cells there seems to be other changes in the way the immune system reacts. For example, the researchers say “A lot of diseases we associate with aging have an inflammatory component, which suggests there is likely immune involvement.”  The further say differences can be overcome and studies of people living together show that air-quality, fod, stress level, sleep patterns, and lifestyle choices had a strrong combined effect on immune responses and couples who cohabitate had more similar immune systems compared with the general public.  Researchers now plan to study how changing the envorinbment could purposefully shape our immune system and potentially effect our health.

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