The elegant balance

A conversation about our remarkable immune system

Created date

June 28th, 2019
Scanning electron microscope image of human blood—a mixture of white and red blood cells, both of which are key components in the immune system.

Scanning electron microscope image of human blood—a mixture of white and red blood cells, both of which are key components in the immune system. 

There’s an old saying: “You eat a pound of dirt before you die.” The significance of this observation goes well beyond cleverness, though. 

The immune system thrives on struggle. That is, you must challenge and exercise it, lest it become lazy and weak.

The system itself is miraculous, and it’s the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matt Richtel’s latest book, An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System (William Morrow, 2019). He recently spoke with the Tribune about this fascinating topic.

Tribune: In a nutshell, how would you describe the immune system?

Richtel: The immune system is a defensive system. It’s a warrior of sorts. 

Tribune:  This may seem like a rather obvious but nonetheless necessary question—why is the immune system so important?

Richtel: Well, the immune system deals with so many different aspects of illness and life. It’s about cancer, allergies, AIDS, and a host of other factors that are directly related to our bodies’ defensive system. 

The immune system is what protects us, and my reason for writing this book is to explore and better understand how it works.

Tribune:  Is the human immune system weakening as we push into the twenty-first century?

Richtel: Yes. The foremost point to get across here is that the aim of anything living is to survive, and this goes down to the bacterial level. But with the advent of antibiotics, we witnessed undeniable benefits and ignored certain consequences.

If you make your immune system go through a workout every day, it will get stronger. If you put things in your body that do the workout for your immune system, it will weaken.

We are overly dependent on medication rather than natural immune defenses. This is making bacteria more dangerous.

Tribune:  And why is this?

Richtel: It goes back to our excessive usage of antibiotics. Over the years, we’ve killed infections with medication that we could have beaten with our own immune systems. 

But we didn’t want to take any chances, and we still don’t. To this day, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that as much as 30% of the antibiotics prescribed today are not necessary.

Tribune:  The implication, then, is that if we allow our immune system to work, and thus boost or strengthen it, we’d be much better off?

Richtel: Absolutely. A perfect example is a friend of mine. Jason was my buddy in high school—a fit, talented athlete who, in his 40s, got cancer. The treatments didn’t work, and he ultimately wound up with 15 pounds of cancer in his back. 

His doctor eventually sent him home to die. There was nothing else they could do, or so they thought.

But Jason asked for and got one of the first ever immunotherapy treatments to boost his immune system. A short time later, his girlfriend woke him up and said: “Jason, get out of bed, your tumor is gone!”

And it was. It was as if he had risen from the dead—a testament to the power of our immune system.

Tribune:  I love the word “elegant” in the book’s title. Please explain precisely what it means.

Richtel: It’s a reference to the incredible balance that our immune system is designed to maintain. 

There is a portion of the system that is aimed at restraint and turning itself off, despite the fact that the other half can essentially be tricked into working against the body. 

At its strongest, it is remarkable in its ability to limit fatigue, inflammation, and fever. And what makes it so elegant is that millions of years' worth of evolution has refined it.

Tribune:  Where do you see the science of immunology going in the future?

Richtel: It may sound strange to say, but I think it will be with the gut and the brain. More specifically, this relates to dementia and the way these two very different parts of the body affect each other and work with the immune system as the point of connection. 

What I’ve found in my research is that our gut is really a microbiome with a delicate balance, and we don’t fully understand it yet. Based on research, this microbiome feeds the immune system. 

In fact, this digestive microbiome is a direct corollary of the immune system, and that’s where further research is required.

Tribune:  What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Richtel: Quite frankly, I hope they learn as much as I did. This is an incredible subject, and it matters to us all.