Mythological tales, from Achilles to Dracula, are rooted in immunity. And since medicine’s earliest days, physicians have relied on metaphors—using images like armies, orchestras, communities, weather, and gardens—to try to explain what is, in fact, an extremely complicated system that controls the health and well-being of virtually every aspect of the human body. New York Times journalist Matt Richtel, author of An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System, describes it as the “Festival of Life.” Our immunological system exists both inside and around our bodies, he says, with organisms and agents swarming everywhere, from our gut to our car’s steering wheel—some beneficial, some more dangerous. Microorganisms like fungi and bacteria, and infectious invaders such as viruses, are the party crashers. Our immune system operates like a workforce of janitors and laborers, kicking out the rowdy, unwelcome guests and cleaning up after their messes.
“Festival of Life” could just as easily describe our lives before this pandemic—before the novel coronavirus, with its lethal spiked crown, crashed our festive existence as we knew it. Some experts predict the virus will return in waves this fall and beyond, so it’s best to shore up the bouncers while we can. And by that, I don’t mean “strengthen” or “boost” your immune system. Instead, it needs to be balanced and optimized, so it functions as it’s designed to.