Debunking immune boosters: What works and what doesn't

We all want to ensure out immune system is up to the task at hand, but are the quick boost tips actually beneficial?

31w ago

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We all want to ensure our immune system is at its best, firing on all cylinders, and capable of fighting off whatever the big bad world throws at us.

Now more than ever, people are conscious of the job their immune system does and how essential it is that it's functioning at its optimum to keep us fit and well.

It's not unusual to see articles suggesting a particular food, drink, vitamin, or mineral, is the key to 'boosting' your immune system. But what do we actually mean by that? The term 'boost' makes it sound like the proverbial shot in the arm. My favourite local restaurant offers an 'immune boosting' ginger shot thingy that would have you believe you'll walk out of the place with renewed invincibility, for example.

With the current pandemic, this notion is greater than ever, and you can barely open your computer without seeing an article reminding you drink orange juice to get your vitamin C levels up, or eat as much yoghurt as possible as the live cultures will keep you right.

Is that actually how it works though?

In a word, no. I'd love to tell you that suddenly converting to a celery only diet will mean your immune system is primed to go when the virus comes for you, but instead, i'm going to tell you why that's not strictly true, and what might actually help keep you well.

What is the immune system?

The immune system is the part of us that detects when something is wrong and springs into action to try to stop it going more wrong! It keeps us well, and if it drops the ball a bit and you do get ill, it fights to eventually make you well again.

There are two divisions of the immune system: the innate system and the adaptive immune system. As you might expect, the innate system is constantly in action and acts as a barrier to keep anything out that might make you sick . This includes things like your skin, which keeps the outside world outside, the acidic environment in your stomach that kills any bacteria you eat, the mucous in your respiratory system that should catch bacteria before they make it into your lungs, and your cough reflex which should allow you to get rid of whatever has been caught.

Plainly, this doesn't always work, which is why despite these barriers of defence, we still get colds and food poisoning etc. This is where your adaptive immune system takes over.

Adaptive immune system

This consists, predominantly, of cells that patrol your body making sure everything is ok. When something isn't ok, the cells figure out what has gone wrong and alert the parts of the system that can specifically deal with it. If there are only a few cells capable of dealing with it, they will multiply so there is lots of them and when enough are there to outnumber and kill the bugs, you'll start to get better. There are then lots of cells specific to the thing that made you sick so that if you come into contact with it again, these cells have got it covered and if you get sick at all, it's likely to be for a very short period of time. This is why you never get chicken pox when you've had it before, and it's also how vaccines work.

Some people have a more robust immune system than others, generally, and some people's immune systems are very good at some things and not as good at others. This is largely genetically determined and it's the reason some people march through a bad cold like nothing is wrong, whereas others are laid out in bed for a week. It's also part of the reason COVID-19 is affecting people so differently, regardless of age.

Is boosting your immune system a good idea?

In some cases, absolutely. Like with vaccination. If you are at risk of being very sick from something, you can boost your immunity so that if you come into contact with it, your immune system is ready to kick its butt and you get on with your day. Specific cases like that are very good. More general boosting of your immune system however really isn't a great idea.

We've established that we have cells circulating, ready to pounce when the specific thing they were born to fight makes an appearance. So, should we be boosting the number of cells?

This might sound like a good idea, but there are a number of conditions directly associated with this. Also, if you have lots and lots of cells, it makes it more difficult for the ones specific to the bugs to actually find it. Think of it as trying to find your friend in a room with 30 people in it compared to a room with 300 people in it.

So, maybe the aim is to boost the activity of the cells? Also, good in theory, but hyperactive immune cells are the reason we have allergies and asthma and autoimmune disorders. If the system is too active it starts to hit out at things that aren't really harmful or even bits of you!

The cells of the immune system are also the things that cause inflammation. In the right context, e.g. if you are actually sick or if you have a wound you need to heal, inflammation is good – it's the thing that lets you know your immune system is doing its job. Too much of it, however, is bad for just about every other system in the body, including your cardiovascular system.

What if we could just help the cells be as capable as possible of mounting an attack, when they need to? We leave them alone so they are not too active and there aren't too many of them, but ensure that if their specific bad guy comes along they are ready to go. Now we are on to something!

Now we know what we want from our immune system, how do we get it?

Well, if I wanted to make sure I was capable of springing into action when needed – like quickly and successfully running away from something – there isn't anything reasonable I could do that day that would make me capable of that. If, however, I had made sure I was fit and healthy, in general, I'd dramatically increase my chances making an escape.

The same is true of the immune system. That shot of ginger my favourite restaurant brings me with the bill will do nothing for my immune system, in isolation, but if it's part of everything else I do to keep it healthy, then it's more worthwhile. You can't spend a week drinking kale smoothies and think you'll be fit to single-handedly conquer the pandemic... it just doesn't work like that.

Everything you have heard about keeping yourself fit and healthy is exactly what will 'boost' your immune system because, as much as it is made up (mostly) of cells, so is every other part of you. You don't need a magic wand, you just need some common sense.

So what should I be doing?

This is not a sexy list of quick fixes, and it's quite probably things you know you should be doing anyway, nor is it exhaustive. But it's a good start.

...Balanced diet...

This old chestnut. Yes, it's more fun to live on pizza and burgers and the finer things in life, particularly in lockdown, where all we want to do is watch our favourite Netflix series and stuff our faces with chocolate! A vegetable from time to time is a good idea, though.

Long term dietary wellness is your key to good health. It will help everything else fall into place, so, while foraying off the recommended food plan once in a while is totally fine (to be encouraged, in fact), sticking to your recommended daily intake of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals will serve every part of your body well.

...Exercise...

This is great for your general health and fitness, but it is also great for your mind. Participating in regular physical activity, even if only moderate, has been shown to boost self-esteem and reduce stress and anxiety, both of which have been related to increased inflammation which you'll remember from earlier is not something we want. All the benefits you can see and feel from getting some regular exercise also apply to your immune system, so if you didn't have enough reason to get out and about, add that to the list!

...Getting enough sleep...

This is tough to stick to but it's worthwhile trying. People who get more than 7.5 hours sleep per night have been found to have better cardiovascular health, reduced stress, better ability to focus on tasks, and improved memory. All while decreasing inflammation. Can you see a pattern developing?

But I heard vitamins and minerals were good?

They are! For a number of reasons they are good for everything. However, if you are meeting your recommended daily need for a particular vitamin, then having a bit more of it is unlikely (not even scientifically proven, in fact) to give any short or long term benefit. As much as I'd love to think a glass of vitamin C rich orange juice will help me fend off the cold, I'm afraid, on its own, it won't. One every day will, however, do the world of good!

Take home message

The things you are told are good for boosting your immune system are probably things that you should be getting in your diet every day. Cramming in a week's worth is going to do you very little good (in some cases it'll just make you a different kind of sick!) and it's the prolonged wellness that will allow your immune system to function as it should do and keep you well.

Stay safe and well and wash your hands

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Comments (10)

  • Hayley this is EXCELLENT. There's so much in there I didn't know.

      7 months ago
  • This is a well written and researched article and I've very much enjoyed reading it. Thank tou

      7 months ago
  • Brilliant article every person is unique and how we react is different as a consultant who was looking after my terminal ill mother said if we really knew how the human body works we could fix it. Stay safe keep 2 metres away and wash your hands.

      7 months ago
    • Thanks Ray. As much as the things we can see are all different, so are the things we can’t

        7 months ago
  • Great article, Hayley. I probably should eat more fruit and stop going to bed at 3am.

      7 months ago
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