Can you really “BOOST” your immune system?
Due to the explosion of advertising for a multitude of products to do just that, one would think you can. But alas, as is frequently the case, that claim is too good to be true, at least for now.
To begin, it’s important to note that the immune system is really quite complex and there is much we don’t know about it. It is a system, not a single entity, so altering one component does not mean the entire system has been altered or if that change leads to any improvement in an overall immune response. That change may even be harmful in other ways. We do know that we want a balanced immune system that responds appropriately when needed – not too much and not too little.
Science thus far indicates that true micronutrient deficiencies (such as zinc, iron, selenium, copper, folic acid, vitamins A, B6, C, and E) can weaken the immune system and leave someone more vulnerable to infection. However, it is not known whether an increase in a particular nutrient (from food or supplement source) can improve immune function in anyone without a true deficiency. We know that the elderly and those who are malnourished are more likely to contract and die from infectious diseases (including influenza, pneumonia, and COVID-19). In the elderly, this is probably due to a decrease in immune cells (T-cells, B-cells, and NK cells) and/or less stem cells produced, allowing bacteria and viruses to get a head start. However, some elderly people remain very healthy. There are promising associations between some nutrients and their effects on immune response in certain populations (i.e. Vitamin E and nursing home patients, possibly zinc at the beginning of a cold), but there have been no studies showing cause and effect to date. More research is needed and is ongoing. (Special populations such as pregnant women and young children do have unique needs, which are not covered in this post).
While some preparations of pills and/or herbs have been found to alter some components of immune function, there is no evidence that those changes boost immunity in an otherwise healthy adult to a level at which you are more protected against infection and disease. If you could alter a component of the immune system, what component would that be and how much of an increase would you want? And what result would you expect from that increase? We don’t know the answers to those questions yet, but we do know mega doses of single vitamins, for example, can do more harm than good (some are stored in your body and can build up in a harmful way). There are often side effects and/or interactions with other medications that need to be taken into account. Often people take a daily multivitamin, claiming it is a backup plan for when or if they don’t eat well. While that may not be harmful and might be helpful, it is not an adequate replacement for obtaining our needed vitamins and minerals through real food. Evidence suggests that getting your micronutrients from real food is likely more beneficial than getting them from supplements. So even if you do take a multivitamin, that is not a free pass to eat poorly. It is important to note that most of the “extra” vitamins and minerals that your body doesn’t need are literally flushed down the toilet.
*If you think you need a supplemental vitamin or mineral for any reason, please discuss that with your physician or other qualified health care provider (not your friend and not because you saw an ad or a blog that says you need it). There IS no one size fits all recommendation.
So, what can YOU to do improve your health and your immune system’s function?
Here is what we do know are ways to support a healthy immune system by improving the function of every part of your body in order to maximize your body’s defenses:
1. Eat a healthy diet.*
2. Exercise regularly.
3. Maintain a healthy weight.
4. Don’t smoke.
5. IF you drink, do so in moderation (one drink per day) or don’t drink at all.
6. Get adequate sleep (between 7-9 hours for adults).
7. Regularly take steps to prevent infections: wash hands frequently, keep hands off your face, cough into a tissue or your elbow (not your hands), wear a face mask if indicated, cook meats thoroughly, wash fresh fruits and vegetables, get recommended vaccines, and stay away from sick people.
8. Minimize excessive stress and prioritize some down-time for relaxation daily.
*A healthy, nutrient-dense diet is HIGH in whole foods: fruits and vegetables, legumes (beans and peas), nuts and seeds, whole grains and unsaturated fats, MODERATE in amounts of low/non-fat dairy and fish, with small amounts of lean meats (if you consume animal products) and LOW in refined grains, added sugars and saturated fats.
For one dietary example, studies show the effect of whole grains on immunity (in markers on chronic inflammation) is very modest. However, the effect of whole grains on maintaining a normal weight may be the more important factor, because being overweight is associated with chronic inflammation (which may adversely affect one’s immune system). Being overweight is thus like expediting aging. It also increases your risk for many other chronic diseases, all of which in turn put a strain on your immune system’s ability to function appropriately.
Unfortunately, this fact is evidenced by the majority of people who have succumbed to COVID-19 – almost all of them had at least one chronic disease prior to contracting the virus.
Regular exercise also contributes to overall good health, which supports the immune system. Exercise MAY help it by improving circulation which allows the immune system’s cells and other substances to move more freely through the body and thus perform efficiently, but we don’t know if that actually boosts the immune system.
Excessive, chronic stress (from any source) does lower a person’s immunity. Running yourself down over a long period of time will take a toll on your body and mind. It is important to mitigate that by making time for some rest and relaxation amid your busy life. There are many strategies, so find a few that seem to work best for you. And remember to spend time with family and friends – we all have a need for human connection. Loneliness and isolation are stressful. Yes, we’ve had to adapt during this time of limited personal interactions, but technology has given us a way to stay connected when we can’t do so in person. Reach out to others – you will both benefit.
An acute major stress (i.e. loss of a loved one, major surgery, physical or psychological trauma) also appears to suppress one’s immune system, in some cases manifesting as illness several months later. Therefore, being mindful to take the best care of yourself as possible during these difficult times may be beneficial to you in the long run as well.
The bottom line: You can do way more to “BOOST” your immune system by improving your health and lifestyle habits as noted above than by succumbing to the flashy advertisements promising you something they can’t deliver and taking your money in the process.
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Your health is your greatest asset – is it time for you to start making a bigger investment in it?
You CAN do this. If you are considering making some changes in your lifestyle and want to discuss that, give me a call. I’d be happy to help you. The phone consultation is always free.
**This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended as medical advice.