You’ve probably seen immune boosting supplements in the supermarket, you’ve definitely spotted them on pharmacy shelves and at this time of year, they’re probably front and centre. We’re talking about supplement products that claim to have “immune boosting” powers. According to science you should keep on walking.
“Flu fighting”, “immune boosting” products that are “clinically proven to reduce the frequency and duration of colds and flus” might sound good, tempting even, but you may already be doing all you can to give your immune system its best shot at defending you from disease.
The advice from Harvard Medical School is “many products on store shelves claim to boost or support immunity but the concept of boosting immunity actually makes little sense scientifically.”
“In fact, boosting the number of cells in your body — immune cells or others — is not necessarily a good thing.”
Really? Yes, really. Think about the side effects of substances designed to enhance performance. We know they increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. More importantly, if we understand how the immune system works, we can see why we really wouldn’t want to give it more power.
Let’s take a look.
The immune system isn’t one individual unit. It really is a system of organs and biological functions across the body. In medicine, it’s defined in two parts, the innate response and the acquired response.
Basically, the innate response is our body’s first line of defence. It detects a pathogen and tries to flush it out. Think coughing and mucus. It will attempt to hold the pathogen at bay until your acquired response can detect it and shut it down. This second swipe at the bug is fuelled by antibodies of the pathogen in your system. Your body clones them and launches an attack.
You can boost your acquired response of course. Getting a flu shot each year will give your body exposure to the antigen it might have to battle against and make for a quicker recovery.
That just leaves your innate response. We’re wondering, are coughing and mucus symptoms we’d really like to boost?
Charles Bangham is a professor of immunology and infectious disease and the Imperial College of London and he told the Guardian that no, that’s not something we should be doing.
“If a supplement actually stimulated the innate immune response then it would leave you with a constant feeling of being unwell,” he said.
“With a fever, a snotty nose, depression and lethargy without any obvious benefit. So in that respect, the whole idea is a bit of a con.”
Healthy living strategies instead of immune boosting supplements
In terms of how we can specifically boost our immune systems, especially by supplements, the research is still out. But Harvard Medical School says “every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental assaults and bolstered by healthy-living strategies”. They include:
- Avoid smoking
- Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in saturated fat
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Control your blood pressure
- If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation
- Get adequate sleep
- Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly
- Get regular medical screening tests recommended for people in your age group and risk category.