No, You Can’t "Boost" Your Immune System
The concept of it makes little sense scientifically, if you understand how your body defences work.
You've heard the news - circuit breaker measures are gradually being lifted in three phases. The fear of contracting Covid-19 remains, so you load up on supplements and concoctions that promise to boost your immunity and protect you from the virus. But surprise, there isn’t much evidence that these products do any good.
Accredited dietitian (South Korea, KDA) and founder of Kwon Nutrition, Clement Gan, and homeopath Dr Lilly Leong M.Hom from Back II Life separate fact from fiction, and tell us what we should be doing instead to optimise – not boost – our immune system.
First, consider how the immune system works
"Your immune system is a fort that defends your body from injuries and infections," says Gan.
The immune system has multiple mechanisms to fend off disease. It is made up of special organs, tissues and cells. White blood cells are part of the immune system and act as the body’s army. There are many different types of white blood cells, each with a specific role.
Immune cells, or “innate immune response” serve as the first line of defence against invaders that make us sick. When they detect an invader, like bacteria or a virus, immune cells raise an alarm, and more soldiers – cells – come to the site of battle to destroy infected cells. Unfortunately, this “alarm” is sounded by chemicals which also cause other common signs of illness like swelling, pain or redness, fever and even that awful feeling you get sometimes when you are ill.
...and the factors that influence our body's defences
Almost 70 per cent of our immune system is located in our gut, so maintaining its health is crucial to supporting our immune function. Imbalances in our gut microbiome (this can happen when you have a highly processed, high-sugar, high-fat, low-fibre diet) could lead to the development of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune dysfunctions.
Young children and seniors are more susceptible to falling ill. "Young children’s immune systems aren’t fully developed and in the elderly, the responsiveness of their immune systems decline due to the natural ageing process,” says Dr Leong.
Our emotional health is linked to our immune system; under stress, a state of fight-or-flight response is triggered.
“Our adrenal glands produce stress hormones to help us deal with the situation we are in,” she explains. “This is great when you need to run away from a bear in the forest, but what if you feel like this all the time without a bear in sight?”
When your body is on high alert, cortisol levels rise, and left unmanaged, can alter our immune system responses, among other other disruption to your body's processors. If the stress is not dissolved, hormonal imbalance ensues, insulin resistance develops, which eventually leads to adrenal exhaustion.
Our system is constantly bombarded by chemicals present in the food we eat, products we use and the air we breathe. These factors "may overload our body’s natural detoxification process and lower our immunity."
"Boosting your immunity" is marketing spiel
“Ingesting more vitamins and minerals will not ‘boost' immune activity levels,” says Gan. “Your body gets rid of the excess and in some cases, overdosing on vitamins can be toxic.”
The immune system requires balance to function well, so the very idea of boosting it is “quite ridiculous, when you think about how uncontrolled levels of immune activity could result in tissue damage because of inflammation.”
When your immune system functions properly, it’s able to identify and attack a variety of threats, including viruses, bacteria and parasites, whilst distinguishing them from the body’s own healthy tissue. In an overactive immune system, the body attacks and damages its own tissues (categorised medically as autoimmune diseases).
Stick with proven approaches
“Laying a good foundation certainly helps with providing your body with what it needs and can naturally do well,” says Dr Leong. “Most of us are born with a perfect system where we can heal, regenerate (cellular), detoxify and create life without external assistance. However, if you start to feed and treat the body with ‘rubbish’, it will become rubbish.”
Her first approach is eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, and getting sufficient sleep. If you aren't getting the range of vitamins and minerals you need from food, she recommends taking vitamin C and D, zinc, selenium (all play a role in the functioning of the immune system), echinacea and elderberry supplements.
Gan agrees that a balanced diet filled with a variety of vegetables; regular exercise and ample sleep is important, but stresses that supplements are only necessary when recommended by a registered dietitian or medical practitioner. “Strict vegans may want to include vitamin b12 supplements because it is only naturally-occurring in animal sources.”