Boosting your immune system
|Let’s check the science: Is it possible to boost my immune system?|
It’s the middle of winter and I’m constantly advised by advertising material that to remain healthy I should be doing or taking something to strengthen my immune system. Some people I know are convinced that it works. Although I’m perfectly healthy and I’ve even had this year’s flu shot, I know it won’t protect me against every virus that comes along. Should I join them?
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The promoters’ arguments – science or red flags?
There’s an astonishing variety of claims about all sorts of products and practices that can ‘boost’, ‘strengthen’, ‘stimulate’ or ‘support’ your immune system. Some examples:
“Probiotics work within your digestive system to not only stabilise gut flora, but support immune responses which in turn, promote the gut immune defences.” (here)
“Astra 8 Immune Tonic contains the herb Astragalus and seven other potent immune system boosting herbs. The herbs in Astra 8 Immune Tonic have been used for centuries to help people strengthen their body’s defences and restore good health.” (here)
“Aromatherapy is a great way to boost the immune system.” (here)
“I have taken echinacea once a week for 10 years, plus daily garlic. Reduced my 5 colds a year to 1 every 2 years.” (here)
Do I see any red flags? Yes indeed. I see appeals to ancient wisdom, anecdotal evidence, unsupported statements, and rooster syndrome in the above examples. Elsewhere, I also see claims of scientific proof (here), appeal to authority (here) and attempts to use analogies as evidence (comparing the immune system with muscles, here).
Much of the advice about boosting immunity seems to consist of general hints about a healthy lifestyle – eating properly, getting enough sleep, avoiding stress, exercising and so on (here). Nothing wrong with this, but is it really doing anything special for your immune system?
I don’t know much about the immune system, but do I know that it’s extremely complex. It seems to me that is would be nearly impossible to give a general ‘boost’ to this complex system just by a single simple treatment.
I also know that overactive immune systems are responsible for many diseases, such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. If it becomes too active, it can start attacking our own cells, or they can end up as collateral damage in the battle.
Basically, what I want to find out is: Can our immune system become overloaded or run down? Is it possible to boost your immune system? If so, is that a good idea?
The scientific evidence
It doesn’t take long to find out that the immune system is incredibly complex. It involves a huge variety of molecules, cells, tissues and organs, all working in different ways to tackle different types of pathogens. There aren’t any studies that test ‘boosting’ the immune system – it’s too much of a vague idea. For this reason I decided that trying to resolve the issue by going to original studies would get me nowhere. So looked for sources I can trust to find out what I wanted to know. These were: The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Harvard Medical School; The European Federation of Immunological Societies; University of Rochester Medical Centre; Science-Based Medicine. From these sources, this is what I came away with:
- Some things – stress, malnutrition – can reduce the performance of your immune system. Some people are born with impaired immune systems, and others may acquire an immune deficiency as a result of certain diseases (HIV/AIDS is the classic example) or chemotherapy. But our bodies normally produce many more leucocytes (the white blood cells involved in immunity) than required, so your immune system does not become weakened merely because you have an infection of some kind.
- Most of us have perfectly adequate immune systems. Essentially, they identify and attack anything foreign in our bodies. We notice the immune response as an inflammation – swelling, redness, release of fluids. heat.
- Overactive immune systems are responsible for allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema (here). A runaway immune response known as a ‘cytokine storm‘ is responsible for causing deaths in severe flu pandemics and was the cause of near fatalities in a 2006 drug trial (here)
- The immune system can become misdirected and start attacking our own cells. This causes autoimmune diseases such as arthritis (here, here) and Type 1 diabetes (here).
- There is little evidence that a normally functioning immune system can be ‘boosted’. There is some evidence (here) that probiotics may help with the immune response, but it’s early days.
- ‘Boosting’ the immune system is probably not a good idea. Allergic reactions give us an indication of what happens when our immune systems are overactive.
No chance of doing any DIY checking here. Too specialised. I could try an ‘immune booster’ myself, but anything less than a double-blind randomised controlled trial would be useless.
No ‘immune strengthener’ for me. I’m convinced that my immune system is fine, it’s not likely to become ‘run down’, and if it does, there’s no magic treatment that can ‘boost’ it. Even if there were, it could end up doing more harm than good. I’ll stick with having my immune system ‘primer’ (the flu shot) each year and stay clear of supplements that are unsupported by real evidence.
|This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Let’s check the science series.|
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