Boost Your Immune System. . . With Some Science!
How many days in a row are we going to see or hear things that irritate, anger, disappoint, or enrage us? It seems like a never-ending assault on our defenses, especially in our inter-connected echo-chambers.
I heard one such rage-inducing thing from a charlatan ”practitioner” recently. They said, “Vaccines should be delayed in children so they can boost their immune system naturally.”
You may have heard this before. Heck, some of you may have even said it yourselves.
When falsehoods are parroted regularly, they can become part of the “common knowledge” without justification.
It’s the time of the year people start getting sick. Everyone will go to their “expert” and buy products to “boost their immune system.” Vaccine debates will be swarming soon.
Nothing gets me rantier than these quacks promoting products and methods for results that aren’t real. For persuading people towards inaction on crucial, life saving treatments. For preying upon lay people’s lack of expertise on a subject to get attention, win their trust unfairly, and profit.
I need you, the loyal readers, to fly confidently above their tactics. Today, I rant about “boosting your immune system” and teach you all enough to call BS on it all.
The Immune System Is Complex
Your immune system isn’t like the shields on the Millenium Falcon. You can’t flip a switch and power them up or down, or shift them front to back. It’s not a force field protecting your house that acts as a single strong bubble.
The immune system is just that - a massive, complicated, intricate system with hundreds of different parts. This image is a GROSS oversimplification of the immune system:
For being an oversimplification, note that this graphic is pretty complex. Even people who do immunology for a living will start to sweat a little when connecting the dots.
If you glaze over as I ramble on here and don’t learn anything else, just learn that the immune system is complex.
This brings me to my first ranty point. Nowhere is the disconnect between the “expert” and their understanding of science better illustrated than with the immune system. You are telling me a supplement “boosts the immune system”... Do you even know what an immune system is?
Dear “practitioner” or “expert”: If you have never studied the immune system formally, you have NO right to talk about a supplements “immune boosting” effects. Yes, I’m gatekeeping a bit. I took 2 years of this stuff as separate classes on top of the discussions surrounding the immune system and medications in the other 4 years. I’m confused by it. I respect it. Does the health food store employee respect it? What about your cousin on Facebook with her “wellness blog”?
It’s not really up to us as consumers to be intimately knowledgeable of the immune system. What we should know is that it is VERY complex. We should also know to seek advice from people knowledgeable on the topic beyond what’s available on the internet.
To try to simplify the immune system for you, think of the immune system as having two main parts:
Innate Immunity - This is the first line of defense. The instant response we give to foreign invaders. It’s broad sweeping and non-specific. These are the barriers and traps we set that spring into action and cause all the boogery-fun of an infection. This part is old - it’s a part of human evolution that is shared with lower species to some degree. This part doesn’t typically result in the infection getting removed. It’s more like the first responders who act to stabilize the situation until fire, police, and hospital staff are in play.
Adaptive Immunity - This is a very complex phase of the immune response. Essentially we start to learn the description of the invaders (“He’s wearing a green jacket, has black hair, was last seen in a yellow pickup truck.”) and attack those cells, one by one. It takes 5-10 days for us to learn the identity, but once learned, it’s for life. The next time the same guy shows his ugly mug, our innate immunity will do it’s thing, but the adaptive immunity will work MUCH quicker to rid the infection.
Our immune system’s number one focus is to identify what’s us and what’s not us, and then kill kill kill. There are cells that block out bad stuff, cells that check everyone’s ID, cells that shout for help when a bad guy is found, cells that surround the bad guys, cells that eat the bad guys, and cells that grow more immune cells, just to name a few.
I’ll say it again: The immune system is complex. The best analogy I saw about trying to simplify the complexity of the immune system was at the Science Based Medicine blog: “It is almost like saying you have described the works of Shakespeare by noting it contains the words ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘of’, ‘verily’, and ‘forsooth.’”
Your Immune System isn’t Weak
Now that you have a basic glimpse into the complexity of the immune system, let’s talk about it in practical terms.
Even with our ‘Mericuh lifestyle, our immune systems work at near optimized state. It doesn’t benefit us from an evolutionary standpoint to have the immune system be so dependent upon outside factors, does it?
It can fight wars on multiple fronts. There is a limit to this, of course, but for what you and I commonly deal with, our immune systems have no problems keeping up.
For example: ever have a cold, then accidentally scratch yourself? Did you need an amputation? Of course you haven’t. At many times during your life, you’ve had multiple infections going on at once, all while your immune system is working swatting away other threats you are exposed to, even while you were run down or not at your healthiest.
Your immune system is not only complex, but it is massive. Most of the immune system isn’t centrally controlled; the innate immune response is localized and disconnected, meaning your body is EXCELLENT at multitasking.
Your immune system is not weak. Some say it is perfect.
What A Weak Immune System Looks Like
There are people who have impaired immune systems. Here’s a list, because we all love bullet-point lists!
- People with genetic disorders that leads to one or more parts of their immune system to fail
- Many cancers will attack one or more parts of the immune system (i.e. lymphoma, leukemia)
- People with AIDS, where a virus destroys a part of the immune system
I separate out the following list from the below list because people in the natural products world will grasp onto some of the concepts to justify their nonsense. There are other things that can compromise someone’s immune system:
- Extremes of age. Newborns won’t have a fully functioning immune system for months after birth (this is why breastfeeding is so important - it transfers some immunity from mother to child while the child develops!). Extreme elderly, especially frail elderly, will have weakened immune response which includes their adaptive immunity forgetting what some infectious agents look like.
- Malnutrition. Not “I don’t eat my greens” but instead I eat next to nothing, if so it is just literally cardboard.
- Prednisone and other steroids are non-specific immunosuppressive. This means they shut down many parts of the immune system without prejudice. This only happens with high dose, long term therapy, not your 2 weeks of cream or 1 week of pills for your bad case of poison ivy.
- There are many immune suppressing medicines on the market. That’s their purpose! People with overactive immune systems may need them. People who have had organ transplants don’t want their immune systems doing their jobs well and rejecting the new, not-their-own organs.
- Diabetes. Uncontrolled high blood sugar causes immune suppression
Please note: this is not the “I get frequent colds” crowd. People who are immunocompromised as above are susceptible to serious problems. In patients with a truly weakened immune system, we will see rare infections to things you or I would swat away with no effort. I’m talking Pseudomonas, tuberculosis, or even life-threatening staph infections.
What A Boosted Immune System Looks Like
Raise your hand if you have an autoimmune disorder. You, in the back… How’s that working out for you? Do you feel “optimized”? Or is it the cause of pain and a decreased quality of life?
Guess what. People with autoimmune diseases have “boosted” immune systems.
Immune systems that are truly boosted are doing what they do, just more aggressively. The immune system’s role is to discern between us and not us. An overactive or “boosted” immune system thinks everyone is a criminal.
It’s so easy to go political with this, but after a few edits I’m going to go with another beloved government entity. Let’s think of the TSA. The security-theater that is air travel has dozens of agents at each checkpoint whose job is to screen us for risk in order to keep the air safe. An optimized TSA would be one that has efficient processes that identify and manage risk quickly. I don’t travel much, but I’ve only seen this a few times - probably less than 10% of my experience.
Instead, I see a “boosted” TSA that is identifying risk a bit aggressively. “Better to be safe than sorry!” Yes, true. When your immune system does this, it starts identifying hard working Americans and attacking them like they are foreign invaders trying to kill us.
Above-normal functioning immune systems look like this:
- Thyroid - Hashimoto’s
- Grave’s diseases
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Celiac disease
- Hypersensitivity reactions - over-responses to allergens or pathogens that cause our own cells to die
When our immune system is generally overactive, the result is autoimmune disease. Disease where the immune system attacks itself.
The idea of generally boosting the immune system is facetious, as it would result in autoimmune disease. What if, instead, we were able to boost a single part of the immune system. Well, we can, and we do often with modern technology.
Immunotherapy uses specific parts of the immune system to attack hard to treat diseases. Most notably, this is done for cancer treatment - with great success, I might add. Remember, though, the technology required to do this - to “boost” a specific part of the immune system - is advanced, complex, and expensive. It’s not happening from a plant ground up and put into a capsule.
How You Really Boost The Immune System
“Aren’t these just semantics Neal? You’re saying I can’t literally boost the immune system. But I can SUPPORT it, right?”
What I am saying is when people tell you to “boost your immune system” you should say the following three questions?
- Huh? Is you crazy man?
- Boost WHAT PART of the immune system?
- Says who?
What do we want when we say “boosted immune system”? It can’t literally be a more effective immune system, could it? It’s pretty amazing right now. Do we want a particular PART of the immune system to be better? Well, then, which one? Do we want MORE inflammation in the body? No, that’s bad. We want less inflammation. Do we want to identify MORE things as bad guys? No. Then what do we want?
There is no magical switch to make the WHOLE immune system better but not so good that it starts attacking itself. There’s no single intervention that “optimizes” anything.
Making your immune system work at its best takes little effort above and beyond what you are supposed to do anyway. No secrets. No remedies. No expert needed. Just this:
- Diet. Your diet doesn’t have to be perfect for your immune system to function properly. It’s only in states of true malnutrition that the immune system is impaired. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables and you’ll have more than enough micronutrients to keep ALL your body systems humming, not just your immune system.
- Along with diet, keep a healthy weight.
- Don’t smoke at all.
- Drink only in moderation.
- Sleep. Don’t shoot for 12 hours, but get an adequate 8 hours nightly.
- Manage your stress. Chronic stress results in high circulating cortisol. Cortisol can suppress immune function. Don’t be stressed.
- Use common sense. Wash your hands frequently though the day. Limit exposure to germs. Cook your food so you don’t get food poisoning. Don’t have children. Wait, what?
What does this list look like? Why it looks like the bottom rung of my favorite triangle, the wellness triangle!
As we say repeatedly, we should not look to products like supplements until AFTER the bottom rung of the Wellness Pyramid is optimized. This cuts to the heart of the “boosting the immune system” advice - live healthy and your immune system will be on fire!
The impact Vitamin C has on the immune system pales in comparison to a good night’s sleep.
I often draw it out like this:
Wow! Look at those results - Vitamin C has a BIG impact on the immune system. No it doesn’t, once you realize they just used the “zoom” button. This is what that graph REALLY should look like:
Yes, you can infer that non-lifestyle things CAN impact the immune system. What matters is that they do so in a clinically significant manner. Mostly, they don’t, especially anywhere close to what climbing the Wellness Pyramid can do.
When approached with the concept of an item “supporting” or “boosting” the immune system, besides asking “What part???”, you should also be asking “Says who?”
There are no clinically validated supplements or natural remedies that will have any positive impact on immune health beyond our baseline from a healthy lifestyle.
Make Your Immune System Stronger
Your immune system has a baseline function that is near perfect. That performance suffers if you don’t do your job - eating healthy, sleeping, managing stress, etc. That’s the maintenance on the system. It has to be done.
But we want an upgrade, right?
We are continuously improving and strengthening our immune system by just surviving. Every time we are exposed to and overcome a new infection, our immune system’s database of bad guys grows. We get better at fighting off infections, getting over them quicker - if we get sick at all - on repeat exposure.
THIS is how we “boost” our immune system. Improving our adaptive immunity is something we CAN actually do that will make our immune system stronger.
All we have to do is get exposed to more diseases. The problem: you could die.
There is no downloadable update that is stored on a shared server for immunity to diseases. If it were so, we could boost our immune system without the exposure and potential downside: death. That would be awesome, yes, but we’re not PCs and we don’t have antivirus software.
What if we could expose our bodies to the disease, but the disease couldn’t kill us? What if we got a weakened version of the disease? What if we just were exposed to fragments of the disease-causing cells, so our immune system could identify them without risk of disease itself, or worse, death?
Weakend versions or fragments of a disease given in small doses to train the immune system to identify and fight off a disease? Those are called vaccines.
Vaccines are the ONLY thing we can use to boost our immune system. To give it an upgrade. To make it stronger, beyond what our normal baseline is. It’s exposure to deadly diseases without the risk of the disease. For a small fee and a little pain for a few days, it’s a great value. One that millions who died before vaccines would probably loved to had the option for. Vaccines ARE the downloadable update to your antivirus software.
To the smarta$$ charlatan who told me they want to “delay vaccines to strengthen children’s immune systems,” I say, “You’re dumb.”
We strengthen the immune system by using vaccines. Not avoiding them.
I hope to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that kids don’t have the opportunity to build immunity on their own to things like measles, diphtheria, or hepatitis. And yes, because of the complex nature of our immune system, we can DEFINITELY handle the very small antigen load from multiple vaccines at once or in a small time frame without a problem - just like you can go on a gross plane and not contract the 95 different viruses and bacteria you are exposed to in the circus of air travel.
And if you are SO concerned with heavy metals in vaccines (there aren’t any), Mrs. Quacky Practitioner, let’s hope that you stay far away from supplements. You’re 100x more likely to get exposed to “toxins” from Garden of Life’s protein powders than vaccines and medicine.
We have a very macho attitude towards disease in this country. “It’s just chickenpox!” Says the adult about the childhood vaccine. Yes, just chickenpox. The same chickenpox that hospitalized 10,000ish kids and killed 150 annually before the vaccine.
We take for granted the possibility of death from disease. Not all people will survive a flu. Why be a tough guy? Your immune system isn’t a muscle. You can’t do “immune system day” at the gym after you skip leg day. It’s best to understand the REAL science behind it all and not get so defensive.
Immune System Conversations
We have dozens of daily conversations with people around immune health, especially this time of year. There’s a proliferation of incorrect concepts that people use because of that misinformation I spoke of earlier. Here are some examples of things I hear:
- “I took this thing every day and I haven’t been sick in years.”
- “I feel really run down. I need something to boost my immune system.”
- “I’ve never been sick for this long. My immune system is weak.”
Let’s bring all the concepts we talked about above together to address these common statements.
“I took this thing every day and I haven’t been sick in years.”
There is no product that you can take that will prevent you from getting sick. Do you know why you haven’t gotten sick? Because you haven’t been exposed to something your body has no immunity for. Or, you didn’t get high enough of an exposure to allow the gross bugs to get a foothold in your body, grow, and get you sick.
Let’s do a comparison. Me? I’m sick all the time. Yes, I’m stressed. My diet is crap, but it is better than severely malnourished. I exercise briefly every day, though. I’m vaccinated. Why do I get sick? Because of these goons:
I have four young children. They are petri dishes that go to a disease factory for 7 hours a day. Cough and cold season happens when it does because 1. Kids are back in school and they are gross and 2. We’re all inside more because it’s cold out.
Many people who say they haven’t been sick in years just haven’t been exposed enough to the cold bugs that are out there.
So now let’s connect the “I took this thing…” part of the statement.
We need to differentiate between a ritual and a medical intervention. “I could swear the trick is eating a bowl of Lucky Charms everyday - I never get sick!” “If I wear the same underwear to all my games, I am more likely to hit home runs.” “If I take Airborne when I travel, I never have a problem.”
This is the idea of correlation but not causation. The two things SEEM to be related, but there is no identifiable link, besides coincidence.
The truth is, you just got lucky. And during that lucky time, you happen to be taking that particular “thing.”
“I feel really run down. I need something to boost my immune system.”
I got just the thing for you. Take a nap.
If you feel run down, listen to your body. It’s telling you something important. It’s using its energy to do something vital. It doesn’t want an herbal tincture. It wants sleepy time.
In fact, as we stated earlier, there is nothing better for your immune system than resting more. Feed the body. Chill out.
“I’ve never been sick for this long. My immune system must be weak.”
Our innate immune response GOES NUTS when a bug is detected. It sends ALL the first responders out. The result is mucous galore. Swelling, inflammation, clogged everything. It’s not for a few days (5-10) that our adaptive immunity starts to work and cleans up the infection, which can take a week or more sometimes. Then, we have to turn off the innate immunity and clean up the mess. It is common for a simple cold to last weeks at a time, not because of an active infection, but because of the nature of our immune response.
Sometimes, if you’ve got all the luck, you could get exposed to a new or different cold right after you fight off your first cold. Most colds are viruses, but they can lead to a secondary infection from bacteria. At this time in your life, you’re just in a chain of viruses or infections. Some you make quick work of, probably because you’ve been exposed to it before. Some take longer. Some you may need help with, a la antibiotics.
Unless you are one of our immunocompromised patients we spoke of earlier, you have no problem taking care of infections. Your immune system is fine. Be patient.
Supplements For Immune Support
Knowing you are not going to boost your immune system any more than great lifestyle practices, vaccines, and exposure, there are some things I would recommend if you wanted any edge over illness that you can.
Probiotics and Prebiotics. One of our Vital 5 supplements, well made probiotics support digestion and gut health. The normal flora of the gut has a crucial role in our innate immune response, acting as a physical barrier, killing off opportunistic infections, assisting with nutrient absorption, and more. Probiotics ensure your normal flora is rich with beneficial human strains. Prebiotics, especially arabinogalactin, feed those good bacteria and can squash out the bad stuff.
Zinc Lozenges. My number one recommendation for cough and cold season. Zinc, when applied topically, can prevent a virus from sticking to the upper respiratory tract. Using a zinc lozenge, you are running zinc overtop most of the upper respiratory tract - the back and top of the throat. Doing this 6 times daily for the first 1-3 days of cold symptoms has shown to decrease the severity and duration of a cold. There is REAL evidence for lozenges, not daily oral zinc.
Echinacea. Every year there’s more data about echinacea not working for colds. High doses of the right form of echinacea has been shown to reduce inflammation associated with colds and can make people feel better. Gaia’s Quick Defense has that form and dose. In my opinion, it’s an option, but secondary to Zinc Lozenges.
Mushrooms. Properly made mushrooms have compounds that help attack viruses and reduce inflammation. We recommend Mushroom Science as they use proper hot-water extracts of the ingredients.
Avoid These Immune Support Products
There are things that say they boost the immune system or make people who are sick better, but they’re fibbing. Here are a few:
Oscillococcinum (and any homeopathic remedy). This is the magic duck liver (literally millions of doses are made from magic duck liver soaked water) that cures colds and treats flu. Look, if you like homeopathy, I’m not going to take that away from you. I can’t recommend it for a few reasons. First, there’s absolutely 0 active molecules of any compound besides the sugar fillers to make the tablets or liquids in there, so there’s no way we can verify the quality or dosage claims. Second, we’ve seen more recalls for contaminated homeopathy than we’d like to see. It’s never something simple, but always something horrible like belladonna (deadly nightshade!) in kids homeopathy supplements. Third, there’s no evidence that can substantiate their claims. In fact, there’s evidence showing they don’t work at all.
Vitamin C. In our Vitamin C Rant we said that Vitamin C rich foods are great antioxidants. Vitamin C does have a role in the immune system, but remember we don’t absorb more than a couple hundred milligrams, so most of those mega doses ends up in our feces. Plus, we have a very sensitive Vitamin C “thermostat” that is set to a low level - as soon as we get too much, it all goes out in the kidneys. We need very little Vitamin C, and it can be helpful, but is just best from dietary sources.
Antibiotics. You don’t need antibiotics ever. Well not ever, but it’s rare that an upper respiratory tract infection turns into a secondary bacterial infection and needs antibiotics. I know you don’t feel good. The best way to handle a cold is to tough it out. If it is staying the same or getting better, you don’t need antibiotics. If it is getting worse after a week or two, then go see a doctor. But you probably don’t need antibiotics. We say this because if we overuse them, we lose them. Our immune systems aren’t strong enough to take care of many infections and we need the help from antibiotics. If we overuse them, we create resistance to those treatments, and we are toast.
Boost Your Awareness
The immune system is an extremely complex, awe-inspiring network of protection we are all fortunate to have. We can keep it strong by living a healthy life: a good diet, resting, managing our stress, exercising, and staying away from horrible vices.
I want you to stay hydrated, but I don’t want you to drink the misinformation Kool-Aid. Your immune system cannot be “boosted” by a magical supplement, nor would we want it to be. It’s fine the way it is.
Whether you feel run down and sick all the time, or you are healthy for years, isn’t a question of your immune system being “on” or “off”. Instead, it’s a complex equation that involves lifestyle factors, exposure to common diseases, and good hygiene.
Being a “health nut” doesn’t mean turning your back on traditional medicine. It’s following the Middle Path of Wellness, advocating for the best answer, not just the best anti-establishment answer.
When it comes to boosting your immune system, don’t believe the BS.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth