‘Boost Your Immune System.’ You’ve probably seen or heard this statement in any number of printed ads, on TV or online. The products being pushed to unwary consumers includes mushroom extracts, probiotics, collagen supplements, exotic oils, bee propolis, various kefir-kombucha fermented products, and on and on. Although no direct reference is made to COVD-19, the implicit message is clear. Something that can boost your immune system will put you in a better position to ward off this nasty virus (as of February 2021).
The truth is that any product that would boost the immune system or support it is a scientifically meaningless claim. These are marketing terms, not scientific ones. The immune system is not like a muscle the size of which can be boosted by exercise. It is a highly complex system of cell tissues, organs, and a host of chemicals they produce to help the body fight infections and other diseases.
There are two basic components to the immune system. They are the innate and the acquired (sometimes called adaptive).
Innate Immune System
The innate system swings into action with a variety of cells and chemicals as soon as the body is attacked by a foreign substance, be it a bacterium, a virus or a toxin. This is the reason we sneeze and cough and have a runny nose when we catch a cold. The body is trying to expel the intruder. Our throat may become inflamed because blood vessels dilate allowing white blood cells to rush to the scene to engulf and neutralize the invader.
Acquired or Adaptive Immune System
Thanks to the acquired or adaptive immune system, we never catch the same cold twice. That is because exposure to an intruder stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies. These are the special proteins that recognize the intruder on a subsequent exposure and neutralize it.
These antibodies are just one part of this reaction. There are dozens of different white blood cells and all sorts of messenger chemicals involved in the proper functioning of the immune system.
Of course, it is true that a poor diet, lack of exercise, impaired sleep, stress, and aging can diminish the immune response, this cannot be remedied with supplements, juices, chiropractic adjustments or homeopathic treatments.
Even if immunity could be boosted in some simple fashion, such an intervention could possibly have negative consequences. An overactive immune system can attack healthy tissues. This is exactly what happens in autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and lupus. There is increasing evidence that diabetes and heart disease are associated with low-grade chronic inflammation that is the result of unwelcome immune activity.
We want our immune system to protect us from foreign
substances, but we do not want it to go into overdrive and attack healthy
tissues. Fortunately, when in a healthy state, our bodies manage this well. Unfortunately, an immune system in overdrive can cause a 'cytokine storm.'
Cytokine Storm--Hyper-Immune Reaction
One of the most fearsome complications of COVID-19 is the hyper-immune reaction known as a ‘cytokine storm.’
Cytokines are molecules that are released when the body senses an invader, but if they become too abundant, the immune system may not be able to stop itself.
Immune cells spread beyond infected body parts and start attacking healthy tissues, gobbling up red and white blood cells and damaging the liver. Even more, the blood vessel walls open up to let immune cells into surrounding tissues, but the vessels get so leaky that the lungs may fill with fluid, and blood pressure drops. Then blood clots form throughout the body, further choking blood flow. When organs don’t get enough blood, the body can go into shock, risking permanent organ damage or death.
The question to ask when a claim is made about ways to boost your immune system is what exactly is being boosted?
What are the studies that show that taking any supplement, be it kombucha, vitamin C or green tea has any effect on any of these parameters?
The answer is, there are none! The one exception may be vitamin D. Low levels of D have been linked with a higher risk of respiratory infections and the development of autoimmune disease.
The one sure way we can boost immunity is through vaccination. Vaccines can actually be scientifically shown to produce antibodies against invading organisms. As has also been shown, a virus cannot reproduce on its own. It will die if it cannot invade and use the cells of a live body.
With COVID-19, vaccinating the majority of the world population, (along with proper mask wearing, frequent hand-washing, and social distancing), is the only sure way to rid us of this horrific pandemic. Do not allow the seduction notion of boosting your immune system advertising hype to trump science.
Please note: Scientific information used in this article was used by permission from Joe Schwarcz from the McGill Office for Science and Society.