Scanning all the many products lining the shelves of health food stores claiming to strengthen your immune system might leave you feeling a bit sick.
Some have gutsy names along the lines of "Immuno-Boost 500," perhaps with the implication that this is over 20 times stronger than measly "Immuno-Boost 23." Others have labels saying "What doctors don't want you to know," with the premise that medical doctors struggle through four years of college, four years of medical school and three years of residency with the pointed goal of participating in a conspiracy to keep you sick.
The truth is, any nutrient will strengthen some element of the immune system. That's why they're called nutrients. You can even make the claim that a blanket strengthens the immune system by keeping you warm, which is just as legitimate as any of these blanket claims.
A system of systems
One problem with these claims is that the immune system is far too complex to be quantified. The immune system includes physical barriers, such as skin; chemical barriers, such as stomach acid or acidic vaginal secretions; biological barriers, such as gut bacteria; and myriad biochemical interactions, from inflammation and mucus to the complicated interaction between white blood cells and various helper cells and proteins.
Help any of these elements, and you've just strengthened the immune system.
Another problem is the oversimplification. Antioxidants are famed for their heroic efforts in strengthening the immune system and mopping up those cancer-causing free radicals. Yet hydrogen peroxide, a free radical produced naturally in the body, also is an element of the immune system that floats in the bloodstream and kills bacteria. Flooding your body with antioxidants mops up disease-fighting H202.
Also, in focusing on this herb or that vitamin, we forget about the most potent of all immuno-stimulators — exposure to pathogens. A single exposure to the chicken pox virus offers a lifetime of immunity against this disease. The same can be said for most vaccines , but not for the antioxidant vitamin C or Immuno-Boost 500 — or new and improved Immuno-Boost 1000-Max, for that matter.
Some aspects of the immune system can be measured and thus labeled as weak or strong. The number of CD4+ T cells remaining in the bloodstream after being infected by HIV determines the diagnosis of AIDS, an immunodeficiency disease. Having fewer of these cells leaves the body vulnerable to many diseases.
Yet the assorted immune-system boosters in the health-aid aisle do nothing to raise T cell counts and cure AIDS. Precisely what element of the immune system they are strengthening is never stated and is likely unproven.
Conversely, immune systems sometimes can be too aggressive. This is the nature of autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or scleroderma. Your own immune system, for reasons unknown, begins to attack you.
Herbs and vitamins said to boost immunity don't aggravate autoimmune diseases, fortunately, because they are not strengthening the immune system per se but, at best, merely aiding some small element of it.
The immune response
Doctors often attempt to manipulate that element of the immune system that involves leukocytes —white blood cells with names like macrophages, dendritic cells and natural killer cells —along with their helper cells and proteins. Immuno-suppressors are used after transplant operations so that the body doesn't reject the new organ or limb.
Doctors also develop drugs, some derived from plants, to produce an immune response — that is, to produce proteins or other chemicals that help mobilize leukocytes to attack harmful foreign viruses or bacteria or cancer cells.
Although plants, fungi and minerals can have properties that improve the immune response, claiming these things strengthen immunity or ward off colds is an exaggeration. The effect on the immune system is positive but marginal.
Some people do get sick less often than others, but the reasons are not known aside from the obvious contributions of things like good nutrition or not smoking. Most people today living in developed countries get enough nutrients even amidst the junk food. You can run that body down, but it usually bounces back to normal with rest and a decent meal now and then, making the vitamin pill regimen largely unnecessary.
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Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.