Do Immune System Boosters Work?

April 29, 2014

The immune system is a fascinating, remarkable complex of components that work in your body 24/7 to protect you from disease. Although there are times when it does not work 100% effectively (you get a cold) or you have a disorder that causes it to malfunction, most of the time it does its job of recognizing and defending the body against invaders like bacteria, viruses, or foreign substances (such as a sliver, pollen or a bug bite.) For years, scientists have been studying the immune system to understand how it works and what might make it work better. So far, research has not been able to scientifically demonstrate what foods or supplements can do this. 

Enter the market place where you will find both foods and supplements that  claim to boost your immune system and help to prevent illness. You have most likely seen their promotion and may have even purchased one or two. As happens frequently, a small amount of research gets turned into a huge marketing campaign. As we seek a long and healthy life, corporations are very happy to help in this quest by providing the products that we think hold the key. Who can blame us when the marketing of such products plays right into our desires? The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has helped to create this confusion by allowing manufacturers to use words like “supports, maintains, or enhances immunity” so long as the product does not promise to help prevent or lesson disease. Furthermore, such claims do not need to be supported by strong evidence.  The FDA regulations that allow these types of claims (called structure/function claims) require a sophisticated knowledge base that most of us just don’t have. So while the claims on the product are not technically untrue, they imply more than the true ability of the product to keep us healthy. Experts in the study of the immune system do not believe that you can boost your immune system by adding vitamins and minerals as supplements or to foods. (The one exception to this might be with the frail elderly.)

The Nutrition Action Health Letter, March 2014, has reviewed several studies of products that promote immunity claims. They reviewed studies on free radicals, antioxidants, Vitamins A, C, D, and E, zinc and mushrooms and concluded that none were particularly promising. Their experts state that these products may affect a component of the immune system, but this does not translate into less illness, any more so than a placebo does.  Most of the products that you see on the market claiming to enhance or support your immune system should be purchased ONLY because you want that product, not because it will boost your immune system.  

So is there anything you can do to improve your immune system health? The Harvard Health publication, “How to Boost Your Immune System” (excerpted from The Truth About Your Immune System) offers the following suggestions, which are basic healthy living strategies promoted by many health practitioners. They include:  Regular exercise; better nutrition, with a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats and sugar; shedding excess pounds; adequate sleep; moderate alcohol; frequent hand washing; controlling blood pressure; and regular medical screening tests.  Other groups add get a flu shot, keep a positive attitude and do what you can to minimize long-term stress. Some even suggest laughing more will help!

There will always be a next “superstar” to come along in the nutrition world. A small amount of research that shows a positive health effect may become a mass-marketing campaign. Don’t rely on advertisements as your source of education. Do a little research on your own.

Always share with your health care provider any alternate medical treatments you are using. Like any medicine, dietary supplements and “natural” products can cause side effects, trigger an allergic reaction or interact with other medicines you take. This can make a condition worse.  

For a reprint of the Nutrition Action Newsletter (March 2014) or other written information on this topic, District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can call Quinnipiack Valley Health District,  203 248-4528 or request via email, dculligan@qvhd.org  If you are very interested in alternative medicine, visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at http://nccam.nih.gov/health.