The idea of “boosting” your immune system may be appealing, but it is unfortunately misguided. What you really want is for your immune system to be balanced. Products that claim to boost the immune system, such as vitamins or supplements, only help if a person has a deficiency in a certain vitamin. That is, they aren’t actually “boosting” the system so much as restoring balance by filling a gap.
For the most part, vitamins and supplements labeled as immune boosters are just using marketing hype more than anything else, and this type of messaging aids in the spread of misinformation in the health community. Nevertheless, there are ways to support and balance your immune system. The first step in learning how to balance your immune system is understanding how it works.
How Your Immune System Works
The immune system is our body’s way of protecting us. Composed of white blood cells, antibodies, the complement system, the lymphatic system, the integumentary system, the spleen, the thymus, and the bone marrow, the immune system is a complex interconnected network. Its collection of cells, tissues, and organs work together to fight off infections and other diseases.
It primarily works to protect us in three ways:
- Fights against disease-causing germs such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi;
- Fights against harmful environmental pollutants;
- Fights against internal, cellular problems.
What Are the Types of Immunity?
Humans have four types of immunity, if you include vaccines and immunizations:
- Innate Immunity: Innate immunity refers to the immune system you are born with. It includes the skin and the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. This kind of immunity is also referred to as “non-specific.”
- Adaptive Immunity: Adaptive immunity builds up over time as we are exposed to different diseases and receive various vaccines. This kind of immunity is also referred to as “immunological memory.”
- Passive Immunity: Passive immunity refers to immunity that is borrowed from another person. This kind of immunity is short-lived. For example, think of how a baby receives antibodies before and after birth. Before birth, babies receive their mother’s antibodies through the placenta; after birth, babies that consume breastmilk receive antibodies through it.
- Artificial Immunity: Artificial immunity refers to vaccines and immunizations.
Weakened Immune System Causes
A weakened immune system may be caused by:
- Allergies, asthma, and eczema;
- Autoimmune diseases;
- HIV and AIDS;
- Poor nutrition;
- Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and the use of other drugs or forms of substance abuse.
How to Protect Your Immune System
While the idea of boosting your immune system may be flawed, there are ways to protect it and preserve balance. Incorporating healthy living strategies into your life, for instance, is the perfect place to start. Several lifestyle factors can influence how well the immune system functions.
Eat Healthy and Keep Hydrated
According to a study on Diet and Immune Function from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Adequate and appropriate nutrition is required for all cells to function optimally and this includes the cells in the immune system.” The study also indicates that undernutrition, as well as excessive intake of nutrients — including through unnecessary or excessive use of supplements — can pose adverse side effects to the immune system. All in all, the immune system needs energy to work properly, making it imperative to eat healthily and keep hydrated.
Physical activity also helps keep the immune system working properly. According to a study in the Journal of Sports and Health Science, during exercise “the antipathogen activity of tissue macrophages occurs in parallel with an enhanced recirculation of immunoglobulins, anti-inflammatory cytokines, neutrophils, NK cells, cytotoxic T cells, and immature B cells, all of which play critical roles in immune defense activity and metabolic health.”
According to another NIH study, stress can affect your immune system whether you’re exposed to a brief stressor or chronic stressors: “Brief naturalistic stressors (such as exams) tended to suppress cellular immunity while preserving humoral immunity. Chronic stressors were associated with suppression of both cellular and humoral measures.”
Get Enough Sleep
Multiple studies indicate that: “sleep deprivation has detrimental effects on immune-cell number, function and cytokine production.” In other words, consistently not getting enough sleep can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off an infection. Moreover, not getting enough sleep results in a reduced amount of antibodies, which are essential components of disease protection.
Vaccines help the body develop immunity to diseases. Each type of vaccine contains antigens from the disease it is trying to prevent. These antigens mimic a disease, without causing any adverse symptoms. Injecting these antigens into the body before coming in contact with the disease is a form of preparation. It provides the body with an opportunity to recognize a disease. Therefore, if someone who is vaccinated for a specific disease were to get that disease, their body would know immediately to fight it, as well as produce antibodies.
When enough people are vaccinated, society achieves herd immunity. The bacteria or virus, in this case, can’t find enough eligible hosts to successfully reproduce, and eventually die out as a result.
Supplements can be a great addition to your lifestyle, but only if needed. It is best to consult a physician to determine if you have a vitamin deficiency that warrants supplementation to remedy. Beyond vitamin supplements, herbs and plants can also be used as supplements to help relieve certain complaints or support overall wellness and normal healthy functions. Kratom, a botanical sourced from southeast Asia, can have positive effects if taken responsibly, including supporting restful sleep — an essential part of immune system functions. Like other herbal supplements and botanicals, kratom may have a beneficial impact on relieving minor discomforts and providing calming and relaxing sensations.
While attempting to “boost” your immune system poses a risk of causing an imbalance or excessively supplementing your dietary vitamin intake, herbal supplements for symptom relief and general wellness may be an alternative that can improve your comfort. It is important to consult your primary care physician before starting or changing any kind of vitamin or supplement regimen, and to determine the right diet for your personal needs.