There’s a virus going around. In general, when your immune system is strong, you’re in a better position to resist infection. So who wouldn’t want to boost their immune system with vitamins, exercise, or whatever foods or supplements might help? But the whole concept is kind of broken.
Immunologists don’t really recognise a concept of “boosting” the immune system, with one exception we’ll talk about in a sec. But I can understand why people think so. Lots of things can weaken your immune system, so of course it’s easy to assume that the opposite is true, too.
Just because you can weaken your immune system doesn’t mean that you can strengthen it
If you’re malnourished, for example, or if you’re under a lot of stress, you may be more susceptible to illness. Experts agree on that.
Here’s the one boost we know of: a vaccine can enhance your body’s ability to fight off a particular pathogen. That’s not a general boost to the whole system, though.
So if your immune system can be weakened, can’t it also be strengthened? Not exactly. If your immune system were stronger than normal, if it attacked more things more often, that would be a problem. “Immune overactivity is as dangerous as immune underactivity,” the British Society for Immunology explains. Allergies are an example of this. So are autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis.
Supplements that “boost” immunity are pretty much all bullshit
Improving the body’s immune system is the main reason people take supplements, according to trend reports cited in this 2019 paper in which scientists surveyed the immune boosting information in Google results. They found that if you search for immune boosters, you mainly get commercial and websites touting supplements and vitamins—and very little information about vaccines.
So I asked Kamal Patel, who reviews research on nutritional supplements for Examine.com, for his thoughts on immune boosting supplements. He says: “Many people who push for ‘immune boosting’ supplements and foods appear to be well-intentioned, but like 99% of people out there, they haven’t read an immunology textbook and tend towards overestimating their own knowledge.”
The immune system has many parts and interlocking systems, and Patel points out that medications that affect the immune system often have serious side effects, including death. If a supplement could affect your immune system—which most don’t, despite their claims—it would also have the potential to cause serious side effects.
“Immunology is massively complex!” he wrote to me in an email. “It’s not like a 90s video game where you just keep powering up to fill up your hearts to maximum.”
So even though we are all concerned about our immune systems these days, supplements aren’t what you’re looking for. If doing something harmless, like making yourself a cup of lemon water, makes you feel better, I won’t stop you. Maybe it provides a ritual that calms you down and helps you feel like you’re taking care of yourself. That’s great, if you’re honest with yourself about it.
But if your rituals make you feel nervous when you’re running out of lemons, or if you’re worried that you’re not taking the right vitamins, stop. Take a deep breath. Read the World Health Organisation’s advice for protecting yourself. It will sound familiar: Washing your hands is top of the list. Do what you can control, instead of thinking of your immune system as a video game you’re trying to win.