As the seasons change, we can be more vulnerable to falling ill, especially when we’re in the time of the year where the days get colder. When this happens, there will inevitably be more ads on the streets and in the media hawking fancy supplements and superfoods that are meant to boost our immune system.
Our daily lives are busy—we have work to get done, bills to pay, social lives that need tending to—so, of course, we all want to avoid getting sick. But when we see so many companies pitching products that will supposedly keep us healthy, you can’t help but wonder… can you really boost your immune system with foods and products?
If yes, how do you do it?
A Quick Overview of the Immune System – Can You Really Boost It?
The short answer is: no, you cannot “boost” your immune system in strictly physiological terms. Not that easily, anyway.
I can’t deny that the idea of giving the immune system “superpowers” by popping a pill or two sounds quite tempting, but unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. There is, however, plenty of evidence about what your immune system needs to work properly.
First, let’s try to understand how the immune system really works.
What is the Immune System?
Our immune system is exactly that—a system. It’s not just a single cell or organ that can be strengthened with some kale juice. Balance (also known as homeostasis) is necessary to keep the whole system functioning properly, and this results in our good health.
The immune system includes the following body parts and organs:
- Skin: the first defense.
- Bone marrow: where immune cells come from.
- Bloodstream: the immune cell transport system.
- Thymus: an organ located in the upper chest where T cells mature.
- Lymphatic system: how immune cells travel and communicate with one another.
- Spleen: an organ that processes immune information.
- Mucosal tissue: includes the respiratory tract and gut.
Nature vs. Nurture: Understanding Innate and Acquired Immunity
At Birth and Immunity Programmed into our DNA
When we are born and try our mother’s breast milk for the first time, we start to acquire immunity from illness thanks to the antibodies and gut microbiome she passes on to us. These are the basic tools that our bodies use to fight off infection.
Healthy bodies are also equipped to repair themselves and fight off illness with what is programmed in our DNA; it can help heal itself through a complex system of cells, hormones, lymph nodes, and organs.
Over time, we also acquire adaptive immunity, that is, the immunity we’ve developed over time after being exposed to germs, disease, and even vaccinations.
Our adaptive immunity responds in a more specific manner depending on our environment and what we are exposed to, thanks to the development of antibodies. When our bodies have experienced an illness or damage, they become even better equipped to combat unwelcome invaders.
Adaptive vs. Innate Immunity
To explain the difference between innate and adaptive immunity, let’s take the example of the common cold:
Say you’re all congested, maybe your throat is a bit sore, and your nose is running like a faucet. Soon, you might add fever to that mix. The fever is a response of your innate immune system to combat the virus that’s plaguing you. Essentially, it turns up the heat to get rid of the virus. In other words, it is your innate immune system turning up the heat in your body, not the virus.
Adaptive immunity, on the other hand, is our body’s ability to recognize “invaders” (called antigens) and develop the antibodies to fight against them. Antibodies are like little soldiers trained specifically to fight against each invador.
After we are healthy again, the antibodies stick around. If you are presented with the same virus, your body is prepared and you will very likely not even get sick!
Adaptive immunity is quite extraordinary in the way that our bodies keep a record of all the specific antibodies that are needed to combat unhealthy visitors. When the flu strikes, or we get an infection, our adaptive immunity springs into action by assembling a team of cells specifically designed to seek out and destroy the bacteria that are making us sick.
Immunity only works one way – first, our body needs to come in contact with the bacteria or virus, then our cells can develop immunity to it. There are so many different forms of the flu and countless cold viruses, and there’s just no way to teach our body to fight them before they strike.
So in strictly physiological terms, the immune system can only boost itself when it comes into contact with more invaders.
And we’d like to keep it that way. Working the immune system in constant overdrive would actually leave us feeling pretty unhealthy all of the time.
This is what happens when people have autoimmune disorders and chronic inflammation constantly fighting cells that aren’t actually causing harm to our health.
So Where Did This Idea of Boosting Your Immune System Come From?
In our wellness-obsessed society of the twenty-teens, there is an all-pervasive narrative that a superfood or that piece of activated charcoal will protect us from all evil. In the biomedical understanding of health, this narrative is misleading at best and potentially dangerous to our health at worst.
Now, it is important to be clear. While the immune system is ready to act in response to infection, there are things we can do to make sure it is prepared to do so. Our immune system, just like all other systems in the body, need to have the right building blocks in place to work properly.
These building blocks include:
- Proper nutrition: vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, and energy to build the necessary tools and respond should it be confronted with an invader.
- A healthy gut microbiome: our gut naturally has a population of bacteria that help fight off or displace bacteria that can cause illness.
- Antioxidants; our body makes them and they come from the food we eat. They form part of our immune system.
- Sleep helps to provide our bodies with the energy it needs to respond to infections and cell damage.
- Hydration and excercise: Both are essential for good overall health.
Hidden in these basic, well-known concepts is where the idea of “boosting” has been blown our of proportion. While certain supplements and foods may help improve the function of some components of the immune system, as a whole, there is no clear cause-effect evidence as of yet proving that anything could actually make our immune systems markedly better at fighting infection.
What Can You Do to Stay Healthy During Flu Season?
Since claims of boosting immunity are misleading you may be wondering what’s the point of it all?
Well, studies show that certain activities and factors can impact our immune system’s overall ability to act and react when in the face of illness. The good news is that these activities are nothing more than healthy lifestyle habits you should be following day to day anyway!
To live your best healthy life, here are some simple habits to adopt if you haven’t done so already:
- Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean meat, whole grains, and healthy fats. This includes avoiding sugar and not overeating. See this list of the best immune-boosting foods.
- Exercising regularly is necessary for overall optimal health. It’s good for your heart, muscles, joints, and even your brain. Get up, get moving, and stay active.
- Maintaining a healthy weight will help prevent a number of health conditions and diseases, as well as promote general health.
- Quit smoking—this is the most glaringly obvious, and I don’t even need to get into it. There’s really no excuse for smoking these days. It will literally kill you, and there’s nothing your immune system can do to help!
- Consume alcohol in moderation only, and if it’s possible, avoid drinking altogether.
- Getting enough sleep is often overlooked. Our bodies need time to rest and recharge, and proper self-care includes a regular sleep schedule that allows plenty of sleep.
- Regular hand washing is important for avoiding infection.
- Reducing stress may be the most complicated point on this list. While some stress is unavoidable, too much can actually make us sick. Of course, daily stressors such as going to work and paying bills can’t be avoided. Just try to be mindful of where you expend your emotional energy.
By living a healthy lifestyle, you’re giving your body everything it needs to be strong if and when a bug gets you. Coming down with the flu or even the common cold does not necessarily mean that you’re unhealthy or that your immune system is weak or compromised.
Wrapping It Up
In short, while we cannot “boost” our immune system with click-bait tips and tricks found all over the internet or with expensive supplements found in drug stores, it is entirely possible to adopt the kind of healthy habits in your daily life which make your body stronger and, in turn, healthier.