As the weather continues to get colder and the flu season is in full swing, I’ve been noticing more and more ads on the streets and in the media hawking fancy supplements and superfoods that are meant to boost my 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 seeing another commercial just like this the other day got me thinking—can you really boost your immune system?
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. I can’t deny that the idea of ‘strengthening’ it with supplements or certain foods sounds tempting, but unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.
Let’s try to understand, how the immune system really works.
Our immune system is exactly that—a system. It’s not just a single cell or organ that can be strengthened with some juiced kale. Balance is necessary to keep the system as a whole functioning in good health.
We are all born with our innate immunity. These are the general tools that our bodies use to fight off infection. Combined with our adaptive immunity, that is, the immunity we’ve developed over time after being exposed to germs, disease, and even vaccinations, (adaptive immunity responds in a more specific manner), our bodies become even better equipped to combat unwelcome invaders.
If you’ve ever experienced the common cold, you’ll know how the symptoms can vary:
Say you’re all congested, maybe your throat is a bit sore, and your nose is running like a faucet. Soon, you might add a fever to that mix. This is likely a compromise of tissue, as your innate immunity tries to combat the cold that’s plaguing you by turning up the heat to get rid of the virus, not necessarily a symptom of the cold.
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.
Remarkably enough, the next time we encounter that same bacteria, our immune system is equipped with the antibodies needed to ward off the infection and is much quicker the second (and third, and fourth) time around.
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 scientific terms, no—the immune system cannot be boosted.
Interestingly enough, 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. Without infection or bacteria to combat, our boosted immune system could cause all sorts of problems, such as inflammation and even autoimmune diseases.
So Where Did This Idea of Boosting Your Immune System Come From?
It seems like everyone has gone a bit nuts over health lately, doesn’t it?
In our wellness-obsessed society of the twenty-teens, an all-pervasive narrative which is built around the idea that this superfood or that piece of activated charcoal will save our mortal souls is misleading at best and potentially dangerous to our health at worst.
Don’t be fooled by sexy advertising campaigns that are designed to make you doubt yourself and your moderately healthy lifestyle. The capitalist machine is at work behind the all the labels on every single shelf of your local supermarket or health food store, and even in your suggested social media advertisements.
While certain supplements and foods may help improve the function of some components of the immune system as a whole, there is, as yet, no evidence 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 not only false but also not rooted in any science whatsoever, you may be wondering what’s the point of it all?
That said, studies show that certain activities and factors can impact our immune system’s overall health. 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.
- Exercising regularly is necessary for overall optimal health. It’s good for your heart, your muscles, your 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 it’s basically impossible to 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.