Immune System Boosting
Can simple foods and supplements actually boost your immune system?
For years now, peddlers of alternative medicine have been offering simple supplements that they say can "boost" an already healthy immune system. Why don't doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies offer this? Quite simply, because there's no such thing. Immune System Boosting exists only as a deceptive marketing term.
A healthy immune system is like a carefully balanced teeter totter. Tip it one way, and your immune system weakens, leaving you vulnerable to pathogens. Tip it the other way, and your immune system becomes overactive and attacks your own healthy tissue. Such overactive immune systems cause what we call autoimmune diseases, like lupus, Crohn's Disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis. These are not things you want. If boosting your immune did have some actual medical meaning, it would be the last thing any healthy person should want to do.
So some of these marketers respond by telling you that your immune system has been compromised by living in our "toxic world", and they're only trying to bring that teeter totter back up into balance. This would make more sense, if it were true. Immunodeficiencies can be serious medical problems. If you suspect that you have one, go to a doctor: do NOT attempt to self-diagnose. The immune system is way too complicated.
The innate immune system consists of barriers like skin, saliva, sneezing, inflammation, and white blood cells. The adaptive immune system, which grows each time it's challenged by a pathogen, consists of dozens of types of killer T cells, helper T cells, gamma delta T cells, B cells, and other lymphocytes. There are many, many different ways that parts of your immune system can be compromised, and addressing each of these deficiencies requires a different intervention. None of these include drinking a special fruit juice or swallowing a magical pill that you bought online.
Since the adaptive immune system reacts to challenges and develop new defenses, it can indeed be improved. Every time you catch a cold or get vaccinated, your adaptive immune system builds a new army of killer T cells ready to fight off a future recurrence of the same pathogen. There is no nutritional supplement, superfood, or mind/body/spirit technique that will do this for you.
Products that claim to "boost your immune system" are frauds. They are for-profit solutions to a problem that does not exist and was invented by clever marketers to scare you into buying the products.
— Brian Dunning
References & Further Reading
Brain, M. "How Your Immune System Works." Discovery Health. Discovery Communications Inc., 1 Apr. 2000. Web. 8 Oct. 2010. <http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/human-biology/immune-system.htm>
Crislip, M. "Boost Your Immune System?" Science-Based Medicine. Science-Based Medicine, 25 Sep. 2009. Web. 7 Oct. 2010. <http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=1828>
Goldacre, B. "When it comes to a cold, you might as well try goat entrails." The Guardian. 22 Nov. 2008, Newspaper.
Hall, H. "Boost My Immune System? No Thanks!" Skeptic. 22 Mar. 2010, Volume 15, Number 4: 4-6.
Schindler, L. Understanding the Immune System. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, 1988.
Singh, S., Ernst, E. Trick or Treatment. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
Wallace, A. "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All." Wired. 1 Nov. 2009, Volume 17, Number 11.