Boosting Your Immune System

24/9/19

One of the most pervasive claims many alt-med and expensive food products make are about 'Boosting your immune system'. Often health sites will list (super)foods, vitamins, or even hitherto unknown plant extracts from deep in the wilds of Borneo, all claiming to help our body's ability to fight infections and viruses. Countless magazine, web and even reputable newspaper articles tell you how you can 'boost your immune system'. Unfortunately, the term is medically meaningless and was only invented as a marketing gimmick about 10-15 years ago.

The problem is that your immune system is insanely complicated. There are hundreds of different types of cells doing a variety of jobs whether it’s identifying invaders, carrying messages, devouring known bacteria or learning how to fight new enemies. The idea that eating more mushrooms or getting an extra hour of sleep will somehow prevent you from getting a cold is ridiculous. There is no doubt that being 'healthy' gives us an advantage in weathering the effects we feel when our body reacts to a virus or infection but as long as we are consuming sufficient nutrients and there are no underlying health issues then the system will work fine. Some probiotic products such as yoghurts claim to improve gut health and imply a benefit but the European Food Safety Authority has ruled that because of a lack of scientific evidence they can't claim to improve immune function.

The Immune System is essentially a balancing act between the ability to discover and fight off invaders, and ignoring and protecting our own tissue. Autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis are all essentially caused by "boosted", or overactive, immune systems. Fortunately many of the products marketed do not actually work and therefore don't affect this precarious balance, if they did then it would be extremely harmful. Remember, when you get a cold, the symptoms you feel are a result of a healthy immune system fighting that cold, your suffering is just collateral damage in the war.

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