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Despite the Marketing Hype, You Can’t ‘Boost’ Your Immune System

And even if you could with vitamin C or zinc, you probably wouldn’t want to

Over the last nine months, we’ve all been bombarded with warnings, myths and actionable advice about our immune health. We’re concerned both about getting sick and our ability to fight sickness if we do, and focusing on our immune system has become the de facto target of these concerns. But is our immune system something we can actually control or “boost?” 

To an extent, probably not. Despite what the supplement marketing companies tell you, there’s really no evidence whatsoever that some singular product can enhance your immune health. More concerningly, though, the things we conventionally associate with immune health, like regular exercise and a healthy diet, aren’t proven to enhance anything, either. 

“For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function,” Harvard Health Publishing states. Even the mere concept of “boosting” one’s immune system is flawed, because the immune system itself is a complicated arrangement of different cell types that perform various functions. Simply increasing the number of these immune cells wouldn’t necessarily better equip someone to fight an illness. In fact, it could make them even sicker. 

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This latter point addresses another misconception people have about the immune system overall. As immunologist Suzanne Cassel told the Cedars-Sinai blog, the symptoms we experience when we’re sick are usually the result of our immune system responding to an infection, rather than the result of the infection itself. As such, boosting our immune system by increasing cell count across the board could just strengthen the severity of symptoms. 

Of course, it’s not as though all immune wisdom has been a lie, or that you should give up “healthy” habits entirely. Smoking cigarettes will produce heart and lung diseases that will impact your ability to fight viruses in the long-term. Other lifestyle-induced health issues like alcoholism or obesity can produce ailments that do the same. That said, going for a run or eating a salad won’t directly enhance your immune system in the short-term. As a long-term practice, however, they might help prevent the types of health problems that could interfere with the immune system, as well as benefit you in other areas of overall health.

By and large, experts still consider the immune system to be somewhat of a mystery. There is increasing evidence that stress does indeed have an impact, but the exact effects and remedies remain unknown. Micronutrient deficiencies appear to alter immune response, but again, the exact functions are unclear. All we really know is that, correlation-wise, there appears to be some link between the healthy practices that have been hammered into our heads and the general ability to recover from viruses. So, it’s a good idea to keep up with them. That $30 tonic being advertised to you at Whole Foods, on the other hand, is probably bullshit.