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Here’s the Worst Possible Thing to Eat for Your Immune System

Oh, and the worst thing to drink, too

I vividly remember when I felt my bout with adult chicken pox settling in. I was a reporter for WEYI news in Flint, Michigan working without an exclusive contract, and I was in the midst of a meeting in the offices of the news director at WNEM in Bay City, a rival station with superior funding and production values. As I sat there listening to their pitch about jumping ship, I felt all of the indicators of an immune system on the verge of a total collapse. It started with an inescapable sense of malaise, and graduated to a feeling of creeping weakness that swept through my body.

“Of all the times to get sick, why now?” I thought to myself.

I did my level best to maintain an upbeat demeanor and professional eye contact, but as chills began to creep through me that had nothing to do with the frigid January air of Pure Michigan, I tacitly conceded to myself that I was going to be out of commission for at least a week.

So what was my first decision once I got out of the WNEM offices? To drive to the nearest convenience store and stock up on 99-cent Rip It energy drinks, of course! After all, if you’re going to be laid up in bed and suffering miserably for the foreseeable future, you want to make sure you’ve got food and beverages on hand that can provide you with some semblance of enjoyment.

Little did I realize that I had just committed one of the cardinal sins of establishing an immune system defense. I can’t say for a fact that my two weeks in bed with the chicken pox were made any worse by my daily ration of a fully sugared energy drink, but I certainly hadn’t done myself any favors.

What was so bad about the energy drinks? Was it the caffeine?

It wasn’t the caffeine, although the caffeine probably didn’t benefit me at that stage either. (Caffeine might help suppress inflammation, but its ability to artificially energize your body and stimulate your brain during a period you should be resting is pretty counterproductive.) No, the ingredient that was actually the most problematic for my immune system was sugar

When you ingest sugar in high quantities, it has a series of negative consequences for your immune system. It all begins with the inflammatory boost within your body that accompanies a surge in blood sugar, and continues as the overabundance of sugar inhibits the production of cells that defend against infection.

Therefore, the worst thing you can do as you’re preparing to hunker down to recover from an invisible attack upon your body is flood your system with sugar while simultaneously derailing your capacity to achieve a restful state with caffeine.

Does this mean sugar is the worst food ingredient you can take for your immune system?

If it isn’t the worst, it’s a close second to alcohol. 

Generally speaking, alcohol is disruptive to several immune system functions, and its post-consumption migration through the body impedes the defensive functionality of all of the cells it comes across in the gastrointestinal system. Essentially, alcohol does a magnificent job of breaking down a body’s defense mechanisms and leaving it vulnerable to illness.

What are you talking about?! Everybody knows that drinks like hot toddies are helpful for fighting off illnesses!

I suppose you also believe that vodka can’t harm you because it’s such a “clean” liquor.

Actually, while we’re on that topic, vodka consumption is presently being blamed for the high early death rates amongst Russian men, 25 percent of whom are failing to live past the age of 55. 

In the case of the hot toddy, we’re talking about a drink that includes anti-inflammatory honey, antioxidant-rich lemon and nasal-pathway-improving hot water. Crediting a drink containing three healthful ingredients for boosting physical recovery on the strength of its alcohol content would be like attributing all of the success of a four-man Olympic relay team to the only guy in the group who doesn’t run at a world-class pace. 

Whenever you’re tempted to believe that alcohol is doing something to improve your health, you should always investigate to see if credit isn’t more rightly assigned to something else in the equation.

But which one is worse for the immune system: sugar or alcohol?

Honestly, it’s a tie. For lack of a better analogy, this is akin to asking, “Which is worse for me in the long run — 10 still jabs to the chin, or one very hard right hook to the temple?” Neither would be my preference.

So in this case, a spoonful of sugar — or booze of any kind — most certainly does not help the medicine go down.