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Are There Ways I Can Boost My Immune System to Fight Illness?

The human body is by far the most advanced and sophisticated machine imaginable.  The level of complexity, number of systems, and processes that happen in the body to sustain life and health have intrigued and, at times, mystified scientists for centuries. 

How Complex is Our Immune System?

Our body’s immune system represents one of the most studied, yet incompletely understood, examples of human mechanism.  People are bombarded on a daily basis by germs that have the potential to cause illness and severe harm; yet our immune system protects us from a staggering number of these threats.  Scientists have asked and struggled with questions such as: Why do some individuals get sick from a specific infection and others don’t?  What causes our bodies to respond differently to bacteria, viruses and other potentially harmful substances?  Are there ways to supplement the natural defenses of our bodies to help make us more resistant and resilient to sickness?  Here I will touch on some of the things that have been proposed to boost our body’s immune response and potentially offer protection from illness.

Common Remedies Used to Boost Immune System: Do They Really Help?

1.) Diet

Eating a low fat diet that is also high in fruits and vegetables may help our body’s immune system.  White blood cells, which are a crucial component of fighting infections, seem to be more effective in vegetarians compared to non-vegetarians.  This is likely due to a higher intake of vitamins and minerals associated with a plant-based diet.

2.) Spiritual Health and the Immune System

There is compelling research that seems to show that mindfulness, meditation, prayer and spiritual health can help our immune system.  These activities reduce anxiety and stress which can lead to bodily inflammatory responses that tend to weaken our immune system.  If our immune system is weak and not operating at peak efficiency, we have a decreased ability to fight viral and bacterial illness.  Taking time to meditate and pray has shown to decrease anxiety and stress, improve mood and lead to a happier and healthier life.

3.) Exercise

Much like the diet, exercise has shown to be beneficial in helping keep us healthy against infection.  Moderate daily exercise, such as walking, may lead to a higher number of white blood cells.

4.) Echinacea

Echinacea is an herbal substance that has been used for many years as a supplement; particularly as an immune system booster.  There are conflicting data regarding whether or not Echinacea is helpful in prevention and treatment of the common cold.  Although additional studies are needed, there may be a role for Echinacea in treating and preventing viral infection.

5.) Elderberry

Elderberry is a supplement from the fruit derived from the elder tree.   The substance is packed with anti-oxidants and vitamins that may provide benefit to the immune system.  Some studies have shown that elderberry supplement may decrease duration and severity of flu and cold.  It should be noted that most commercially available products do not contain the specific amounts used in studies.

6.) Ginseng

Ginseng supplements are formulated from the root of a group of plants native to Asia.  It has been touted for many uses including reducing inflammation, regulating blood sugar, and helping with memory and concentration.  There is some non-controlled studies that suggest the ginseng may offer promise in helping to treat and prevent influenza.  More research is needed.

7.) Garlic

This tasty and widely used herb has been claimed to help lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, inflammation and cancer risk.  Additionally, there are some reports that it can be used to help treat or prevent viral illness.  Although garlic may have health benefits, there is a lack of sufficient evidence in its role in boosting the immune system’s ability to combat illness.

8.) Zinc

This mineral has been widely used to prevent and treat the common cold.  There is no evidence that zinc will prevent the cold or viral illness and conflicting evidence that it helps treat the common cold.  If given early in the onset of cold symptoms (within 24 hours) it may reduce the severity of illness.

9.) Vitamin C

Vitamin C supplementation doesn’t seem to prevent colds, even in large doses (up to 3000mg per day). Also, there is a lack of consistent evidence that vitamin C reduces the duration or severity of cold symptoms. Like other supplements, Vitamin C has antioxidant properties which can reduce inflammation. Most recently Vitamin C has been touted as a preventative measure and treatment for viral illness; specifically COVID-19. Scientists are conducting research on this based on theoretical benefit. Although studies are ongoing, there is currently no evidence in human studies that supports Vitamin C use for viral illness including coronavirus. Caution is advised in taking doses of vitamin C in excess of 2000mg daily. High doses can cause stomach upset, diarrhea and can also can cause the formation of kidney stones.

In conclusion, there are many practices, foods, substances and supplements that have been proposed as immune system boosters. While some of these have theoretical benefits and show promise, at this time there is a relative lack of conclusive human research to absolutely endorse their use to prevent or treat illness. Promising research is ongoing so perhaps in the future there may be a defined role for some of these things.

Taking care of overall health including managing diet, weight, regular exercise, optimal sleep, spiritual and mental health remains the most certain way to protect our immune systems function

For more questions, reach out to your CHI Health Primary Care provider or Pharmacist.

Bob Grenier, Pharm.D.
Bob Grenier, Pharm.D.

Bob Grenier, PharmD, is a Retail Pharmacy Manager at CHI Health.

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