What To Know About 'Immune-Boosting' Supplements

There are better ways to support your immunity.

During cold and flu season, you'd expect to see a few "immunity-boosting" products pop up in stores and your social media ads.

But when COVID-19 entered the cold and flu season, companies, celebrities, and influencers praised things that claim to boost your immunity. You may have seen "immune-boosting" drinks, powders, and teas.

Here's what you need to know about supplements that support your immune system and what you can do to stay healthy.

Dietary supplements are minimally regulated by the FDA and may or may not be suitable for you. The effects of supplements vary from person to person and depend on many variables, including type, dosage, frequency of use, and interactions with current medications. Please speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before starting any supplements.

The Effects of the Interest in Immune Boosting Supplements

Google searches for "immune boost" and "immune boosting" jumped significantly in February 2020, right before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020. The hashtag #immunebooster also increased on Instagram posts by over 46% between April to May of that year.

The immune-boosting craze got a big push in May 2020 when Tom Brady launched a vitamin supplement called TB12. The supplement contains ingredients that allegedly "activate your immune system." Those ingredients include:

  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc
  • Fiber-rich larch tree extract
  • Antioxidant-rich elderberry powder 

However, as of 2023, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved TB12.

Around that same time, many other people or companies were careful not to link their products directly to COVID-19. Still, the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission had to send warning letters to at least seven companies advertising untrue cures and treatments for COVID-19.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) also released a statement regarding the increased interest in supposed remedies for COVID-19. Those remedies included:

  • Herbal therapies
  • Teas
  • Essential oils
  • Tinctures
  • Silver products, like colloidal silver

The NCCIH also explained that there was no scientific evidence that any of those remedies could prevent or cure COVID-19. Also, the NCCIH said that some of them might not even be safe to consume.

What's the Issue With Immune Boosting Supplements?

Your body has different immunity levels, including:

  • Innate immunity, which you're born with
  • Acquired immunity, which builds up after encounters with germs
  • Passive immunity due to antibodies produced outside your body, like from a mother to a baby

But you can't actually "boost" or "activate" your immune system. Simply put, that's not how your immune system works.

"The only way to 'boost' your immunity is by creating a vaccine and letting your body produce antibodies against it," Rebin Kader, DO, an internist at the UCHealth Allergy and Immunology Clinic, told Health.

Then, there's another big issue: Unlike medicines, laws and organizations don't regulate supplements.

That means companies can make vague health claims based on indirect research. For example, research has shown that turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties. Still, that doesn't mean research has proven that turmeric helps COVID-19-related inflammation.

How To Help Your Immune System

Instead of trying to "boost" your immune system, here's what you can do to support your immune system.

Use Vitamin Supplements—If They're Right for You

Your body needs certain vitamins and minerals to perform optimally. There are tons of supplements for nutrients out there that might help support your immune system. Some examples of helpful nutrients include:

  • Vitamins A, C, D, E, and K
  • B vitamins
  • Biotin
  • Folic acid

In particular, another type of supplement, adaptogens, can also have positive effects on the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. For example, research has found that Ashwagandha, an herb, can support immunity and decrease stress, which also negatively impacts the immune system.

Of note: if you consume more than what your body can handle when it comes to supplements, it'll get rid of the extra. Also, taking more than the daily recommended value can lead to dangerous side effects in severe cases. Too much vitamin A, for example, is toxic and can lead to liver damage.

Everyone won't need to take supplements, nor will they be able to do so. Some supplements may mess with the way other medicines work or worsen a person's health conditions.

Supplements can help fill in the gaps if someone doesn't have enough of certain nutrients, said Dr. Kader, "[b]ut there's nothing that you can overnight to have this superhuman immune system that will help you fight off infection."

If you're interested in or think you might need supplements for immune system support, talk with a healthcare provider first to see if the supplements are right for you.

Make Lifestyle Changes

You can also help your immune system by eating foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Those foods naturally come with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, benefiting the immune system.

But even a healthy diet can't make up for other factors that may mess with your immunity level. For example, stress and a lack of quality sleep can leave a person with a weak immune system. With that in mind, you'll want to find ways to reduce stress and get good quality sleep. 

Other ways you can help your immunity include:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Managing a healthy body weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting alcohol

A Quick Review

Even if immune-boosting supplements say so, there's no quick, packaged fix for protecting yourself against illnesses. However, there are ways to help support your immune system over time.

You can change your eating habits to get more nutrients, like zinc or vitamin D, or make sure you get enough good sleep every night. But always talk to a healthcare provider if you have concerns about your immune system and how it works.

Was this page helpful?
16 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wagner DN, Marcon AR, Caulfield T. "Immune boosting" in the time of COVID: Selling immunity on InstagramAllergy Asthma Clin Immunol. 2020;16:76. doi:10.1186/s13223-020-00474-6

  2. TB12. TB12 protect.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus update: FDA and FTC warn seven companies selling fraudulent products that claim to treat or prevent COVID-19.

  4. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. COVID-19 and "alternative" treatments: What you need to know.

  5. National Library of Medicine. Immune response.

  6. Food and Drug Administration. FDA 101: Dietary supplements.

  7. Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: A review of its effects on human healthFoods. 2017;6(10):92. doi:10.3390/foods6100092

  8. National Library of Medicine. Vitamins.

  9. Tharakan A, Shukla H, Benny IR, et al. Immunomodulatory effect of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) extract-a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial with an open label extension on healthy participantsJ Clin Med. 2021;10(16):3644. doi:10.3390/jcm10163644

  10. National Library of Medicine. Hypervitaminosis A.

  11. National Institutes of Health. Should you take dietary supplements?.

  12. Gombart AF, Pierre A, Maggini S. A review of micronutrients and the immune system-working in harmony to reduce the risk of infectionNutrients. 2020;12(1):236. doi:10.3390/nu12010236

  13. Venter C, Meyer RW, Greenhawt M, et al. Role of dietary fiber in promoting immune health-an EAACI position paperAllergy. 2022;77(11):3185-3198. doi:10.1111/all.15430

  14. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Vital body processes.

  15. American Psychological Association. Stress effects on the body.

  16. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Six tips to enhance immunity.

Related Articles