What To Know About 'Immune Boosting' Supplements

The supplements claim that they can help your immune system, but 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 in your social media ads.

But on the cusp of a cold and flu season complicated by COVID-19, companies, celebrities, and influencers were praising things that claimed to boost your immunity, like drinks, powders, and teas.

Here's more about the immune boosting supplements and how to best help your immune system.

The Effects of the Interest in Immune Boosting Supplements

YouTubers and Instagram influencers began promoting different supplements for immunity boosts. Google searches for the phrases "immune boost" and "immune boosting" jumped significantly in February 2020, and the hashtag #immunebooster increased on Instagram posts by over 46% between April 15 and May 15, 2020.

The immune-boosting craze got a big push in May 2020 when Tom Brady launched a $45, non-FDA-approved vitamin supplement. It contained vitamin C, zinc, fiber-rich larch tree extract, and antioxidant-rich elderberry powder) that would allegedly "activate your immune system."

But the majority of people or companies doing the promotions were careful not to link their products directly to COVID-19. The FDA and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) actually sent 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 in response to the increased interest in "purported remedies" for COVID-19 that included:

  • Herbal therapies
  • Teas
  • Essential oils
  • Tinctures
  • Silver products (e.g., colloidal silver)

The NCCIH went on to explain that not only was there no scientific evidence that any of these alternative remedies could prevent or cure COVID-19, but that some of them might not even be safe to consume.

But people without a solid understanding of the way the immune system works were getting caught up in the hype. "It's very difficult to not be swayed by the promise of a magic bullet," Katherine Basbaum, RD, a registered dietitian at the University of Virginia Medical Center, told Health.

What's the Issue With Immune Boosting Supplements?

Your body has different immunity levels as part of the immune system. Those levels include:

  • Innate immunity: Immunity you were born with
  • Acquired immunity: Immunity that builds up after encounters with germs
  • Passive immunity: Immunity due to antibodies produced outside your body (e.g., from a mother to a baby)

But you can't actually "boost" or "activate" your immune system. It'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 internal medicine doctor at the UCHealth Allergy and Immunology Clinic at UCHealth Cherry Creek Medical Center in Denver, told Health.

Then there's the other big issue: Unlike medication, supplements are not regulated by any laws or organizations. "When the FDA is looking at new drugs, they're considered unsafe until proven safe," said Basbaum. "Supplements are the opposite: They're considered safe until the complaints start coming in."

That means companies can make vague health claims, including claims based on indirect research. For example, we know turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, but that doesn't mean it's been proven to help inflammation caused by illnesses like COVID-19.

How To Help Your Immune System

Instead of "boosting" your immune system, what you want to do is support your immune system.

Use Vitamin Supplements—If They're Right for You

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

  • Vitamins C and D
  • Zinc
  • Probiotics
  • Beta carotene

Of note, if you consume more than what your body can handle when it comes to supplements, your body is just going to get rid of the extra. Also, taking more than has been deemed safe can lead to dangerous side effects in more serious 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 that other medications work or worsen any medical conditions a person may have.

Supplements can help fill in the gaps if someone is deficient in 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." said Dr. Kader.

But 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 start with eating an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich diet, with foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Foods like these come with vitamins, minerals, and fiber—all nutrients that can benefit the immune system.

But even a healthy diet can't make up for other factors that may be messing with your immune system. For example, both stress and a lack of quality sleep can leave a person with a weakened 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 exercise
  • Managing weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting alcohol

A Quick Review

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

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

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