Why You Should Avoid 'Immune System Boosting' Products

Every year, winter brings a host of stories about how to avoid the inevitable colds and flues that make millions of people sick and miserable.

Invariably, these stories include something you should do to "boost your immune system." Whether it's taking special supplements, pounding down mega-doses of Vitamin C, or eating certain foods; there seem to be any number of ways to supercharge your immunity to diseases and get through the winter healthy and full of energy.

Almost without fail, these are things you should either do in moderation, or not do at all.

The common sense wisdom is that a stronger immune system helps fight off illnesses better. This is completely wrong, and it is not how the immune system works. The immune system is a massively complex mechanism, one which has developed over millions of years to work exactly the way it does — functioning well long before "remedies" like expensive supplements and free boosts at Jamba Juice came along to "help it." These things likely won't harm you, but they almost certainly won't either stop you from getting sick or make a current illness better.

On his podcast Skeptoid, science writer and skeptic Brian Dunning describes the immune system not as a muscle to be strengthened, but as a delicate balance to be maintained:

"A healthy immune system is more accurately represented by a balanced teeter totter. If your immune system is compromised or otherwise weakened, one side of the teeter totter sags, and your body becomes more easily susceptible to infection. Conversely, if your immune system is overactive, the other side of the teeter totter sags, and the immune system attacks your own healthy tissues."

The result of this overactive immune system is a body at war with itself. At its worst, an overactive immune system is the hallmark of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

While taking supplements or boosts won't give you a chronic illness, the benefits these products offer are often marketing ploys, as Dunning points out.

One of the most prevalent myths is that we all have weakened immune systems thanks to chemicals and "toxins" in our food and environment — and "bolstering" your immune system can help you get rid of them.

However, the vast majority of us have immune systems that work just fine, and are neither too weak (a hallmark of genetic diseases or chronic illnesses like AIDS) or too strong. Catching minor illnesses is part of life, and the immune system responds to them — manifesting as symptoms. As Dunning puts it:

"We catch colds and have no difficulty in producing symptoms. When we're exposed to irritating substances, we react with hives or itching or asthma, all of which are immune responses. Practically every one of us has some immune system response going on right now. The claim that living in our modern world has compromised our immune systems is measurably, and unambiguously, untrue."

The one truly scientific way to help your immune system is vaccination. A person up to date on their vaccines has "boosted" their immune system as much as they need to. Beyond that, to avoid those winter colds and bugs, do the common sense things you should do anyway to stay as healthy as you can: Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, drink water, don't smoke, wash your hands, try to reduce stress, and get exercise.

And leave the immune boosters on the shelf.

[h/t Skeptoid]