Since the COVID-19 pandemic, collective awareness of our immune system has increased. Once an invisible ally, our immunity is now the topic of TikTok videos, news articles, and endless product recommendations. Sifting through the hype represents a monumental task, especially if you’re already sniffling under your duvet.
To boost or not to boost?
Often we turn to Google for help “strengthening” the immune response, but that may not be the best course for everyone. Indiscriminate immune boosting could be harmful in people with autoimmune disease, creating more damage than support to the body overall. Immune system regulation may be a more appropriate goal and may warrant a medical rather than a Google consultation.
Research literacy 101
If you’re going to use online resources, avoiding the pitfalls of misinformation can be overwhelming. Dr. Ellen Conte, ND, has a passion for teaching her patients to make informed decisions. “Be wary of statements that sound too good to be true,” she cautions. She guides people toward evidence-based resources like PubMed.gov as well as university and hospital websites.
Even within the context of research studies, discernment is required. “You are not a mouse,” jokes Conte, explaining that studies in human subjects are much more meaningful than those done in animals or isolated cells.
Websites reporting only positive results should also be viewed skeptically. Even the most effective treatments won’t work in all people, all the time. Look for balanced reports to guide your information searches and consult “Your internet toolkit” in the sidebar.
Understanding the specific immune influences of individual supplements can help you put reliable research into action.
Beneficial strains of bacteria coat our bodies inside and out, creating a living shield to protect us from infection. Probiotic bacteria, both supplemental and naturally occurring, interact directly with our immune system, influencing its function.
Children taking probiotics in one study produced higher amounts of secretory Immunoglobulin, or IgA, an essential immune factor. As a result, they had fewer and shorter respiratory tract infections. Probiotic use may lead to a more robust immune response.
Tiny chemical messengers called cytokines direct the inflammatory response that accompanies immune activity. Probiotics influence cytokine number and activity, effectively dialing down inflammation. This translates to better outcomes in people with autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis.
If you are immune suppressed, talk to your health care provider to find out if probiotics are safe for you. Sepsis, a potentially fatal reaction to bacteria, can occur in people with lowered immune function who use probiotics.
Elderberry is an important traditional medicine, long used by the Indigenous peoples of North America. The sweet syrup made from elderberry has action against tonsilitis and can reduce fever. Elderberry may boost the immune response by interacting with our dendritic cells—helper cells that spur other cells into action against invaders.
People with autoimmune conditions may wish to avoid this and other immune stimulants. Your health care provider can guide you more precisely than Google in this case.
In addition to banishing certain pointy-toothed figures of folklore, garlic is equally offensive to fungal and bacterial pathogens. Taking aged garlic extract may reduce the intensity and duration of colds while gently enhancing immune function.
Garlic’s anti-inflammatory properties may be helpful in rheumatoid arthritis, but safety has not been demonstrated in other autoimmune conditions such as lupus.
Similar to probiotics, turmeric can dampen the inflammation that accompanies an immune response. In COVID-19, for example, a “cytokine storm” ramps up inflammation, sending the immune system into overdrive and causing severe or even fatal complications. Curcumin, the bioactive compound of turmeric, can reduce levels of inflammatory cytokines, getting the immune system out of its own way and promoting recovery.
Curcumin also increases regulatory T-cells, essential players in the immune response that help to keep the party under control. In autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, curcumin has been shown to increase T-cells and decrease symptoms, immune overstimulation, and markers of inflammation.
Curcumin enables an appropriate and controlled immune response rather than directly stimulating the immune system.
So, next time you find yourself scouring the web for ways to “strengthen” your immune system, take a moment to consider the source and your body’s unique needs. Blending an understanding of immune support mechanisms with a research-informed perspective can help you to get the most out of online resources.
The autoimmune conundrum
Supporting the immune system in people with autoimmune conditions involves reducing inflammation and controlling immune overactivity. Supplements like curcumin, probiotics, vitamin D, and fish oil may dampen the immune response and promote immune regulators while immune stimulators have the potential to aggravate autoimmune conditions.
Your internet toolkit
Use the following questions to help guide your online readings.
Is the claim based upon personal experience? Blog posts, Facebook feeds, personal stories, and testimonials are interesting but subject to big-time bias. Are there studies that back this up? Look for information quoting studies in people, not animals or cells. Is someone making money here? Steer clear of health claims linked to product sales. Is it too good to be true? A sensationalist claim of a “cure” for just about anything is a big red flag.
Eating for immunity
Include the following nutrients in your diet for ongoing immune benefits.
Avoid low-fat diets unless you have been otherwise instructed. Fat-containing foods help us to absorb key immune nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin D.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Polyunsaturated fats found in fish, chia seeds, flax, and omega-3 eggs can reduce inflammation and allow for balanced immune function.
Mushrooms and seaweed
These foods contain beta-glucans, soluble fibers that feed our gut flora and gently promote immune activity.
Amino acids such as arginine, glutamine, and tryptophan form the building blocks of cytokines and other immune factors.
This well-known immune support cannot be made in the human body. Eat your fruits and veggies to stock up on this nutrient.
Zinc, from pumpkin seeds; selenium; Brazil nuts; and B vitamins from grains, root veggies, and chickpeas support a wide range of immune functions.
Did you know?
The two most common autoimmune diseases, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease, both affect the thyroid.