• Frederike Schmitz

Boosting your immune system- how can you do that?

Happy #InternationalImmunologyDay!

To celebrate this day, I wanted to write about an important immune concept- boosting your immune system. What is this? And what is it not?

Since the start of the corona crisis I saw so many claims of ‘boosting your immune system’.

Sometimes I get asked to write articles about it or I review content that hints towards the idea that your immune system can be boosted. Given my background in immunology I’ve been thinking about this term a lot lately. Given that today is international immunology day, I wanted to dive deeper into this topic.

So, what does ‘boosting your immune system’ actually mean?

What does it mean scientifically? And most importantly, what do people generally mean when they want to boost their immune system?

Well generally, it sounds like a good idea to boost something. When you do sports and you get an energy boost, that’s generally a good thing for your performance. When you boost your immune system does it mean that it then gets stronger? Similar to a muscle?

Well, your immune system is not a muscle.

What is a strong immune system then?

A strong immune response is not always a better one. Essentially, what you really want is an appropriate immune response.

Imagine your immune system should kick out a specific bacteria, virus or fungus or should eliminate a toxin (often a product of bacteria). This strike against a microbe should then be a targeted strike. Fast and effective. And then… your immune system should calm down again.

What happens when your cells don’t calm down after the fight?

When your immune system fights an invader and doesn’t calm down afterwards you might end up with an autoimmune disease, meaning your immune cells at one point even fight your own cells.

If you’d think about immune boosting in this context, then no, it is not beneficial to boost this immune response.

What happens when their strike it’s not precise enough?

When your immune cells fail to really focus and start fighting multiple fuzzy targets (as seen in some studies now for severe covid-19 patients), things get ‘messy’.

The immune response is scattered and thus not efficient.

If you think about immune boosting to fight let’s say a virus like SARSCoV2 more efficiently, then you should think about a way to direct your immune cells attention to a specific part of the virus. So, it’s not a messy, scattered immune response to all kinds of fuzzy and not very effective targets.

If you manage to train your immune cells before you actually meet SARSCoV2, they strike much more efficiently. The cells know what to do and when. And they can do that fast.

That way you can also prevent the massive collateral tissue damage which often happens when immune cells fight their first fight. The fight when they are still learning about the specific virus. All this damage eventually needs to be restored. This costs time and energy.

Time, as in about a week before your so called adaptive immune system kicks in. Making specific weapons against this specific invader.

And energy?

Well, you generally feel the lack of energy you have when you’re sick. Often you sleep a lot, as you don’t have enough energy to do anything else. This is also because your cells use up a ton of energy. For the fight and for rebuilding all of the destroyed tissue.

So how can you train your immune cells? How can you specifically boost your immune system?

Well, not like you would think when you search the internet for ‘boosting immunity’.

Because then you get results on how food (diet, fruit, vitamins, probiotics… you name it), fitness and health can ‘boost your immune system’.

Of course, a healthy lifestyle is also very important for your immune system. A healthy lifestyle generally makes you healthier (aha!) and gives you an extra advantage when you are sick. Because when you’re healthy, you have less diseases (Aha! Aha!).

Diseases mean inflammation. Immune cells in action. Using up energy, destroying tissues.

Often during inflammation, especially when it becomes chronic, your immune system is weakened, your tissues suffer. Continuous inflammation can also permanently change how your tissue is build - be it that you develop scars. During chronic inflammation tissue can lose its flexibility it needs to function correctly and becomes stiff (fibrosis).

Or that many, many immune cells are recruited to the inflamed tissue and they then permanently live there. Obesity for example is characterized by a constant inflammation and this changes the fat tissue dramatically. Atherosclerosis, inflammation in the blood vessels leads to plaques that can clog up your vessels can cause stroke, amongst other things.

So, when you’re healthy and don’t have to deal with such diseases, acute or chronic ones, your immune system is generally fitter and can react to an invader in a more efficient way.

So, a healthy, varied, plant-rich diet with lots of natural vitamins, minerals and substances to feed your tiny fellow bacteria in your gut (your microbiome) after all do help your immune cells too. A healthy lifestyle makes everything in your body stronger and more resilient. But it’s not very specific to your immune system. And you can definitely not expect a single vitamin, supplement or whatever to do the trick.

Specifically boosting your immune system can only be achieved through…. vaccination.

Through vaccines you can ‘prime’- the initial trigger- and ‘boost’ an immune response to a given threat.

The fact that we now have multiple SARSCoV2 vaccine should be fantastic news to people looking to boost their immune system. Because this is exactly what it does.

In order to compete with all these blurry health claims about boosting your immune system, professional organizations, public health and educational sites should maybe mention that vaccines “boost immunity” against infectious disease.

Otherwise they don’t come up in an internet search on ‘boosting your immune system’ or ‘strengthening your natural resistance to infections’. A missed opportunity?

Have you ever wanted to boost your immune system?

Want to read more on this topic?

Then, have a look at these studies: