Thursday’s COVID update — Immune Boosters for COVID (the flu and the cold, Part 2)


Dear Dr. Walt,

I know you support natural medicines (herbs, vitamins, and supplements) that are safe and effective for various conditions. So, what are your thoughts about the cornucopia of over-the-counter products being hawked to boost our immune system to prevent or treat infections such as COVID-19, influenza, and the common cold? — Concerned in Colorado

THIS IS PART 2 of a Two-Part Answer.

Dear Apprehensive,

Mark Crislip, MD, an infectious disease specialist and chief infectious diseases at Legacy Health Hospital System in Portland, Oregon, and host of the QuackCast podcast, has a great illustration:

Take the immune system. Please. It is not a bicep that can be made stronger with a little exercise.

It is a complex network of cells and proteins. There is no validity to the concept, the myth, of boosting your immune system.

Metaphor time: Think of the body as a … machine, like a car … You can be properly tuned and maintained, the fluids and gas topped off, the air in the tires at the proper pressure.

It will run optimally. You can’t over tune the car or fill tank past capacity.

There is an optimum you can’t go beyond.

According to Glasgow University researchers, “Instead of concentrating on ‘boosting’ the immune system, a more useful approach might be to think about ‘balance,’ as a healthy immune system is one that sits in balance.” They encourage us to think about our immune systems “as a scale running from ‘underactive’ to ‘overactive.’”

An underactive immune system is a bad thing — for example, AIDS and other immune deficiency disorders. But an overactive immune system may even be worse. The list of these disorders is huge.

How many people do you know who suffer from allergies or asthma? For these people, things in the environment that most people abide without incident cause their immune system to overreact, leaving them suffering miserably.”

Then we have all the inflammatory diseases caused by an overactive immune system, including inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis), respiratory diseases (asthma), joint diseases (rheumatoid arthritis), and inflammatory skin disease (psoriasis for one).

These are known as autoimmune disorders because the immune system, instead of reacting to foreign material, reacts to the body’s own tissues. Every day, new research is showing that more and more illnesses are immune-mediated.

The most recent examples of diseases worsened by an overactive (out of balance) immune system include the novel Coronavirus epidemics: Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS‐CoV in 2002), the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS‐CoV in 2012), and most recently COVID (SARS-CoV-2 in 2019).

In each case, researchers learned the severity of the disease was “associated with an immune response out of control” or “an overreaction of the immune system called a cytokine storm.” Excessive disease and deaths occurred from immune systems running on overdrive.

So, what can actually support, improve, or balance your immune system?

Harvard Health observed, “Researchers are exploring the effects of diet, exercise, age, psychological stress, and other factors on the immune response.”

The results are overwhelmingly clear: “General healthy-living strategies are the best way to start giving your immune system the upper hand.”

Harvard Health added, “Your first line of defense is to choose a healthy lifestyle. Following general good-health guidelines is the single best step you can take toward naturally keeping your immune system strong and healthy.

“Every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental assaults and bolstered by healthy-living strategies.”

Which health behaviors pay the highest dividends?

They include these:

  • don’t smoke;
  • eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables;
  • exercise regularly;
  • maintain a healthy weight;
  • if you drink alcohol, drink only in small amounts;
  • get adequate sleep;
  • minimize stress; and
  • take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently.”

More recent suggestions include social distancing and wearing masks when indicated. To these, Consumer Reports adds:

  • “Cultivate life’s ‘wow’ moments,
  • indulge in a massage,
  • nurture friendships,
  • ease stress, and
  • visit a park.”1

So, the bottom line is that for the vast majority of us, it’s impossible to boost your immune system instantly by taking a natural medicine.

However, what does improve, balance, and keep our immune systems healthy are the common-sense things we should all be doing on a daily basis:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet,
  • sleeping, exercising, and
  • de-stressing.

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© Copyright WLL, INC. 2021 This blog provides a wide variety of general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from your regular physician. If you are concerned about your health, take what you learn from this blog and meet with your personal doctor to discuss your concerns.

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