Boosting Your Immune System: Forget the Supplements
The other day I saw an advertisement from a local supplement shop that provided lots of advice on how to boost my already terrific immune system. I printed out the ad, read through the seven recommendations, and was reminded of the covered wagons filled with elixirs that were driven around the developing United States by a snake-oil salesman. I also thought about how great Coca-Cola was in its infancy because it really did contain cocaine. No wonder it was so popular. Everyone who drank it got high as kites, suffered massive brain cell loss along with accelerated heart rates, but the instant euphoria was well worth it at the time. Well, maybe not. The FDA eventually put the kibosh on cocaine-laden Coke and turned it into a drink loaded with sugar and specific phosphatase that takes the rust off of metal. The truth is that I cringe whenever I see an advertisement for supplements because it has become a gazillion-dollar industry that plays on the fears of the masses. Let’s take a look at what this ad contained.
Step One was a reminder to maintain your Vitamin D levels of 50ng/ml. If you don’t know if you’re at their guideline level, you can spend a fortune by going next door to their store for expensive blood tests that will let you know. If you have low-D, you can bounce back to the supplement store and purchase some pricey supplements. Are you getting the picture? What a way to scam consumers. What if the blood test folks are so in cahoots with the supplement store that they skew your test results to encourage a sale? Scary proposition, but nothing would surprise me, including Step Two which insists you can double your immune system within 24 hours by taking Epicor. There’s no explanation for what Epicor is or what it actually does in the body. They just want you to buy it and take it. What if Epicor is in dosages meant for a man who is 6’3” and 200 pounds? You are 5’2” and 110 pounds. That should triple your immune system in far less time. How the heck do the manufacturers support their claims and show scientific proof when I was able to shoot holes in the whole concept by questioning dosage?
Step Three is a recommendation that you buy and take probiotics because the chlorine in your water and the antibiotics in the meat you eat destroy your body’s probiotics. Of course they claim their favorite brand is the best when a plant-based diet alone provides all the probiotics you need. Step Four insists that you must buy their herbal supplement and if you don’t like the taste, you can purchase Olive Leaf capsules and take six per day. The cost is mounting. Step Five almost mandates that you run next door to the blood-test folks and get a test for G6PD (with no explanation for what it is) so they can sell you intravenous Vitamin C. Do you see a scam yet?
Step Six insists that you buy and use a specific nasal spray every few hours when you’re exposed to someone who is sick or if you’re flying on an airplane. Evidently this wonder spray stops viruses and bacteria from adhering to your mucous membranes. Step Seven is a given: stop consuming simple sugars because they lower your immune system.
How much did they sock you for at the cash register? I would bet the farm I don’t own that it’s well over $100 in supplements and far more in blood tests which most insurance companies will not cover. Now let’s talk some truth about your immune system and diet so you don’t have to walk around in a state of fear. According to Steven Novella (2011), author of, You Too Can Be a Snake Oil Salesman, it doesn’t matter what supplement makers put in their products because it’s how the product is marketed that makes it sell. All they have to do is claim that the product “may help” or “will boost the immune system or support the body’s ability to heal from or deal with the condition” (Novella, 2011). Such claims are called “structure function” claims because they exist in a huge loophole that protects the industry and allows them to make those claims without any evidence to support them. Novella’s main advice is hilarious: “If you want to take the even easier route, don’t even bother with supplements. You can market anything—a silly piece of rubber and plastic—and make whatever structure function claims you wish. You can sell magic beans—whatever. It does not appear to matter” (2011).
The creation of those supplements is almost backwards. Companies research in which part of the body those supplements can be found and then make a claim that the product being peddled enhances the function of that part of the body. Of course it’s becoming easier to find a medical doctor or PhD type to endorse the products as long as only the MD makes the medical claims; and they do this by citing research that’s not even related. Time to move along.
Blogger Nick K (2014) stated that he studied immunology while in college and there are two “definitive facts” about immunology that he supports: “1) it is a largely unknown field of study, and 2) it is extremely complicated, even amongst other molecular biologists. These two facts do highlight the main problems of immune pills.” Your body’s immune system is made up of many different types of cells, organs and molecules that all work together in concert and in a complex way to keep the body safe from and eliminate pathogens that can lead to illness (Nick K., 2014). The immune system of a healthy person functions at top levels but if it’s weakened, that person become immune-deficient and if it’s over stimulated or over activated, it can lead to allergies or autoimmune conditions that seem to affect every second person today (Nick K., 2014). We don’t even know fully how the immune system operates, so how can supplement makers make any claims regarding boosting or supporting such a system? “Immune pills will typically claim that ‘this will support the immune system against viruses,’ but they never mention HOW. Will it increase immune cell numbers and if so, which subtype of an immune cell? Will it increase antibody serum levels and if so by how much and which subtype? Will the pills somehow result in an increase in inflammation? Which cells will be activated or suppressed? Such vague statements are more akin to snake oil sales pitches than actual medicine” (Nick K., 2014).
Before wasting money on and swallowing all the hype along with those pills, it is important to realize that eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, experiencing many good nights of sleep, limiting stress, eating healthy and truly nutritious food will do far more to “boost” the immune system than anything that comes in a capsule, pill, drink or shake. As Brian Dunning (2015) stated, “You see, health is not the result of a super powered immune system. Health is simply the absence of disease. Good health is the baseline. You can’t be healthier than baseline.” Wellness is more than just the absence of disease, as we’ve often discussed. Dunning went on to state, “Supplements, juices, or any products that claim to ‘boost your immune system’ are frauds. They are for-profit solutions to a problem that does not exist and was invented by clever marketers to scare you into buying the products. Don’t stand for anyone telling you that your balanced teeter totter can be brought into better balance by piling sandbags on one end” (2015).
Some alarming information regarding supplements came from Pitt Griffin (2013) who wrote, “Dietary or nutritional supplements present a paradox. Their manufacturers obviously want you to believe that they have a tremendously beneficial effect on health, but at same time they want you to believe that these supplements are benign.” Claims that they are harmless because they have the word “natural” on their labels doesn’t mean anything when we consider, as Griffin noted, that “the ‘destroying angel’ mushroom is also natural. That mushroom contains amatoxins which, “if eaten and [the patient is] not immediately treated, destroy liver and kidney tissue and cause death” (Griffin, 2013). Any product that reads “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration [or this] product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease” is not worth one red cent because no health claims should be or can be made with such statements on the labels.
Annalisa Palmer (2014) believes that certain foods have the ability to boost your immune system because they contain “certain properties that not only target heart health, but also help improve gut bacteria, which in turn positively affects the immune system.” Such foods should be eaten on a regular basis and include garlic which protects against free radical damage via its antioxidant content. Onions contain flavonoid quercetin which also helps get rid of free radicals in the body by “inhibiting low-density lipoprotein oxidation, protecting and regenerating vitamin E, and inactivating the harmful effects of chelate metal ions” (Palmer, 2014).
Cabbage contains a concentration of flavonoids and antioxidants. “Fresh and pickled red cabbages have the highest total phenolic content of the different types of cabbage. The antioxidant capacity of raw and processed cabbages is highly correlated with their contents of polyphenols like kaempferol, quercetin, and apigenin ” (Palmer, 2014). Raw sauerkraut that is free of vinegar and is unpasteurized is the best fermented food because it’s loaded with good bacteria, probiotics, and lactic acid in each serving; and the lactic acid is the primary non-toxic and totally beneficial anti-viral component. Another good food similar to sauerkraut is kimchi, especially if it has been through two years or more of fermentation (Palmer, 2014).
Basil is part of the phenolics group that is also found in herbs, fruits, vegetables and even teas. Most of basil’s antioxidant components include vicenin, orientin, eugenol and anthocyanins. Again, Palmer notes that “to match these antioxidants, there is also antiviral properties that contain DNA protecting flavonoids . Among these flavonoids are estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene which are all capable of restricting the growth of numerous harmful bacteria , including listeria, staphylococcus, E. coli, yersinia enterocolitica, and pseudomonas aeruginosa” (2014).
Finally, ginger is known for its antibacterial properties and has been found to be more effective than antibiotics “against bacterial staph infections , killing cancer cells, having anti-inflammatory, resolving brain inflammations, and easing gut problems” (Palmer, 2014).
Clearly, buying and consuming supplements does not produce health and wellness, but it does affect your checkbook balance, your wallet, or the debt on your credit card while doing nothing for your body. Eat your way to health. Popping supplements is not the answer.
Dunning, B. (2015). Boost Your Immune System (or Not): Is “boosting your immune system” for real? Is that possible, and can you really buy it in a bottle? Retrieved from
Griffin, P. (2013). The Dietary Supplement Industry Proves that Snake Oil Salesmen Are Alive and Well. Retrieved from http://thecriticalmind.com/2013/03/the-dietary-supplement-industry-proves-that-snake-oil-salesmen-ar…
Nick K. (2014). Immune boosting pills: the latest snake oil? Retrieved from
Novella. S. (2011). You Too Can Be a Snake Oil Salesman. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/you-too-can-be-a-snake-oil-salesman/
Palmer, A. (2014). Natural Plant-Based Foods to Boost Your Immune System! Retrieved from http://www.onegreenplanet.org/natural-health/natural-plant-based-foods-to-boost-your-immune-system/